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Beef Exports: Ban

4.10 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is on our continuing efforts to get the ban on British beef and beef products lifted and the implications for a wider European policy. The Statement is as follows:

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    the IGC or elsewhere until we have agreement on lifting the ban on beef derivatives and a clear framework in place leading to lifting of the wider ban.

    "We will raise the question of the ban at all Councils, including the Foreign Affairs Council. If necessary, we shall ask for special Councils. I will also be making clear that I expect agreement on how to deal with these problems to be behind us by the time the European Council meets in Florence on 21st and 22nd June. If they are not, the Florence meeting is bound to be dominated by this issue. It could not proceed with our normal co-operation unless it faced up to the crisis of confidence not only affecting consumers but also governments.

    "This is not how I like to do business in Europe but I see no alternative. We cannot continue business as usual within Europe when we are faced with this clear disregard by some of our partners of reason, common sense and Britain's national interests. We continue to want to make progress through negotiation. But if this is not possible, we are bound to use the legal avenues open to us and the political means we have at our disposal.

    "I believe that the whole House recognises the strength of our case and the need for urgent progress and that the approach I have outlined should therefore command support across the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.19 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement that was made in another place by his right honourable friend the Prime Minister, and, as always, I declare an interest as someone involved in dairy farming.

My first response to the Statement--I have to say this with some regret--is that it has much more to do with the internal problems of the Conservative Party than the future of the beef industry. That split within the Conservative Party and the attitude of some members of the Government have been in large part responsible for the problem. When Ministers refer, as they have, to ignorance and malevolence by our European partners, that is no way to influence them or to get them on our side. We have had a Statement a week, sometimes two, for the past nine weeks. Every Statement has promised progress and each subsequent Statement has revealed another reversal in Europe.

The Minister referred to the controls on feed. The incidence of BSE in Britain is falling rapidly and will continue to do so. However, the Government have still not produced a satisfactory answer as to why there have been 27,000 cases of BSE in animals born after the feed ban. I understand that some time ago Professor Lamming, who is well known in agricultural scientific circles, recommended the appointment of a committee to oversee the feed ban. The proposal was supported by the SEAC but was not accepted by the Government. Why was that?

It has been agreed and recognised that contaminated feed is the cause of the disease. However, we have been told that there was a continuous flow of contaminated

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feedstuff to our cattle after the feed was banned and that that was why the rules were tightened up as recently as April this year. Does the Minister accept that if we were able to identify more accurately the cattle which are likely to have been exposed to the contaminated feed a more effectively targeted slaughter policy would be allowed, which would do us no harm when it came to convincing our European partners that BSE was under control and that therefore the ban on beef should be lifted?

We all welcome the Commission's proposal to lift the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen. That is important but it is not the major problem. Billions of pounds are involved in the overall ban affecting the beef cattle and not the derivatives. Furthermore, it appears that in the Standing Veterinary Committee the proposals did not attract the required qualified majority. Will the Minister confirm that the proposals that we made to change the qualified majority have now caught us out, which is ironic?

There is to be a meeting of the Agriculture Council on 3rd and 4th June. If there is a simple majority--there is a chance that we will get the proposal through that meeting--it will take three months to achieve the lifting of the ban on tallow, gelatine and semen.

The Statement refers to establishing a clear path for the lifting of the other aspects of the wider ban, which is much more important than the ban on the beef derivatives. However, as it has taken three months to lift the ban on the tallow, gelatine and semen will the Minister give us an idea of how long the Government believe it will take to get the rest of the ban lifted?

We welcome the fact that the proceedings will begin this week in the European Court but why has it taken so long? When we debated the matter on 7th April we were told that the proceedings would be brought soon. We also welcome the claim for interim measures. I believe that we suggested that; indeed, I referred to a claim under Article 186 of the treaty.

The appropriate verification schemes have been mentioned. When will such schemes be in place? We have heard about them for weeks and weeks but still there is no sign of verification schemes to exclude the old and the clean beef which never had BSE. When will those schemes be in place to relieve the great worry on all the farmers who are involved?

A disturbing figure was given on the "Farming Today" programme this morning. The estimate for the cull cows is 750,000; that is, 15,000 a week to be slaughtered. However, this morning's programme reported that when the proposal was made neither the NFU nor the Government knew the number of clean beef animals over the age of 30 months which would be involved. We are now told that the figure could be between 300,000 and 400,000. Can the Minister confirm that or say whether the Government have other figures?

The Statement refers to pursuing our own programme to eradicate BSE. We have the cull cow slaughter policy, the problem with the clean beef animals and also selective slaughter. We began with a figure of 40,000 but yesterday that rose to 80,000. We have said many times that the Government are playing a numbers game

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which they cannot hope to win. We were told that the slaughtering of the first 40,000 animals would catch one in 30; in other words, for every 30 animals slaughtered one potential BSE case would be removed. I was told only last night that the slaughter of the second 40,000 would produce an incidence of 300 cases; that is one in 100. Are those figures correct? If so, the slaughtering of 80,000 cattle to reduce incidence at that level is extraordinary. I see that the Minister is nodding. How many more animals must we slaughter in order to get the ban lifted?

If the ban is lifted through the European Court, what will happen to the slaughter schemes? Presumably the cull cow, the over-30-months scheme, will stay in place. If the ban is lifted, will the selective slaughter scheme have to be imposed? The Statement refers in Delphic terms to matters in Europe not proceeding with our normal co-operation. If the normal co-operation of the past few weeks has been any example we can all worry. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister would tell us exactly what the Prime Minister means by,

    "could not proceed with our normal co-operation".

The Statement marks a complete failure of our negotiations in Europe; it contains vague threats of non-co-operation. However, I ask your Lordships to consider the dates. We are told that interim relief might take from two to six weeks. If we know the European Court it will be six weeks. That takes us to the week beginning 1st July to wait for the judgment on interim relief. There will be the Agriculture Council meeting on 3rd and 4th June and the European Council in Florence on 21st and 22nd June. All our partners have to do is to sit and say that they will wait for the judgment of the European Court in July on the interim measures.

Non-co-operation is not defined in the Statement. It has taken two months to get the claim to the European Court and it will probably be July before we know the judgment on interim relief. In the meantime, how will any of that help the farmers and those in the rest of the beef industry to deal with this truly awful crisis?

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