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Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unfair that the costs of dealing with a public health problem should fall entirely on the producers? I hope that the Minister agrees that it is. A public health problem is a matter of public interest, and the Government should take account of that.

Mr. Prior: I agree completely with my hon. Friend, and that was the approach adopted in connection with beef and, to some extent, with lamb. For some reason, the pig industry has not received similar treatment.

There is a compelling case for compensating pig farmers for the consequences of BSE. That disease was not of their making, but the Government continue to sit on their hands. It is hard not to agree with the chairman of the British Pig Association who has stated:

This is a story of complacency, incompetence, ignorance, misunderstanding and inaction. The Minister of Agriculture has shown himself to be a poodle with two masters--the Treasury and the European Commission. All he offers to British pig farmers is snake oil, sympathy and promises. The export of the British pig industry to

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countries with inferior husbandry, welfare, hygiene, health and traceability standards is a national disgrace, and a personal tragedy for many pig farmers.

The Minister of Agriculture is supposed to be the Minister of British agriculture, not foreign agriculture. If he wishes to hand over to his successor any pig industry in this country, he has days--not weeks, or months--in which to act.

1.12 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) for the way in which he has introduced this debate. He has a clear passion for pigs, and I thank him for allowing me to say a few words, as I too want to stick up for the British pig industry.

The Government and public authorities could play a major part in helping our pig industry when it draws up food procurement contracts. I am advised that they could insert in those contracts an animal welfare clause that would mean that they were not legally obliged to accept the lowest tender. It would be helpful if the Minister of State could deal with that when she replies to the debate. Such a provision would mean that whenever local authorities and the Government take out food procurement contracts they could insist on high welfare standards and therefore specify the expected and required standard of animal welfare.

Inevitably, therefore, the lowest-priced contract would not include that higher welfare standard. Such an approach would ensure that the food contracted for would reach the required standard and would come from animals reared to the necessary welfare standards. Local authorities could implement such a clause in their contracts for school food and other food, and as a direct result ensure that British pork--and other British meat--was favoured. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk said, the standard of our pigs is the highest in Europe, if not in the world. It is wrong that our farmers should be penalised and discriminated against for setting that standard.

Public authorities in Britain could ensure that we support our own industry, because the welfare clause in food contracts would enable them to select British meat, rather than go on importing meat from other countries, let alone from mainland Europe. They could therefore help people to enjoy the delights of the pork, bacon and ham produced in this country.

I shall turn briefly to the matter of labelling. This afternoon and over the next few days, trading standards officers could be directed by the Minister to go out in force and visit supermarkets throughout the country. They could check that the pork labelled as British was indeed produced in Britain, rather than merely packed here.

The supermarkets could play a major part in putting the fun back into British pork. Misrepresentation through inaccurate labelling is widespread, and supermarkets should be marketing the higher welfare standards of the British pig industry. I am sure that the vast majority of people in my constituency would wish to buy British pork, especially if they knew that it came from happy pigs that had been reared properly and safely.

We can distinguish between battery range eggs and free range eggs, and that distinction is widely made throughout the country. Supermarkets could do the same for pork.

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British consumers should be able to differentiate between foreign pigs--fed on heaven knows what and kept tethered to stalls in mainland Europe--and British pigs that enjoy a healthy diet and good living accommodation.

1.15 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) on securing this debate. The current crisis in the pig sector is an extremely important issue. He introduced the debate with much feeling, with which I totally associate myself. I have recently had discussions with some of the people to whom he referred. For example, I met Ian Campbell only a week or so ago to talk about those matters.

I also welcome the brief contribution from the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who made some constructive comments in a short time.

I reject the claim by the hon. Member for North Norfolk that the Government have been complacent and cavalier in their approach to the problem. I have been in my post for only a little time, but even my short experience of the great energy that the Ministry has devoted to this issue tells me that the hon. Gentleman gave a false caricature of the Government's attitude to this important industry.

Mr. Gill: I appreciate that the Minister is new to her job, but I assure her that the problems of the British pig industry have been flagged up in this House for a long time now. In my intervention earlier, I referred to a debate that took place 15 months ago, when various problems associated with the British pig industry--with which the Government could have dealt were they so minded--were raised. The fact is that those problems have not been dealt with. The Minister must understand that by the time she gets around to doing something about them, it will be too late for lots of pig farmers. They are going out of business as we speak. I have listened this morning--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. That is rather a long intervention.

Ms Quin: Given the length of that intervention, it is perhaps worth pointing out that, although this debate is important, there will be another opportunity to raise these and other matters in the House tomorrow, when there will be a debate on agriculture. I am sure that many of the points raised so far today will be picked up then.

It is true that I am new to the role of Minister of State in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I assure the House that I have read the report on the pig industry prepared by the Select Committee on Agriculture. I am also aware of the Government's response and the action taken in various sectors at that time. Therefore, I maintain my strongly held view that charges of complacency and indifference are completely misplaced. It does no service to the hard-pressed people in the sector to distort the Government's attitude, or to misrepresent the action taken in the past and in hand at present.

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Mr. Keith Simpson rose--

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) rose--

Ms Quin: Given that this is a short debate, I simply cannot take many interventions.

Mr. Steen: The Minister should give way.

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman has had the chance to speak, so he should allow me to choose which interventions to take. I give way to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

Mr. Tyler: I am grateful to the Minister, who referred to the Select Committee report. She will recall that that report suggested that complacency was also evident in the previous Conservative Government. I have spent much time in this House trying to persuade Conservative Members to make the points that they are making now.

However, I have a practical point to make. At the meeting with representatives of the pig sector on 5 October, there was a real attempt to identify whether a new set of support systems, within the context of the EU, could be put in place to deal with the public health issue referred to by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior). Will the Minister give the House a specific assurance that that matter is being examined urgently?

Ms Quin: I shall refer later to that meeting and some of the initiatives agreed at it. It is, of course, true that the problems did not appear as if by magic on 2 May 1997. The previous Government presided over the BSE crisis, so they should not advise us on how to handle agricultural issues. Nor am I prepared to take the advice offered by the hon. Member for North Norfolk when he said that being pro-British does not mean being anti-European; I have understood that point throughout my political life, and it is a strange message from someone in today's Conservative party.

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