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Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The Statement says that the ban is disproportionate and unjustified. I agree. I do not believe that we should get carried away. It is certainly unjustified in terms of scientific proof, but it is perfectly understandable bearing in mind the panic that we got ourselves into over the Statement, which was not cleared up until well into the weekend. In particular, the German reaction is very understandable. The Minister says in the Statement that home consumption has recovered to 85 per cent. I understand that German consumption is down by 50 per cent. I believe that all talk of retaliation and shouting should be greatly discouraged. I know that the Minister is not talking like that, but certain members of the Conservative Party are. That cannot help in any way.
I understand that an appeal to the European Court of Justice is to be lodged shortly. I ask the Minister how it is that the National Farmers Union has already put in a plea which is expected to be referred to the European Court of Justice on 3rd May? It appears to me that the NFU was slightly smarter than the Ministry of Agriculture.
I deal next with culling. I object to the business of age cohorts. I would have thought that "generations of calves" would be more understandable than "age cohorts". No doubt the Minister understands it perfectly. Does it mean that if a farmer is shown to have a big percentage of BSE the whole of that age may well be slaughtered as a selective cull? The Scottish Office said in a statement that the culling of whole herds implied that BSE was transmitted from animal to animal whereas all of the available evidence was that that was not happening. But the statement added, "or not at any significant level". I would have thought that if it occurred in any herd there would be a case for the culling of that herd on the French scale, or of that particular generation. I know that the Minister has been deeply involved in this matter. Perhaps he can provide more details as to how it will happen, because it is enormously important to farmers all over the country.
It is gratifying that average prices in the beef market are as much as 109 pence per kilo, compared with 120p. Perhaps the Minister will reassure the House that there will be a top-up scheme for animals which are slaughtered under the scheme to bring the price up to where it was before the crisis. Perhaps he will confirm that the Government have abandoned the poor devils who had to sell their animals at 80p. or 90p. per kilo in the run-up to the scare.
The next matter is a very important point, certainly to a number of farmers in Scotland. I refer to the question of how to assess an animal of 36 months. Has the two broad teeth level been abandoned and the more sensible four broad teeth level been brought in? Referring to Galloway, Welsh Black and Highland cattle, which do not mature until they are three years, do the Government have any scheme to ensure that this admirable beef is allowed into the market and is not rendered for some impossible purpose?
Things appear to be moving a little, but they are not moving fast enough. The Minister should give assurances to British farmers that there will be a British scheme which does not depend upon negotiations. If we do that, in my view and that of many people, it will have far more effect on the Council of Ministers than if we say, "We will do a culling if you agree to lift the ban".
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about the timescale of the ECJ action. As I said in the Statement, the matter will be lodged shortly. We are looking at all the legal options in terms of the main 173 action, the injunctions, and the interim verdicts which are available via other routes. It is important that we get the right application in as soon as we can. The work of the lawyers is being done as fast and as comprehensively as possible. We want to ensure that we get this one right.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, pointed out that the farmers were ahead of us in their action. The two actions are different. The farmers' case has been somewhat more straightforward to prepare.
On the selective cull, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked what scale we might be moving on to and if any change were contemplated. I repeat the assurances we have repeatedly given. We are talking about tens of thousands of cattle rather than the hundreds of thousands or millions of cattle that were being bandied around by some commentators. We are determined to be guided by the veterinary scientists and the views of the farming industry. We must of course seek approval from Parliament on the issue. There are some strong factors which we must take into account when forming any final view.
The compensation involved will be generous, especially at a time of uncertain beef markets. There will be no incentive for farmers to rid themselves of beasts on the basis that they might obtain a better return. Even if the beasts that later turn out to be eligible for
The approach we have adopted has been guided by our own veterinary scientists. One of the encouraging points at the Council of Ministers was that the Commission itself described our proposal as logical and rational. It went on to say that its own vets could not think of a more credible scheme. We felt that we were working in the right direction. As to proceeding in parallel, it is important that a gesture such as this, which is not necessary in terms of the advice we have received from SEAC but which will, nevertheless, accelerate the decline in the incidence of BSE, is linked to the lifting of the ban, especially as the ban is so disproportionate and unjustified.
The fact that some retailers may not want to buy from plants which are also in the culled-cow programme is a decision which is entirely up to them. We shall stipulate that there is a clear separation, in time and space within the slaughterhouses and the lairage, between beef that comes from animals aged under 30 months and meat coming from animals aged over 30 months which is destined for disposal. We expect that in most cases that separate days will be allocated to the different duties should single slaughterhouses be operating in both markets. It is also likely that some slaughterhouses will specialise in one programme or another.
I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, about the Portuguese scheme for eradicating BSE. The Commission is aware of it, but few other members of the EU are. We believe that it will be passed on to us.
On exemptions, which are important and logical in every way, we are making good progress. We are consulting. We believe that the prospects are hopeful, in that the Commission is anticipating an application for such exemptions.
In terms of the R&D programme, we have had, and continue to have, a substantial programme which is run through MAFF. The MAFF research budgets for this financial year amount to £121 million. Spending on BSE research has increased by nearly 20 per cent.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, made a somewhat strange suggestion when he said that the ban was not justified in terms of the scientific advice but might be justified in terms of reaction by consumers.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I do not understand that at all. It was the ban itself that helped provoke the depth of reaction. There may have been consumers in other countries who saw this as just a foreign news story until the European Commission suddenly decided that a world-wide ban was justified, despite a lack of scientific evidence. That made them think that there may have been more to the story than met their eyes. I believe that the ban remains unjustified by any yardstick.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, said that if the cull might be justified anyway, why bother to link it to the raising of the ban. The point I made to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, is vital here. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, comes from Scotland, I shall give him the relevant Scottish figures. In 1993, 2,300 cases of BSE were recorded; in 1994 they had dropped to just over 1,000; and in 1995 they had dropped to 600. This year we anticipate a figure of about 300. The decline in incidence is fast and dramatic. The cull will merely accelerate that already fast decline. That is why we believe that if we are to make the additional effort it will be legitimate that the ban be lifted.
Finally, I can assure the noble Lord that the top-up scheme will continue to operate. We recognise that there are steers and heifers which command a value well above the cull-cow main compensation value. We shall continue to recognise that.
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