Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his achievement, which is very welcome. However, does he agree that, if the previous Government had taken positive action when BSE first raised its head to ensure the safety of food in the food chain, the whole crisis might well have been averted?

Mr. Brown: I do not want to say anything that might pre-empt the outcome of the BSE inquiry, the results of which will eventually come to me and my right hon. Friends. Nevertheless, it is stating the obvious to say that, in the early stages, the issue could have been handled better than it was. Specifically, it is right to say that our relationships with our European Union partners are crucially important. We must get ourselves into a position in which we are treated seriously and with respect by our partners and can negotiate with them, rather than merely shouting impotently at them.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): The Minister will know that one of the United Kingdom's largest regular sales of finished cattle is held each week at Ludlow. His announcement of the lifting of the export ban will therefore be very welcome among the beef farmers of south Shropshire, which is one the country's premier beef-producing areas. However, he will be aware also that there is not much optimism among meat traders that our export trade will be quickly regained.

Will the right hon. Gentleman expand on his statement that that trade will be allowed only through dedicated abattoirs, whereas all hon. Members will know that every abattoir has to comply with EC standards for intra-Community trade? More to the point, will he give the House an absolute undertaking that there will be no further let or hindrance to those exports once they have passed the inspectorate at the dedicated abattoir?

Mr. Brown: The purpose of the agreement is to ensure that beef that has gone through the scheme--the date-based export scheme is a project-specific scheme--can get into the European market. The only let and hindrance that exports would then face are free market conditions--such as consumer choice and the terms of trade--that are faced by every product. As I said, I do not believe that we will immediately be exporting vast quantities of meat. We have a lot to do to rebuild markets that we once had, in an already over-supplied market. Clearly it will not be easy, but we must make a start. We must all work together, without overstating the matter, to achieve as much as we possibly can.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Does my right hon. Friend remember, about two years ago, the previous

25 Nov 1998 : Column 203

Government's policy of non-co-operation in Europe, which left us isolated and friendless in Europe? Does not last Monday's meeting and today's statement show that constructive engagement with Europe brings results? Furthermore, are not those results the best news that British farming has had for a long time--which is why, on Monday, champagne corks were popping on farms in my constituency?

Mr. Brown: Of course my hon. Friend is right. For the Conservative party, the beef war is over.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I know that my constituents will be delighted to welcome the decision that the Minister has brought back from the Council of Ministers, and that they have been waiting for this moment since the ban was imposed. However, may I pass on to him concerns that have been expressed to me about how we will re-establish a profitable beef industry when we have no market for older cows, we have no market for offal--processors were once paid £80 a tonne for trimmings, but now must pay £60 a tonne for them to be taken away--and we have the heavy costs of inspection and traceability?

What will the right hon. Gentleman do, first, to try to minimise those costs, and, secondly, to ensure that such costs as have to be borne are spread fairly across the industry--rather than to permit a situation in which supermarkets manage to protect their margins, while unsubsidised finishers are forced to carry an unsustainable loss?

Mr. Brown: The Government, of course, currently carry some of those costs. I fully accept that the BSE crisis has hit the domestic industry pretty severely. Specifically, the industry now has to carry costs that it did not have to carry before. The costs of inspecting abattoirs and of traceability are here to stay, but they are not here to stay uniquely in the United Kingdom. Traceability is now a requirement across the European Union. The way forward is to ensure that we can convince consumers of the safety of our meat products, and to ensure that we--Government and industry--work hard together in trying to get back into markets that we once had but have been out of for the past two and a half years. Those obstacles will have to be overcome--the Government cannot simply lift them out of the way.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire): I join in the congratulations to my right hon. Friend, especially on behalf of my constituency which is a significant beef producer. The announcement is the light at the end of the tunnel for which many of my farming constituents have been waiting.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to the congratulations he has received from both sides of the House should be added an apology from the Opposition, bearing in mind the evidence given by the former Health Minister, Edwina Currie, to the BSE inquiry on Monday? She said:

25 Nov 1998 : Column 204

    That should warrant at least a small apology from the Opposition.

My right hon. Friend's statement referred to reform of the common agricultural policy. What indication has he received from our European partners that, in the Agenda 2000 negotiations, we can move towards decoupling support from production? We may well get over this crisis, but others will loom if we do not decouple support from production.

Mr. Brown: The point about decoupling support from production--support for rural Britain--is absolutely at the heart of the current discussions on reshaping the CAP. There is a willingness among Ministers to deal with the problems of structural surplus, the challenges of world market prices and the increasing liberalisation that are marching towards us. Getting our partners to go further is a Government negotiating objective, but it is too early to say whether we will achieve all of it.

I must not pre-empt the BSE inquiry. I note that Mrs. Currie has treated it to her opinions, and I wait to see what the inquiry makes of them.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I echo the compliments of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the Minister for this further step in restoring traditional markets to the British livestock industry. However, the statement relates to beef exported on the bone from cattle over six months old. One of our most significant traditional markets was the calf market. Can the Minister say when the resumption of calf exports is likely? Will there be any support for the calf industry beyond the announcement he made last week, which will end in March 1999?

Mr. Brown: My announcement last week on extending the calf processing scheme at a reduced rate was designed to give some assistance to the industry in what are clearly restricted trading conditions. There are ethical problems as well as animal welfare problems with the handling of calves. I should like a domestic organic veal industry to develop, rather than looking to live exports, which are a very long way away.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I, too, congratulate the Minister on the excellent news. The beef farmers of Herefordshire, including some of those he met a couple of weeks ago when he visited my constituency, will be delighted.

Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson), the problem is not yet over. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Herefordshire beef--the finest beef in the world--populates the globe, largely through the export of cattle and semen for breeding. What is the position on those exports, and when will the bans be lifted?

Mr. Brown: I enjoyed my visit to the farms in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It gave me an opportunity to hear about the problems directly from the farmers. The export of some of the products that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is already permitted by the European Union. Today's announcement pushes forward that agenda.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): I want to tell my right hon. Friend how impressed my

25 Nov 1998 : Column 205

constituents, especially the farming community, are with his stewardship since his appointment. They have been writing to me to tell me that. Is he not encouraged by the fact that the national president of the National Farmers Union said this week that diplomacy rather than table thumping is the reason we have achieved this result?

Mr. Brown: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. The farming unions have been taken into my confidence as we have gone through the negotiations, and they have done what they can to help with their sister organisations in other member states. They welcome the Government's constructive engagements with our partners, from whom, after all, we expect to get the decision. I have had a strong welcome for the approach that the Government have adopted.

Next Section

IndexHome Page