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House of Commons

Thursday 19 March 1998

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FOOD

The Minister was asked--

Flood Defences (Edgware)

1. Mr. Dismore: If he will make a statement on flood defences in the Edgware area. [33751]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): Although the Department has policy responsibility for flood defence, individual works are designed, constructed and maintained by the operating authorities for each area. The Environment Agency and local councils are jointly considering improvements to defences in the Edgware area.

Mr. Dismore: Is my hon. Friend aware that since the last extensive flooding many people feel that they are living on borrowed time and have sandbags piled high in their back gardens? The floods affected not just Edgware but Burnt Oak and Colindale, and caused substantial damage with consequent distress to my constituents. My constituents are concerned that recent changes to MAFF criteria for approval of schemes may adversely affect them. Before making any final decision on the expected report from the Environment Agency, will my hon. Friend agree to listen to further representations on that study?

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend has pursued the threats to his constituents with diligence. The Environment Agency is considering a catchment plan for the Silk stream and its tributaries, which is probably the best way of approaching the problem. That proposal has not yet been put to MAFF, so we are not in a position to ascertain whether it meets the criteria. If it does not, stand-alone schemes may be considered to protect the interests of residents. We are always willing to receive representations.

BSE

2. Mr. Campbell-Savours: What recent developments there have been on the issue of BSE. [33752]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dr. John Cunningham): On 16 March, the Agriculture Council agreed by a convincing majority to lift the beef export ban for certified herds in Northern Ireland. That is

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excellent news for our beef industry, and is the first crucial step towards lifting the ban for the United Kingdom as a whole.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his success, but has he seen the most recent claims of Professor Lacey, who alleges that farmers are burying on their land BSE-infected fallen stock? I am having great difficulty understanding how that is possible, given that farmers are being paid between £540 and £680 for each animal that they notify as having BSE. What is actually happening?

Dr. Cunningham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about our success in Brussels this week. The United Kingdom Renderers Association wishes to make it clear that no official representative of the association has ever met or discussed any issue with Professor Lacey. My hon. Friend is right that BSE is a notifiable disease, and the burials to which the allegations refer would therefore be an offence. He is also right to point out that, from April this year, if a BSE case is confirmed by post mortem, the farmer will receive £531 and, if it is not confirmed, and the animal has been destroyed, the farmer will receive £663. Given the position of UK farming, I find it difficult to believe that farmers would voluntarily forgo £500 million to £600 million.

Mrs. Spelman: Will the Minister confirm that the Workington site chosen for the new British cattle movement centre had the highest set-up costs of the three sites considered?

Dr. Cunningham: I can confirm that a cost-benefit analysis showed that Workington was the best site for the taxpayer and the industry.

Judy Mallaber: Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the opening of the inquiry into BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome? I attended last week with a bereaved family from my constituency, who were very impressed.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about some of the initial evidence given to the inquiry, concerning a supposed culture of secrecy in the Ministry over the period involved, and about the suggestion that at least one vet was asked to change some of his findings? Will he ensure that Ministry officials are encouraged to attend the inquiry, and to give full information about the tragedies surrounding BSE and CJD?

Dr. Cunningham: It would not be appropriate for me to comment on what is happening in the inquiry, but I can say that the culture of secrecy in the Ministry ended on 3 May 1997. I have made it clear to all Ministry officials that they are free to give the inquiry whatever evidence they think appropriate, and that there is no question of any action being taken against them subsequently.

Mr. Charles Kennedy: In view of the significant breakthrough that has been achieved in Northern Ireland--which we all hope will be followed as swiftly as possible by similar progress in respect of England, Wales and Scotland--will the Minister comment on reports leaked from his Department earlier today concerning the

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selective cull scheme? Civil servants expressed concern about the effectiveness of traceability, and feared that such reports would send the wrong signal to our European Union counterparts. Can the Minister assure us that everything possible is being done in regard to the remaining 20 per cent. of animals, and that if further action is needed to maintain and build on the momentum at European level, no stone will be left unturned?

Dr. Cunningham: I can give the hon. Gentleman and the House a categorical assurance to that effect. The last Administration, however, were very slow: the selective cull did not begin until January 1997. Because of the delay, it is not surprising that not all the animals that we thought could be identified have been identified. However, because of the age of those animals and the operation of the over-30-months scheme, there have been no consequences to human health. If the animals were not killed, they would have been caught by the over-30-months scheme.

Mr. MacShane: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the borough of Rotherham is about 65 per cent. rural? It is one of the beef-eating and beef-producing centres of Yorkshire, so my constituents are delighted with the news that my right hon. Friend has brought back from Brussels. Does not that news, along with news of the reform of the common agricultural policy--the Commission is adopting a British agenda to force down food prices, which will benefit the British people--contrast with the isolationist, anti-European, xenophobic politics that caused such disaster in our farming communities when implemented by the Conservative Government?

Dr. Cunningham: As my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) have pointed out, we must press on as quickly as possible with the date-based export scheme for beef producers in the rest of the United Kingdom. I assure the House that we are doing that.

My hon. Friend is also right to remind us that the stupid isolationism of the last Administration, and their obsession with the European Union, left Britain not only without friends in the Agriculture Council but often derided, and greatly damaged the interests of all our farmers.

Mr. Thompson: Does the Minister take pleasure in the fact that the farmers of Northern Ireland greatly appreciate all the work that he and his colleagues have done over the months since he took power to persuade the European market to lift the ban, especially in Northern Ireland?

Some of the provisions that have been agreed mean that there will be extra flagged herds in Northern Ireland. The only long-term solution to that is the date-based system. Will the Minister continue his efforts to ensure that it starts to operate as soon as possible?

Dr. Cunningham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his thanks and kind remarks. I recognise the significance of agriculture to Northern Ireland's economy and that beef producers in Northern Ireland have had a particularly difficult time. I know that they are delighted by this week's result in Brussels and the emphatic nature of the vote in the Council, which voted by qualified majority to accept the scheme. I accept, however, that it is

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imperative that we press ahead and try to achieve similar success for the dated-based export scheme because of the universal nature of that scheme.

Dr. Gibson: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is still a great need to understand the scientific basis of this disease and its progression: the BSE prion and its mutational properties, its stability in blood and water, its cross-infectivity and the incubation time? Does he agree that scientific funding still needs to be found to understand the full properties of the prion?

Dr. Cunningham: I certainly agree that we need to know much more about BSE and new variant CJD, but I have recently authorised considerable additional expenditure for research of the sort to which my hon. Friend refers. That is an extensive research programme. We have probably the widest-ranging research programme into BSE and its consequences of any country. That programme will continue under this Administration.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan: Following on from his earlier replies, will the Minister give us a candid assessment of the difficulties that he will face in achieving acceptance of a date-based export scheme within the European Union?

Dr. Cunningham: I can foresee some of the difficulties because some of our colleagues in the Council have been reluctant to cast their votes on the basis of the scientific and veterinary advice, opinions and evidence. It is important that we should insist that decisions are taken on the basis of science, not of political or economic advantage. I have already made my views abundantly clear in Brussels and in capitals throughout Europe, and I shall go on doing so.


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