The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): My overall priority is to remove BSE from the cattle herd in order to maintain confidence in the whole of British agriculture. I recognise, as the previous Government did, that pursuing that policy imposes additional costs on the British livestock industry, including the pig industry. I have twice asked the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee to look at the issues, particularly as they apply to the pig industry.
Mr. Brown: My officials are in touch with the Commission and we are exploring those matters. It is not true to say that nothing has happened. Together with the Meat and Livestock Commission, I went back to SEAC to see whether there was some way of achieving a commercial value of the meat and bonemeal for the industry consistent with the need for public protection measures. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, at the end of December the advisory committee said, disappointingly from the industry's point of view, that it was not willing to recommend that.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): Like all hon. Members, I recognise the desperate plight of the pig industry. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the response to his efforts to increase awareness of the higher pig production welfare standards in this country? Like the measures that relate to BSE, those higher standards inevitably increase UK production costs. Or do people who are prepared to write to Members of Parliament asking them to vote for higher welfare standards then prefer to buy cheap imports when the laws are passed?
Mr. Brown: I am not satisfied that we are doing enough to secure the premium that the industry ought to be able to gain in the marketplace. I have secured some extra money for marketing initiatives and made it clear that the pig sector has a first call on it. I hope that it will be possible this year to do more to explain to consumers the advantages of UK production methods--not just the fact that the process is free of meat and bonemeal, but that the pigs are raised free of stall and tether systems. Those are the animal welfare standards that our constituents asked us to vote for back in 1991.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that British pig farmers are unique in facing extra costs because of the BSE crisis? They are going out of production while their international competitors stay in production. When the market picks up, yet another British industry will no longer exist to supply it. Will he assure the industry that if any way can be found in Europe to see our farmers through the crisis by helping with their BSE costs, he and the Treasury will find the money?
Mr. Brown: As I said in my answer to the initial question, I acknowledge, as the previous Government did, that this country's public safety measures impose extra costs on the livestock industry. Those costs are not confined to the cattle sector, but impact on the pig sector. The Government have never sought to disguise the fact that the sector is in crisis. I have tried to devise workable measures that will help to get the industry through. We have discussed a range of measures in the House. I intend to continue with my efforts.
Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): Many people would choose to buy British if they could be sure that the labelling was correct. What progress is being made to ensure that labelling accurately reflects the country of origin?
Mr. Brown: As the House will know, I have put the trading standards guidelines issued by Department out to consultation. We have the results of that consultation and I hope to have more to say about that within a matter of days. My hon. Friend is right. If we are asking consumers to support the industry, they must have clear and accurate information.
Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): The Minister of Agriculture in the Republic of Ireland recently announced £1 million of European state aid to pig farmers there, particularly relating to the border counties. What does the Minister know about that? If the Republic of Ireland can get state aid from the European Union for its pig farmers, why cannot he get it for our pig farmers in the United Kingdom?
Mr. Brown: I am meeting my counterpart, Joe Walsh, this month to discuss these and other issues on which we have a shared interest, but I suspect that Minister Walsh will say that the United Kingdom Government paid out aid following the fire in Northern Ireland and that the industry in southern Ireland is claiming to be similarly affected. I suspect that that will be his reply, but I await discussions with the Minister.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that as pig farmers are going out of business in the United Kingdom, an increasing number of people are going into the pork industry elsewhere in the EU. Given the strength of the pound, would not this be a good time for us to subsidise pig feed as the cost of grain is a significant factor due to the health and welfare standards that have rightly been introduced? Would not subsidising the cost of feed be a good way of helping the industry at this time?
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there are unique features to the crisis in the United Kingdom, but the crisis itself is not unique to the United Kingdom. The EU market is oversupplied and there are difficulties in the pig sector in the United States and eastern Europe. The problem is not confined to the EU. I cannot unilaterally introduce specific state aids just for the United Kingdom as that would breach the agreement that we have made in the EU.
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): The Minister is presiding over the biggest fall in the United Kingdom pig herd and the largest number of job losses in pig farming in any recent period. It took him a year even to issue a consultation document about guidance on labelling; it took him four months and a great deal of prodding by the Conservatives--[Interruption.] The Minister seems to find it amusing,--before he troubled to carry out his promise to the House to write to public authorities urging
Mr. Yeo: I withdraw the charge of misleading the House. Let me recount the facts. On 1 July the Minister told the House that he would have letters on his desk ready to go out to public authorities. When Conservative Members questioned him four months later, those letters had not been sent. I am happy to put those facts on the record now, but the question is how many more hundreds or thousands of pig farmers will lose their businesses before the Minister offers any practical steps to meet the £5 a pig in extra costs that have been imposed on farmers for public health reasons.
Mr. Brown: The last Conservative Government, who introduced the meat and bonemeal regulations, did not meet the costs either. In a previous debate on the matter--this is much trawled ground--when I asked the hon. Gentleman why not, he said that the economic circumstances were different. Of course that answer ruined any case that we might make to the Commission as, on the hon. Gentleman's own definition, it would be a case for economic aid. The Commission would have to reject any such request.
The hon. Gentleman is doing down the British pig farmers. He referred to the letters to local authorities. They were part of a co-ordinated campaign with the industry that we agreed to launch in the autumn rather than in the summer when people would be away and the campaign would become unfocused. That has been explained to the House before. The Conservatives were in government for 18 years. None of the measures that they urge upon me now was put into practice when they were in government.