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House of Commons

Thursday 17 March 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


The Secretary of State was asked—

Beef on the Bone

1. Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Whether beef on the bone will remain available for sale and consumption following the end of the over-30-month scheme. [222401]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): As you know, Mr. Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is unable to be present today, as she is co-hosting the joint G8 Environment and Development ministerial meeting.

The European Commission has indicated that when the export ban is lifted, the UK will need to apply the same BSE rules as other member states. They are currently required to destroy as specified risk material the vertebral column from cattle aged over 12 months. That requirement is, however, being reviewed by the Commission.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the announcement this week by the European Food Safety Authority that the UK has now achieved moderate risk status for BSE. That is a vital step towards lifting the beef export ban.

Alistair Burt: At present a shopper can go down the high street to a traditional butcher and buy beef on the bone of any age. Norman Kyle, president of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, believes that that is at risk from the derogation and other factors mentioned by the Minister. Does the Minister not appreciate that any going back on the present situation and any restriction of choice will not just incur costs but cause immense damage to farmers and butchers, and bewilder consumers who—as the Minister said—now rightly believe that their beef is safe? Can he confirm categorically that the current range of choice of beef on the bone for shoppers will remain in the autumn?

Mr. Bradshaw: That is certainly the British Government's aim—but the hon. Gentleman was not quite right when he said that beef on the bone of any age was available to the consumer; beef from cattle aged over 30 months is not available. We believe, however, that the Commission shares our risk-based approach
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and has some sympathy with our desire to see the age limit lifted, as do a number of other EU countries. That is what we will press for as both our own Food Standards Agency and the European equivalent conduct their reviews of the risk over the next few months.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome what my hon. Friend says, but does he agree that we can make further progress only by continuing to employ scientific rationale? The recent announcement that some BSE material may have entered the food chain is obviously not an auspicious start, but does my hon. Friend accept that the industry needs support during this period? The time when we are releasing over-30-month foodstuff back into the food chain was always going to be the most difficult time of all. We must be sure to explain to everyone that this material is safe, and continue to support the industry that provides it.

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government will always base their decisions on science, and, as my hon. Friend says, the scientific advice is that the risk from animals aged under 30 months is extremely low. Indeed, not since 1996 has there been a confirmed BSE case in the United Kingdom involving cattle of that age.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): I welcome the progress towards ending the over-30-month scheme, but can the Minister give us a better idea of when that will happen? Can he also tell us what is being done to ensure that beef producers get a fair price for their produce, and that the margin between the cost of production and sales at supermarkets is being closely monitored?

Mr. Bradshaw: The latest report from the Office of Fair Trading on supermarkets is expected at any moment. Beef prices are not too bad at present; indeed, beef is commanding quite a good price. As for when the over-30-month rule may be lifted, I have nothing to add to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said. We hope for a lifting of the rule by the autumn and a lifting of the export ban by later this year.

Fishing Industry

2. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): If she will make a statement on the fishing industry. [222428]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Most of the fishing industry is doing very well. The shellfish, inshore and pelagic sectors are particularly strong. The whitefish fleet has suffered owing to the decline in cod, but the increased total allowable catches and quotas that we achieved at last December's Council should help that sector. The Government believe that the fishing industry in the UK has a profitable and sustainable future, but not if time, money and energy are wasted on an ill-conceived and unachievable attempt to leave the common fisheries policy.
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Mr. Carmichael: Has the Minister had an opportunity to consider the Deepnet One report, graphically illustrated on the front page of last week's Fishing News under the headline "Monks Scandal"? It reveals that Spanish trawlers in deep water off the west coast of Scotland are using massive gill nets for up to four to 10 days at a time to target monkfish and deep-sea shark. Is the Minister aware that that is said to result in discards of some 65 per cent. of the monkfish taken? Does he agree that if we allow that practice to continue, the very real conservation efforts of our own fleet will effectively be wasted?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I agree. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the whole House welcome the increase in the total allowable catch that we achieved for monkfish specifically to help to avoid some of the discard problems. We are concerned about the Deepnet report, which makes a number of recommendations, and we are actively considering how to take them forward. He may be interested to know that last week I raised with the Spanish Minister my concerns about illegal and unregulated fishing in deep waters. That must be taken more seriously not just in this country but across the international community.

Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife) (Lab): How well does the Minister believe the £60 million of structural funds available to the industry over three years was used? It was increased later to £85 million, I believe, which resulted in an ultimate spend of £106 million in real terms. How did that benefit the industry? Of that money, £67 million went to Scotland. Can my hon. Friend give some indication of the future prospects for the industry with that kind of commitment by the Government?

Mr. Bradshaw: The future prospects for the industry are good. As my hon. Friend may be aware, the way in which structural funds and other EU funds are used to help the fishing industry is being changed, and is moving in what we believe to be a very good direction, away from what we think is the bad idea of subsidising increased capacity in boats. There is still overcapacity in the EU fishing fleet. We want to concentrate on modernising the fleet and ensuring that the catching capacity is at the same level as the availability of stocks, while helping fishing communities in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom that are affected by any decline in stocks, and therefore by economic decline.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Does the Minister not realise that his eulogy of the European common fisheries policy is making a mockery of the fate of the thousands of fishermen around our coasts who have lost their jobs since the initiation of that policy? Can he bear in mind that free, responsible maritime nations such as Iceland, Norway, Chile and many others husband their fish stocks up to 200 nautical miles, or the median line, and that policy works well? It husbands resources, it is ecologically and environmentally friendly, and it sustains their industries. Is not that the example that Her Majesty's Government should follow?

Mr. Bradshaw: I agree that the previous Conservative Government negotiated a terrible deal for UK fishermen when we went into the European Union—a
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deal that was renegotiated to our fishermen's advantage by a Labour Government. I do not think that the answer to our fishing industry's problems is to withdraw from the common fisheries policy. I quote back at the hon. Gentleman the recent comment of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who knows a bit more about fishing than he does, having served as Fisheries Minister for three years, that the Conservatives' policy of withdrawal from the CFP was "unwise and"—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I get the feeling that there is an election coming on.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): Heaven forfend.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): You are not worried about elections.

Mr. Foulkes: Indeed I am not.

I commend my hon. Friend the Minister for the active interest that he has taken in the fishing industry since he became the Minister with responsibility for fishing; that is welcome on the west coast of Scotland. He is right. West coast inshore fishing is doing very well, but does not he agree that it is a cruel deception for some Opposition Members to lead fishermen to believe—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The first part of the question was all right. The Minister can answer that one.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's plaudits and note that the west of Scotland nephrops fishermen, for example, achieved a substantial increase in their total allowable catch at the December Council, which was welcome. The reason why a Labour Government would never waste time and money trying to negotiate our exit from the common fisheries policy is that we admit and acknowledge, as do the Liberal Democrats, that it would be impossible to do that without leaving the European Union as a whole. Those who advocate such an exit have still not explained how they would do it without leaving the EU.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Can we get back to the Deepnet One report, which revealed absolute mayhem? The Minister totally failed to tell the House that under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea 3, the UK has treaty obligations to enforce fisheries agreements for straddling stocks around Rockall and the Hatton bank. What three concrete actions has he taken in the last week since the report was published, and what is the exact status of Rockall?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would far rather not talk about his party's policy of withdrawal from the CFP, because he cannot explain how we would do it. As I said to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), we take Deepnet's reports extremely seriously and we are studying them. My officials are actively looking into measures that might be taken based on its recommendations, and I specifically raised the issue with the Spanish Minister last week.
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