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Beef Cattle (Traceability Scheme)

11. Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): What progress has been made in establishing a traceability scheme for beef cattle. [67806]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker): The cattle tracing system, CTS, became operational on 28 September 1998, and records the births, movements and deaths of all animals registered on the system since that date. It also records details of cattle born since passports were introduced, in 1996. Eventually, it will record the death of those animals, although--as the old system was not working in the same as the new one does--it will not record their movements.

Mr. Connarty: I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that SQBALR--it sounds like

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squabbler--is not a board game based on the behaviour of parliamentarians but stands for the Scottish quality beef and lamb regime. Is he aware that the regime's representatives have told me that, as they go round Europe's trade fairs and food fairs, they are asked when people in Europe will also be able to eat Scottish beef? Can he imagine the crisis of conscience for people like me, who will go home this weekend and eat a succulent Scotch sirloin steak or a luscious piece of Scotch lamb, while realising that Europe's restaurateurs and bon viveurs are denied that pleasure? When will the traceability scheme allow us to sell Scottish beef and lamb to Europeans?

Mr. Rooker: So far, the new system has issued over 800,000 passports, at a rate of about 50,000 to 60,000 passports a week. I am not sure how many of the passports are being issued to SQBALRs, which will be quite young now, having been born and raised since last December. My hon. Friend asks how soon British beef will be exported. It will be exported as quickly as we can possibly receive approval of the practicalities of the date-based export scheme. We are doing all that we possibly can to prepare for the European Commission inspection--which we expect to be held in March, and certainly by early April. It will, of course, be up to the industry to regain its own markets, but recording cattle under the date-based scheme will not be the cause of any delay.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Is the Minister aware of the growing concern in the beef industry about the apparently ever-receding date on which British beef exports are likely to resume? Will he tell the House how many abattoirs have come forward to offer themselves as dedicated abattoirs for British beef exports? Will he tell the House when he expects to be able to invite the European Commission to send its inspectors to the United Kingdom to examine the facilities through which British beef exports will start?

Mr. Rooker: In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question, the number of abattoirs is less than the fingers on one hand. [Interruption.] I said less than the fingers on one hand.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Does that mean zero?

Mr. Rooker: No, not zero. It is a small number--a very small number. They have offered themselves so that the European Commission can inspect the date-based scheme, on which we are consulting. As I said, as soon as we have the scheme in place, we shall invite the Commission to make its inspections. No date has ever been given on which beef off the bone--what the matter amounts to--will be exported. To deal with the thrust of the question from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), establishing the cattle tracing system will not be the cause of any delay. We are preparing, as quickly as possible, to invite the European Commission to inspect the abattoirs and the system's ability to trace cattle. As I said, we expect to do that in March or April. When beef leaves the United Kingdom will then be a matter for the industry and the markets.

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Pig Industry

12. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): If he will make a statement on the current profitability of the pig industry. [67807]

13. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): What action he plans to take to assist the pig industry. [67808]

14. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What representations he has received about illegal pig subsidies to French and German producers; and if he will make a statement. [67809]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I very much share the House's concern about the current problems facing the pig industry, and shall work constructively with our European Union partners to see what can be done. The Government will, however, continue to oppose the introduction of market-distorting state aids.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his answer. Pig producers want only fair competition with our European competitors. What discussions has the hon. Gentleman had with our European competitors on the early introduction of their proposals on tether bans? Has he had any discussions on implementation of the directive before 2006? Will he also tell us why grants for conversion were available to Northern Ireland pig producers, whereas such grants were not available to any other producers in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Morley: The Government have consistently argued that although tethers are to be phased out in the European Union, there is no date to phase out sow stalls. I am pleased to report to the House that the European Science and Veterinary Committee has recently published a report that backs our argument that there are strong welfare grounds for phasing out tethers across the European Union. That will be one of our priorities in the negotiations.

Mr. Evans: The Minister has spoken about his belief in free trade, but what about his belief in fair trade? We have imposed certain obligations on our pig farmers, but some imported pigmeat does not meet those high standards. We do not want special treatment for pig farmers, we want equal treatment. When will he bring that about?

Mr. Morley: Equal treatment is a serious issue, but the phasing out of sow stalls was agreed eight years ago. The industry has had eight years to prepare for it. There are costs associated with meat and bone meal controls that result from our problem with BSE, for which the previous Administration must take responsibility. We should not apologise for the United Kingdom's high welfare and quality standards in the pig sector. We are doing all that we can to ensure that they are a marketing advantage for retailers and caterers, as they should be, and that our pig industry benefits.

Miss McIntosh: Has the Minister received any specific representations about illegal pig subsidies in France and

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Germany? Does he agree with me and with the National Farmers Union that the present procedure of applying to the European Court of Justice is too slow? Will he propose a procedure for an immediate ban on subsidies which the Commission rules illegal or unfair and press for an interim interdict or injunction to stop the damage to the British pig farming industry?

Mr. Morley: I can certainly assure the hon. Lady that we shall take immediate action by complaining to the Commission. We have done that over the proposed German and French state aid. The German proposals have been withdrawn and the French proposals have been stopped by the Commission.


The Attorney-General was asked--

Pro Bono Work

30. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): What encouragement he is giving to Government lawyers to do pro bono work. [67827]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Ross Cranston): My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I are very supportive of pro bono work. My right hon. and learned Friend is a member of the advisory board of the Bar's pro bono unit and we have both attended functions to foster the work of the solicitors pro bono group. We are also keen to encourage Government lawyers who wish to participate in pro bono work, such as assisting at legal advice centres or citizens advice bureaux. Those in charge of the Government legal service have looked at the issue at the request of my right hon. and learned Friend and have concluded that it is possible to encourage Government lawyers to participate in pro bono work.

Mr. Chapman: Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the attitude of those who commit themselves to pro bono work is the same as that of the Government in the promotion of a community legal service? What specific measures are being taken to put that important service in place and what is the timetable?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend knows that the Access to Justice Bill is currently in the other place. We are hoping that it will be speedily dealt with there and then come here. He is right to say that the same principles underlie that Bill and our encouragement of pro bono work. We do not regard the encouragement of pro bono work as a substitute for the public provision of legal services. It is additional to the public support for access to justice that the Bill will provide.

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