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Agriculture Council: Outcome

5.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the outcome of the European Union Agriculture Council held on 23rd and 24th November at which the United Kingdom was represented by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. My noble friend Lord Sewel, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Scottish Office, was also present. The Statement, which was made earlier in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is as follows:

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My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.37 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches warmly welcome the Council decision to lift the beef ban. Will the noble Lord also acknowledge that many of the measures that were needed to satisfy the EU Commissioners were in place before the last general election?

While welcoming the lifting of the ban, I must point out that it is only a partial lifting, not a complete one. Restrictions are still in place for beef on the bone. Those countries which prefer to buy carcass beef will still be unable to buy British beef on the bone. Will the Minister accept that one of the ways in which that process may be speeded up is to lift the current ban on beef on the bone in this country? That would not only stimulate

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confidence in the UK; it would also help to rebuild confidence abroad. While the ban is kept, it reflects our uncertainty.

The Statement details further conditions, mentioning the specific requirements of the slaughter of offspring of BSE cases. In addition to that, does the Minister accept that there are still animals from the cohort cow which need to be traced. What progress is being made in that regard?

The Statement refers to proposed rules of slaughtering. Will the Minister tell the House how the relevant abattoirs will be selected? Will they be export-only abattoirs? How quickly will that process be put in hand? Who will be part of the inspection team? What is the geographical location? And, with regard to the inspection team, will Germany be included? As we know, Germany voted against lifting our ban. If there is to be delay in the process being put in place, will the Minister accept that such delay will reflect a lack of will in Europe to open our export markets?

In the Statement the Government acknowledge that it will take time for the British beef industry to win back its markets. What additional help will the Government give to speed up that process? Within the home market, will the Government give more direction to encourage greater consumption of beef in our public sector? And will they make it possible for our servicemen once again to enjoy British beef?

The Statement mentioned nothing about labelling. As there is so much concern not only among beef producers but also among pig and poultry producers, does the Minister accept that, in promoting the best of British beef, all producers wish to see honest, clear, proper labelling of our food? It should state clearly that the product was produced in the UK and was subject to our very strict animal welfare standards. That should not include meat produced abroad but processed in the UK. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that important issue and reflect on whether it was discussed at the Council meeting earlier this week.

Finally, might I press the Minister to tell the House what progress has been made since the March meeting? The Statement refers to ambitious reform, so will the Minister enlarge on some of the specific proposals which are under discussion? For example what is the Government's view on labour unit modulation? What is the Government's view on the proposal for national envelopes? Does the Minister still hold the view that there should be a cut in milk prices of some 30 per cent.?

Those are all very serious questions. While we on these Benches welcome and congratulate the Government on achieving their partial lifting of the beef ban, it is just a start. How soon will we see our exports being restored? How soon will our farm gate prices begin to rise? How soon will our great British beef be available on menus all around the world?

5.41 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and I congratulate the Government on their limited success, which is

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definitely a step forward. The Government's tactics in co-operating with and talking to those in Europe have been infinitely more successful than the tactics of the previous government, who threatened the countries of Europe with non-co-operation if they did not get their way. That was a dismal failure, so this Government have done better.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, clearly made many good points to which we shall have answers and I shall not repeat them. I wish to make some more general points. The Statement informs us that there will be legislation to provide compensation at the market rate to owners of animals slaughtered. Which market rate are we talking about? Is it the market rate before or after the tragedy of BSE? It is important that the compensation is reasonable so that the Government have full co-operation from people who have cases of BSE.

As regards the promotion of exports schemes, the Government have already made a start by giving farmers £300,000 to put towards another £300,000 for certain exports. They should carry that measure a great deal further because, as the noble Baroness said, there is a great deal of work to be done before the process is re-established. I agree with her about the removal of the ludicrous ban on beef on the bone so that once again I can buy sirloin on the bone which tastes much better. There is a certain amount of BSE all over Europe where beef on the bone is still being sold and I believe that progress can be made on that issue.

A big effort must be made in the export of lamb to Germany. The Germans are good trenchermen and they do not eat a great deal of lamb. Lamb, as we know, is very good and its consumption needs to be encouraged.

Another point which the Government should make strongly in Europe is that our suckler herds had hardly any BSE. The beef from the Aberdeen Angus herds and their cross herds is far superior to the miserable stuff which comes off a Friesian cow or a Friesian bullock. Such produce is worth promoting and can be promoted. Help and instruction needs to be given about that.

The Government had good intentions and I hope that they continue. Co-operation with the farmers on marketing is a way forward.

As regards Agenda 2000 and the hopeful statement that agreement might be reached by next March, how does the Minister believe that we shall reach agreement on acreage payments in eastern Europe when those countries join? Are the acreage payments to the western countries of the European Union to be reduced so that the same budget can apply? I know from friends who are farming in Poland and other eastern European countries that at the current prices they are making good profits simply because their costs are so low. We face a most curious situation, so perhaps the Minister could tell us a little more about the mechanics of making the present budget stretch over any new entries into the European Union. It is a very difficult issue and he needs to tell us more about it.

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5.46 p.m.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her thanks and congratulations. We believe that this is a major achievement. I confirm that the detailed measures of the agreement were on the table before the election. However, that was of little relevance to British farmers or to the exports of British beef because of the way in which the previous government conducted themselves towards Europe. No progress would have been made under the previous regime of waging a war on Europe. The difference is not in the details of the agreement that is being reached. They were rational details agreed at Florence and they meet the requirements. Progress has been made in putting in place a regime for safe British beef and a policy towards our partners in Europe which makes them more willing to trust us. That is the difference. One cannot be certain to a date exactly when exports will begin, but we are looking hopefully at the spring.

As regards beef on the bone, the ban will be lifted when we have scientific advice from SEAC, from the Chief Medical Officer, that it is safe. We had firm scientific advice from the Chief Medical Officer that it was unsafe and that was why we rightly banned it. When I attended the Agriculture Council, I understood from our partners in Europe that there was no prospect of getting the beef ban lifted if we did not ban beef on the bone. But when we receive scientific advice that beef on the bone is safe we shall be as happy as anyone to lift the ban.

As regards progress on the maternal cull, a voluntary cull has been in place since July or August. Some 850 animals have been culled and we anticipate culling up to 3,500 by the spring. That process of tracing, which is very complex and involves the state veterinary service, is currently in operation.

As regards abattoirs, many of the details will emerge in the consultation process which will take place in the months ahead. We shall also have to bring in secondary legislation.

The inspectors will be the appropriate inspectors acting on behalf of the Commission. They have already been to inspect during the summer and have given a favourable report. Therefore, the proper inspectors will come. It would be quite outrageous to suggest that any single country's professional inspectors should not be allowed in. It is as though the Iraqis were able to veto American inspectors in their process. We anticipate that there will be two inspections--in February and March. I know of no evidence of lack of will because they have been already and have reported positively.

The noble Baroness asked me about the military and British meat. I personally have been in negotiation with the Ministry of Defence in relation to British beef. It has been arranged that the British Army at home will be eating 100 per cent. British beef. The export market now begins to open up as a possibility for British troops abroad. But certainly if one looks at non-beef--for example, lamb--then there are other complications. In the end, it is a question of price. But we are currently involved with the Ministry of Defence and

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representatives of the farming and meat industries to see what progress we can make there. But already some progress has been made.

The question of labelling was raised. Discussions continue in Europe. I should point out that it is not the Agriculture Council but the General Affairs Council which discusses labelling. However, we are continuing to have discussions on that. Your Lordships will be aware that we have already made some progress with British retailers who have agreed certain changes and improvements in labelling which should make clearer the origins of meat and, in particular, the origins of British beef.

There are a whole number of issues in relation to Agenda 2000 and I shall not detain the House about that. We have made statements about it and it is quite a long programme. I should be happy to write to the noble Baroness about that.

I have answered some of the questions which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, asked. In particular, I thank him for his appreciation of our tactics. I share entirely his view of the unsatisfactory and totally negative tactics which operated before 1st May last year.

I have answered his comments about beef on the bone. He asked about compensation and the market rate. All productive adult and pedigree animals will be valued individually. Other stock will be valued to a scale linked to market prices. I was interested in what the noble Lord said about promotion and marketing in Europe. It will be for the Meat and Livestock Commission, and not for the Government, to undertake the marketing for the industry. The industry must, in my view, put more emphasis on modern marketing and less just on production. However, what the noble Lord said was interesting.

I agree entirely with what the noble Lord said about co-operation. Since I have taken up this post, I have been struck by the fact that the British farmers need more co-operation or collaborative marketing--call it what you will. We have far less mutual collaboration than almost anywhere in Europe. For example, if there is concern about the negotiating position in relation to powerful retailers, the farmers should look to their own marketing and to joint and co-operative efforts, which will give them relative strength.

5.53 p.m.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I appreciate that we still have a long way to go but the lifting of the beef ban is certainly welcome news. I am sure it will be welcomed by the British agriculture industry.

At the outset of her questions, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, tried to claim credit for the work done by the previous government. But is it not the case that we are indebted to my right honourable friend Jack Cunningham for the work that he did in Europe during the period of the British presidency of the European Union? Secondly, is it not also the case that if the

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previous government had handled the matter differently, we should not have found ourselves in the mess we were in?

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