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10 Jul 2002 : Column 292WH

Meat Exports (European Union)

1 pm

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): It is perhaps appropriate that this debate is being held today, when the European Commission is due to publish proposals on changes to the common agricultural policy. This debate focuses on one aspect where commonality has clearly failed, due to certain Governments' actions to protect their own country's farming interests.

In this debate, I intend to cover two main points: the position of Scottish beef exports to Europe and the dangers posed to Scottish lamb exports to France. I imagine that the Minister does not need me to go into any great detail on the ban of beef exports to the European Union in the wake of the BSE crisis. Suffice it to say that Germany had lifted its ban by March 2000, leaving only France banning beef imports, a position that it still maintains. All other European Union countries now allow the import of beef, although, obviously, the amount being exported is well down compared with pre-BSE exports.

I note that Jim Walker of the Scottish National Farmers Union was reported in the Daily Record on 18 March 2000 as commenting on Germany's lifting of the ban:

Since then, we have been visited by the disaster of foot and mouth, although Scotland, with the exception of Dumfries and Galloway and a small part of the border area, did not suffer as much as other parts of the United Kingdom. Since then, however, I understand that there have been hardly any beef exports from the UK at all.

My first question to the Minister is to ask what action his Department has taken, in conjunction with the Scottish Executive, to restart and increase the amount of Scottish beef being exported to Europe. What plans does he have to take that forward during the next 12 months?

The Minister should be aware that there is rising disbelief in Scotland that France is continuing to get away with banning Scottish beef imports, when the incidence of BSE in Scotland was never high—in fact, it is rising in France while it is falling in Scotland. In the UK in 1999, there were 2,133 reported cases of BSE but only 35 of those, compared with 93 the previous year, were in Scotland. One reason for that is that most Scottish cattle are reared specifically for beef and are not simply a by-product of the dairy industry. The majority of BSE cases have been in dairy cattle in England. Lest it be thought that I am being narrowly nationalistic, I acknowledge that the English industry has taken stringent safety steps. UK beef as a whole is probably now the safest in Europe, although Scottish beef always was.

Before the BSE crisis, Scottish beef exports to the European Union were worth about £120 million per annum. Now they are worth almost zero. Only one abattoir in Scotland, located in Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire, can process beef under the present date-based export scheme, and it has already said that it will not re-enter the European market until Europe reviews the costly and complicated structure of the scheme.

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Can the Minister tell us whether there is to be any review of the date-based scheme? Given that the incidence of BSE has always been, and continues to be, low in Scotland, what representations have the Government made to the European Union for Scotland to be granted low-incidence status, which would hopefully mean fewer regulations on the export of beef to Europe?

Before the ban, exports of quality Scottish beef were worth about £125 million per year. That trade disappeared overnight and is now, even with the lifting of the ban, worth only a fraction of that amount. Before the ban, about 110,000 tonnes of UK beef—10 per cent. of total consumption—went to France. That market has now gone.

The French ban remains in place despite the fact that, this April, the European Union Food and Veterinary Office visited French laboratories, rendering plants, feed mills and other institutions. It reported that potentially infected material from animal carcases was getting into animal feed, and the rules on handling specified risk materials banned from the human food chain were not fully implemented. That is from a country that bans the import of beef from this country—double standards par excellence.

Earlier this year, it was suggested that the French Government were maintaining the ban for political reasons in the run-up to the French elections, but there was still no evidence of movement once the elections were out of the way. The French Government are flouting European Union law in an act of blatant protectionism. Either European law applies to everyone, or it is of no use to anyone. The illegal ban has now lasted for more than three years and action is long overdue. Will the Minister tell us what action the Government are taking to deal with the apparent outright double standards of the French, who maintain the ban on Scottish beef for purely political reasons?

On 26 June, it was reported that France had been given a 15-day ultimatum by the European Commission to lift its ban on United Kingdom beef or face large daily fines. By my imperfect arithmetic, that period expires today. Has any action been taken by the French Government to lift the ban? Has there been any communication to the UK Government or the European Commission indicating their intention to lift the ban? If that has not happened, will the UK Government ensure that the EU takes action this time?

Secondly, I am concerned about the proposed French action against Scottish lamb. I know that this is also of extreme concern to my friends in Wales who, as the Minister may be aware, have an important lamb industry.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he accept that the sheep meat sector is vital for both our countries, particularly my constituency, which largely consists of hill farms? The French ban is having a serious effect on that industry, especially given the pressure on farm incomes, which are substantially lower than they are in England.

Mr. Weir : Indeed, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As he will know, many parts of Scotland have

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what was a thriving sheep industry. Parts of Angus, Perthshire and the highlands have a great many sheep, and many are on hill farms that cannot diversify to overcome the problems imposed by bans, such as the one proposed by the French. It has been reported that France plans to introduce draconian new processing rules that would decimate lamb exports from Scotland and Wales. It is said that the French will demand the removal of spinal cord from the carcases of all lambs aged over six months, despite the fact that European scientific advisers say that there is no justification for that. Despite extensive research and a lot of money being ploughed into it, there is no evidence that BSE is present in sheep at all.

The Minister must be well aware that a French ban would be a disaster for an industry that my hon. Friend has already said is reeling under the impact of foot and mouth. I know that it affected Wales far more than it did Scotland. That is yet another example of the French Government attempting to act unilaterally, which simply cannot be tolerated. Europe either works for all, or it works for none. Such actions undermine those of us who believe in the European Union, and wish to see movement in Europe. However, unilateral action by one Government against our farming industry is simply unacceptable.

The Minister will also be aware that prior to 1999, total UK sheep meat exports to the rest of the EU were, according to figures from his Department, over 100,000 tonnes per annum, and worth some £200 million to the rural economy. Last year, that figure fell to some 30,000 tonnes and the value to £77 million. Prior to that, France was a major buyer of Scottish lamb. However, it is not only the fact that France buys the lamb from Scotland and Wales, but that almost all lamb sold in other European countries moves through French ports. If the French Government implement the new rules, they will seriously jeopardise exports to France and to all other countries in the EU. The unilateral action of the French Government would affect exports not only to one country but to the whole EU. Again, that stands in the way of a free market in the EU.

I emphasise again that there is absolutely no evidence, despite a massive amount of research, that BSE is present in sheep. Scrapie is in sheep flocks in the UK, but it has been there for centuries without any ill effects. In Scotland, the Executive's forward strategy for agriculture seeks to eliminate the disease throughout the country. Steps are being taken to eliminate scrapie although there is no evidence that it can turn into BSE.

The proposals from the French Government are nothing more than another attempt to protect their sheep industry. A ban would be a disaster for the rural economies of Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, almost half of all lamb produced is exported and in normal times 80 per cent. of it goes to France. After the foot and mouth crisis, Scottish sheep farmers cannot survive another crisis. Although Scotland was not affected to the same extent as England and Wales by foot and mouth, the indirect effects on Scottish agriculture have been just as great because of the overall image of meat in the United Kingdom.

What action has the Department taken to tackle the issue with the French Government? What action has the Minister taken with the European Union? Can he assure

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us that if the French impose a ban, immediate action will be taken to ensure that it does not turn into another never-ending fiasco like the beef ban?

Those matters are crucial to the rural economies of Scotland and Wales. The Minister will be aware that in Scotland the average income of a farmer is £6,000 per annum, and I would guess that the average income is not much better than that in Wales. Sheep farmers are often hill farmers. They are not rich; they are very hard-working and they have suffered setback after setback in recent years. There is little prospect of diversification on hill farms because the ground is often suitable only for sheep and they cannot diversify, as is possible on some lowland farms. If a ban is imposed, many hill farmers will go out of business and the rural economy and the environment of Scotland and Wales will be the real losers.

Much as I respect the Minister, I must say that the Government are running out of credit with Scottish farmers, especially after the comments made by the Foreign Secretary on the common agricultural policy on Monday and the frankly offensive comments made in Scottish questions yesterday by the Secretary of State for Scotland, who went out of her way to agree that Scotland's farmers suffer from welfare dependency. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We have our own Parliament in Scotland, but unfortunately it does not have direct representation in Europe on those matters, despite their greater importance to the Scottish economy than to the UK economy. Scotland needs the normal powers of a normal independent nation to push those matters in the European Union. Until we reach that happy day, we are forced to rely on the UK Government to deal with such matters on our behalf. Will the Minister make sure that senior members of the Scottish Executive are allowed to represent Scotland in Europe on the issue, which is vital to Scotland and Wales? A lamb ban from France would see the end of those industries and yet more damage to the fragile rural economies of Scotland and Wales.

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) on securing the debate and making a strong case for both livestock farmers in his constituency and the situation in general. He will forgive me if do not agree with his last comment about the constitutional arrangements between Scotland and the United Kingdom, which, as he knows, are endorsed by the vast majority in Scotland.

I acknowledge that beef and lamb exports are important to the Scottish rural economy, as they are in Wales and England too. Members of the devolved Administrations have been closely involved at all levels of decision making in agreeing a joint UK approach to promote our interests and deal with some of the problems. I shall come to that in a moment, but first I shall deal directly with some of the hon. Gentleman's arguments, before I forget them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about low-incidence status for BSE in Scotland and whether it could be applied for exports. We have considered it and discussed it with the Scottish Executive. The problem is that if

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Scotland had low-incidence status, cattle movements across the border into the rest of Great Britain would have to be restricted. That would cause problems for many Scottish farmers. There are some practical difficulties in such an approach, assuming that agreement could be obtained.

Mr. Weir : I understand the Minister's point, but do not understand why the situation would be different, for example, if France had low-incidence status but Spain did not. The same problems would also arise between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, where there is a lot of cross-border traffic in cattle. Why would the circumstances be different for Scotland and England?

Mr. Morley : There would be problems because there is much more movement of cattle across the border between England and Scotland. English cattle are moved to Scottish slaughterhouses and Scottish cattle are moved to English slaughterhouses. Scottish cattle are moved south for all sorts of reasons. The Department's view is that there is much more movement in the patterns of the livestock trade, which would cause difficulties for Scottish farmers.

The hon. Gentleman is right, however, that BSE incidence is falling in this country very much in line with the projections of our scientists. The measures that we have had in place for some time and at some expense are working—there are no two ways about it. In some European countries, the incidence is rising. Therefore, we are making good progress and are on track to eliminate BSE.

It is fair to say that the overall number of cases has been higher in the UK than in other countries. Nevertheless, it is clear that our measures are working. As the number of incidents continues to decline, we will review the over-30-months scheme and the date-based export scheme. That is inevitable, and we will do it when the opportunity arises.

The hon. Gentleman asked what contact we have had with the French authorities about the reasoned opinion that the Commission has sent to the French Government on their non-compliance with the European Court ruling. As he stated, the opinion gives the French Government 14 days to respond as to why they have not complied with the ruling, but the court penalty is not automatically triggered after that period. Their response will be taken into account and, if the court feels that the response is inadequate, it has powers to take further action, which may include imposing daily fines on the French Government.

With our colleagues in the Scottish Executive and the devolved Administrations, we have been pressing very hard on the matter. We have lobbied actively and the subject has been raised at the highest level between the Prime Minister and Jacques Chirac as recently as 19 June. We have used all diplomatic channels open to us. The French equivalent of our Food Standards Agency contacted the FSA to ask about the measures that we have in place and their effectiveness. We know that the FSA is content with the measures and endorses what we have been doing about BSE. I hope that careful note is taken of that by the FSA's French equivalent, which has been asked to review the case by the new

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French Government. That is a helpful move and I very much hope that the French Government will be persuaded that there is no justification for the ban in terms of consumer safety, let alone ignoring the law.

Mr. Weir : I am very interested in the Minister's comments. The French seem to be experts at obfuscation on the matter, which has been going on for years. The European Court gave them a 14 or 15-day period. Does the Minister know whether they have replied to the European Court or will things drag on even longer?

Mr. Morley : We certainly hope not. The dispute is between the European Commission and France. France is ignoring Community rules and it is the Commission's responsibility to ensure that those rules are applied. The court action has been brought and is being pursued by the Commission. We are actively reminding the Commission of its responsibilities and we expect an early resolution to the situation.

Court cases never move as fast as one would like. That applies not only to the European Court, but to courts in our country. Nevertheless, they get there in the end. I am confident that that will happen in this case. I hope that the French Government will think again before they are forced to go to court to lift their illegal ban. They have said to us that they are required by their national law to seek the views of their food standards agency—we know that they are doing that because their agency has been in touch with ours.

To lift the ban alone will not ensure that beef exports flourish. I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument that changes need to be made to the date-based export scheme. We are considering those and how they might apply. Our efforts are having some effect. We hope that amendments to the scheme will be adopted in Brussels shortly because they would encourage renewed participation and permit British beef to begin to regain its rightful place in world markets. Beef from all regions has a strong identity and Scottish beef has a very good record in exports. We and the Scottish Executive are giving thought to providing practical assistance with charges to new entrants on the date-based export scheme.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly stated, the French authorities proposed a six-month age limit on spinal removal. We never felt that that was justified and I am glad to say that they have recently agreed to postpone that proposal, which would have been illegal—yet again—under Community law. I recognise that the trade is worth £15 million per month to UK industry, and that it is important to many people in the UK, from those in the Pennines to the Welsh and Scottish hill farmers. We have worked closely with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations, with the EU and with other member states in pressing France to reconsider their proposals.

Had the French gone ahead with their proposals, the banning of specified risk material in the spinal cord of all sheep over six months old could have undermined the harmonised EU rules that apply to sheep from 12 months old. In practice, that would have required UK

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exporters to split lamb carcases to remove their spinal cords, certifying that lambs less than six months old pose considerable problems. Any live sheep export would have had to be certified beyond the EU standard. We are pleased with the thriving carcase exports to France and the rest of the continent and we hope that farmers concentrate on the carcase, rather than the live, element of exports.

In the opinion of the EU Scientific Steering Committee and the Food Standards Agency, the French proposals provided no significant consumer benefits. That is worth stressing. All countries have concerns about their consumers and want to ensure consumer protection; we are no different, which is reflected in our range of measures and how seriously we take them. However, it does not make sense to impose measures that are totally disproportionate and offer so few benefits for consumer protection. We have made that point strongly, and said that the French proposals, and the way in which that country is acting unilaterally, are illegal under EU law. We are glad that France is thinking again about the matter and has postponed its measures. We will continue to press the fact that their approach is both illegal and unnecessary.

On consumer protection, the Food Standards Agency has been considering such matters as whether banning sheep intestines would be an appropriate consumer protection measure. It has asked the Commission to consider adding intestines to the EU specified risk material list, arguing for that measure in Europe and testing the science, rather than imposing it unilaterally. We think that that is a much more sensible way forward on such matters.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of our export markets for beef and, in particular, lamb at the present time. We on the UK side are working very hard, in conjunction with the devolved Administrations, to tackle those issues. It will take time to get our markets back. Once one comes out of a market, it takes time to re-establish oneself in it. It appears however, that the market for lamb has come back much faster than many people feared following the foot and mouth restrictions.

Mr. Weir : The beef market has been completely destroyed because of BSE. Does the Minister accept that a ban on lamb by the French, whether justified or not, has the potential to create the same devastation in the sheep meat industry? It is essential that the Government act, with the European Union, to stop the ban being imposed in the first place. Once a ban is there, the word will get around and the industry will take years to recover, if it can ever do so.

Mr. Morley : I absolutely accept that point, although it is an issue not only for us, but for other countries that sell to France and for French sheep traders themselves. The French sheep sector was very opposed to the French proposals for precisely the reason that the hon. Gentleman gave and for the reasons that I have emphasised. Such a ban would be difficult to enforce—ageing lambs less than six months old—it would not really improve consumer protection and it is disproportionate and illegal in Community law. We are glad that the French have withdrawn the proposals and we will press very strongly, through the EU and directly

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with the French, for them to be dropped completely. They should not simply be postponed; the French should recognise that they are not in their interests.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the image of meat. We have made considerable strides in this country towards restoring consumer confidence. It was a shock to many European countries, which had said that there was no possibility that their national herds would have BSE, to find out that they did have it. In some cases, they did not have the same measures for consumer protection, monitoring and enforcement that we now have in place, although such measures are now being stepped up on an EU-wide basis, to deal with that problem.

Consumers here and in potential markets can have confidence in the measures that we have put in place in this country. They are based on the precautionary principle, sound science and good and effective enforcement. There has been a considerable cost to this country in putting those measures in place, but that investment is well worth it, given the increased consumer confidence and safety.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned scrapie in sheep. He will be aware that we have launched the national scrapie plan, which is designed to eradicate scrapie completely from our national flock. That is beneficial to the quality of the flock and in trade terms. It will also remove any lingering doubts that scrapie is masking BSE in sheep. The hon. Gentleman is right that we have no evidence that there is BSE in our national flock. It is not as if we were waiting for something nasty to hit us; we are actively monitoring the flock and seeking the signs of BSE, and have not found any evidence of it at all. That is also important for consumer protection.

I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the case that he has made. I hope that I have convinced him that we are working in partnership with the devolved authorities to tackle the issues that he raised. I believe that we are making effective progress on that and winning the argument through the sound, scientific and reasoned way in which we have put our case.

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