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Farm Incomes

9. Mr. Garnier: When he will visit Harborough to discuss stock farmers' incomes. [33761]

Dr. John Cunningham: I have no plans to visit Harborough in the near future. However I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman met my hon. Friend the Minister of State on 2 March to discuss farmers' incomes and other issues.

Mr. Garnier: May I begin by thanking the Minister of State for receiving that delegation? It was an extremely helpful and useful meeting. May I draw to his attention the case of one my neighbours, who is a beef farmer? The price of his beef bulls, which were selling at about £720 before March 1996, is now £530. He has not been able to sell any breeding heifers at all, his cull cows have gone down in value from £750 to £300 and the value of his herd, which has increased in number from 257 to 290, has been devalued by £50,000. Will the Minister bear that in mind in his further discussions with the European Commission?

Dr. Cunningham: First, I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his kind remarks about my hon. Friend the Minister of State; we are always willing to receive delegations consisting of right hon. and hon. Members and their constituents. I shall certainly bear in mind his example which, sadly, is typical of problems in the beef industry. That is why we are determined to press ahead to seek acceptance for the date-based export scheme to bring further support to the beef sector, in addition to the agrimonetary compensation and the other financial support that we have recently announced.

Mr. Paice: After two Labour Budgets, the average 300-acre family farm, in Harborough and elsewhere, will be £1,300 worse off--and that in a week when the Minister has announced that farm incomes have almost halved. As the Budget did nothing to dampen the strength of sterling, farmers now face the prospect of a further green pound revaluation. Yet the strength of sterling has helped save the Minister some money in his Department's budget. Will he go further than his welcome U-turn on the subject of meat hygiene and cattle passport payments and seek additional ways, within his departmental budget, of relieving the massive burden on British agriculture? He could do that without asking for any further increase in public expenditure, which I know perfectly well he would find it difficult to obtain.

Dr. Cunningham: Both Budgets under the present Government have benefited people in rural as well as urban areas. Only the Conservative party cannot find a single word of praise for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer following his excellent Budget earlier this week. Like his right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the hon. Gentleman never lets an opportunity pass without demanding more public expenditure. They say that I should find money from within my existing budget. What do they suggest I should cut to provide that extra money?

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Agriculture (West Country)

11. Mr. David Heath: If he will visit the Royal Bath and West show this year to discuss the current state of agriculture in the west country. [33763]

Mr. Rooker: I am unable to attend the show. I am aware of the current state of agriculture in the west country following a visit by my noble Friend Lord Donoughue to north Devon and Exmoor early in January.

Mr. Heath: I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman cannot visit the Royal Bath and West. He may recall that the previous Minister was warmly received there. He would be equally warmly received in my constituency. Given the figures released by his Department last week, showing a 35 per cent. decrease in dairy farm incomes and a 65 per cent. decrease in lowland beef and sheep farm incomes, does he accept that his right hon. Friend the Minister was incorrect to tell me last year that there was no crisis in west country agriculture?

Mr. Rooker: I respect the hon. Gentleman's argument and that of his farmers, who have suffered along with others. The extra help that we announced in December and confirmed in February--the cheques will be arriving this month--is going to the upland and less favoured areas. By common consent, that is where the need is greatest.

Mr. Tom King: Agriculture in the west country is in a serious predicament. The most obvious immediate effect of the Budget has been a rapid increase in the value of the pound. What is the Minister's estimate of the likely impact of that on farm incomes in the coming year?

Mr. Rooker: It is too early to say at the moment.

Beef Export Ban

12. Charlotte Atkins: What progress he is making on lifting the ban on British beef. [33764]

13. Mr. Love: What progress has been made with the lifting of the beef export ban. [33766]

Mr. Rooker: As my right hon. Friend the Minister said earlier this afternoon, we have made a major breakthrough with the European Council's agreement to the export certified herds scheme. We will be working hard to secure agreement to our proposals for a date-based export scheme, which would apply throughout the UK.

Charlotte Atkins: May I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members on that? Is it true that only two European countries voted against the partial lifting of the ban? Does that represent progress on the issue with our European neighbours?

Mr. Rooker: My hon. Friend is right--only two voted against. In the Veterinary Committee a few weeks before, four voted against and one abstained. All the recent movement has been towards the position of the British Government.

Mr. Love: Does my hon. Friend agree that, without the strictest possible anti-BSE measures, including a ban on

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the sale of beef on the bone, there is no chance of the beef ban being lifted and that, unlike the Conservative party, he will act to protect public health?

Mr. Rooker: My hon. Friend is right. We cannot repeat often enough that without the most rigorous precautions on the safety of the beef food chain we shall not make any further progress and would not have made the progress that we have secured. Unlike the policy that we inherited, that approach seems to be working.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Does the Minister feel that the British Army's buying British beef and British lamb would give people on the continent confidence about accepting our meat? How is he progressing in the efforts that I know he is making with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to increase the proportion of British beef, lamb and other meat the Army uses?

Mr. Rooker: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The knowledge that the Ministry of Defence is not sourcing from the United Kingdom raises questions among our competitors and others. We have had discussions with our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. We expect more British beef to be purchased in future. There is a long-term contract for frozen lamb from New Zealand, which was based on best value for money. I do not know when the contract finishes. We are discussing the issue.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he has not conceded that computer traceability should be the precondition for the lifting of the beef export ban in other parts of the United Kingdom? Will he take this opportunity to confirm his view that there are manual records which are perfectly adequate for the satisfaction of that purpose?

Mr. Rooker: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's question. It must not get around that the lifting of the rest of the ban under the date-based scheme depends on a computerised system. The position was different in Northern Ireland for the certified herds scheme because the necessary records were available due to their computer system, which they have had for many years and which had nothing to do with BSE.

The date-based scheme will be secure for cattle born after 1 August 1996. We can guarantee that such cattle will not have been exposed to any contaminated feed. That scheme does not depend on the start of the computerised cattle traceability system, which is a wholly different operation. Although in future the traceability system will help, the lifting of the ban for the rest of the UK under a date-based scheme does not depend on it. If it did, we could not hope to make early progress because, by definition, the date of birth of cattle would be entered only from the summer, and we know that cattle born on 1 August 1996 will be 24 months old by then. We therefore expect early progress on the date-based scheme.

Mrs. Dunwoody: In view of what my hon. Friend has just said, will he say whether there is any hope for English producers who can demonstrate that their herds have been totally BSE-free for some considerable time? Usually because their cattle are pedigree animals, farmers are able to demonstrate that they have had no problems, but they are still unable to export. That seems unfair.

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Mr. Rooker: My hon. Friend is right. It is not generally appreciated that the majority of cattle herds in this country have never had a case of BSE. Some 67 per cent. of the 120,000 herds have never had a case of BSE. For beef suckler herds, the situation is more extreme--84 per cent. have never had a case of BSE. That is why the majority of farmers are so angry; they have been affected by what happened to a minority of farmers. We can show that the majority of herds in this country have been BSE-free. Lifting the ban under a date-based scheme, or indeed a certified herd scheme, should be easier, but the myth gets around that every farmer has had loads of BSE cases. That is not true. The 171,000 cases of BSE have been identified on a minority of cattle farms.

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