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Agriculture Council

2.30 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: I would like to take the point of order after the statement. I have had some indication of what the point of order may be, but if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I must take the statement first.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the outcome of the European Union Agriculture Council held on 23 and 24 November, at which I represented the United Kingdom. My noble Friend Lord Sewel, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, was also present.

The Council voted on a proposal by the Commission for the lifting of the worldwide ban on the export of British beef in respect of meat from animals born after 1 August 1996: 10 member states voted in favour of the measure; only one, Germany--for understandable domestic reasons--voted against; and Spain, France, Austria and Luxembourg abstained.

The vote represented a substantial move towards the Commission proposal by five member states from the earlier vote in the Standing Veterinary Committee. Most importantly, the procedures under which the vote was taken in Council enable the Commission formally to adopt the decision.

I can now announce to the House that, within the past three hours, the Commission has adopted the proposal permitting the export from the United Kingdom of boneless beef and beef products from animals slaughtered between six and 30 months of age and born after 1 August 1996. That is the date on which the Commission has verified that all contaminated feed was removed from the feed chain. There are further conditions aimed at preventing the offspring of BSE cases from entering the export scheme; a requirement for the slaughter of offspring of BSE cases; and strict rules on slaughtering and processing.

The Government will shortly issue a consultation paper on our proposals for implementing those rules. I shalllay before Parliament secondary legislation to make compulsory the offspring cull, which has been operating since July on a voluntary basis. The legislation will provide compensation at the market rate to owners of animals slaughtered.

I am sure that the House will welcome this excellent outcome. It has been achieved against a background of scepticism about the seriousness with which we have tackled BSE. We have overcome the misconceptions, and had our case judged objectively on its scientific merits and supported by independent Commission inspections, taking as our overriding principle the absolute need to safeguard public health.

Every Agriculture Minister who spoke in the Council, including those who did not vote in favour, had very positive things to say about the commitment shown by the new United Kingdom Government to tackling the problems presented by BSE. The outcome is also an

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affirmation of the value of the Government's close co-operation and dialogue with our partners in Europe and with the European Commission.

The lifting of the ban comes hard on the heels of the support measures for agriculture that I announced tothe House on 16 November. Both demonstrate the Government's commitment to securing a viable long-term future for the sector.

The Council also held a discussion of the Commission's proposals for common agricultural policy reform in the context of the Agenda 2000 measures. The proposals are essential for the future stability of European agriculture, and in order to facilitate a successful enlargement of the Union to the east. The Council agreed a report to the Vienna European Council next month identifying the main outstanding issues, and expressing its determination to reach conclusions on the package as a whole by next March.

It is an important Government objective to secure an ambitious reform of the CAP that serves the national interest, and, on behalf of the Government, I warmly welcomed the commitment by the Council to take early decisions. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made similar points in the discussion at ECOFIN on 23 November on the future financing of the European Union.

It was a very important Council meeting for the United Kingdom. We have achieved a major objective of our policy towards Europe in the lifting of the beef export ban. Although it will take time for the British beef industry to win back markets that have been lost to it in the past two and a half years, I believe that we have created the conditions in which it can now plan for the future, confident that the industry has been modernised and is operating to the highest possible standards. Our immediate task is to work with the industry to ensure that the scheme that we have successfully negotiated in Europe works effectively to help to regain recognition for the quality of British beef on world markets.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I welcome unreservedly the partial lifting of the beef export ban, and I warmly congratulate the Minister on his achievement. It is a tribute to his personal skills that he has secured an agreement that eluded his less diplomatic predecessor.

In the spirit of bipartisanship, and without detracting from his negotiating success, will the Minister acknowledge that the measures needed to satisfy the European Commission were in place before the general election? Is he also aware that there will be disappointment that the lifting of the ban is only partial, and that beef on the bone will still not be eligible for export? Does the Minister agree that many customers want carcase beef, and, because they will not be able to buy it from Britain, a significant part of the market will still be closed to us?

I turn to the conditions attached to the decision. Are there still animals in the cohort cull which need to be traced? Could he expand on the strict rules he mentioned which will be required for slaughtering and processing? For example, will the abattoirs from which beef for export will be taken have to be dedicated solely to exports? How quickly does he expect the European officials to carry out the necessary inspections in this country? What support will the Government give to the promotion of British beef

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exports, especially in view of the help that was given to Northern Ireland and the need for mainland British beef producers to receive some assistance? What steps will the Government take to ensure that beef is back on more school menus? How soon will British service men abroad be able to enjoy British beef?

Does the Minister agree that recovering our export markets requires the co-operation of all European countries? Was he concerned by the report in The Guardian today of a possible German threat to boycott British beef? The Government are keen to have dialogues with their European partners, and the Minister met a German Minister only last week. Was that possible ban discussed at that meeting? If Germany is able to ban the sale of British beef, why does not the Minister immediately halt the sale of imported pigmeat in Britain produced under conditions that we do not permit?

In view of the Council's decision, is the lifting of the Government's home-made ban on beef on the bone in Britain now more or less likely? Does not every day that that ban remains further undermine confidence in British beef? Did the Minister use the two-day Council meeting to raise our growing concern about the export to Britain of meat products produced under conditions illegal in this country? In view of the confusion caused by conflicting statements from the Minister and the British Retail Consortium, and by the Government's failure to bring forward promised legislation on the food standards agency, is not the halting of such illegal imports, which include poultry from the far east, all the more urgent?

Did the Council discuss the review of the labelling directive? What steps are the Government taking to end the practice of selling food labelled with a Union Jack that contains food grown outside Britain and merely processed here? Will the Minister press his fellow Ministers for more honesty in labelling?

The Minister referred to Agenda 2000 in general terms. What progress has been made on specific issues since the March Council? For example, can he give the House the Government's view on labour unit modulation? Does he still support Lord Donoughue in the call for a 30 per cent. cut in milk support prices? What is the Government's view on proposals for national envelopes? I ask these questions in an entirely constructive spirit. The Minister deserves credit for his achievement, but the bottom line is how soon significant beef exports will resume. When will the farmgate price of British beef start to rise, and when will one of Britain's most famous and desirable products resume its rightful place at the top of menus around the world?

Mr. Brown: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's ungrudging and unqualified endorsement of my statement. He had some subsidiary questions, some of which run a little wide of the original statement. He asked about farmgate prices in the beef sector. I am certain that, when the market returns to normal, which includes recovering a substantial proportion of the export markets that we used to have, we will see an impact on the domestic industry as well.

I am not in a position to give the House a forecast today. I can say that it is my objective to have the date-based export scheme up and running and past its

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Commission inspection by next spring, so that we will be able to make a start on exporting, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, deboned beef products worldwide. We are not talking just about trade with the European Union: it is a worldwide ban.

On national envelopes and the British proposal, along with the Italians, the Danes and the Swedes, for a more radical review of milk quotas, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, although those things were discussed by Ministers on the Monday night, there are no conclusions yet. I can tell the House that Ministers have taken a hard look at the estimate of the costs of the different reform proposals that have been put forward by national delegations and by the Commission.

The hon. Gentleman asked about my meeting with the British Retail Consortium to try to get clear labelling so that consumers can make a choice. I have already told the House that the agreement made was for fresh meats, processed meats and own-label meats that are directly under the control of the supermarkets concerned. I cannot ask the supermarkets for a commitment on processed meats that are supplied to them by other suppliers in turn--[Interruption.] I thought that the Conservative party used to believe in free trade. There are those of us who believe in free trade and consumer choice, and I believe that consumers should be able to choose.

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