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Lord Bach: My Lords, before we move to the Statement on the beef on the bone ban, I should like to take this opportunity to remind the House that the Companion indicates that discussion on a Statement should be confined to brief comments and questions for clarification. Peers who speak at length do so at the expense of other noble Lords.

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Beef on the Bone Ban

5.10 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture. The Statement is as follows:

    "I am pleased to be able to announce the Government's intention to lift the retail ban on beef on the bone. This follows further advice from the Chief Medical Officers, who now collectively agree that it is possible to lift the ban on retail sales. I and the Secretary of State for Health have accepted this advice. I am placing a copy of the advice in the House Library today. Officials of my department will later today be consulting on draft proposals to lift in England the ban on retailing of beef on the bone. This includes lifting the ban on food prepared for direct sale to consumers in restaurants and other catering establishments. Similar consultations will be taking place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to lift the ban there also.

    "As recommended by the Chief Medical Officers, the ban on the use of bones for manufacturing food products (including infant foods), which lies at the extreme end of BSE protection measures, will remain in place. This also has the effect of preserving explicit consumer choice.

    "This lifting of the ban has been long awaited and I am delighted that it can now go ahead. The announcement will bring a welcome boost to the beef industry in what continue to be difficult times. I believe that we need to move forward as quickly as possible with the consultation on lifting the ban. Therefore, subject to the consent of the House, I propose to use the accelerated procedure for making the regulations to allow retail sales to take place before Christmas.

    "Consultation will start today, with the aim that the amending regulations will take effect on Friday 17th December. These proposals will take effect in England only, but it is intended that similar legislation will be implemented in the other parts of the UK to the same timetable. I know that enforcement authorities will wish to take note of my Statement today and of the Government's clear intention to implement lifting of the ban by 17th December".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.12 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We warmly welcome the intention to lift the ban. My only sorrow is that my noble friend Lord Stanley is no longer a Member of this House. He would have been very pleased to hear this news. His persistence and his hard fight on this issue were well known.

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This ban has damaged our beef industry worldwide. Without it, beef farmers would have been spared two years of unnecessary suffering, at a cost, I believe, of some £170 million. Good butchers would not have been harassed and threatened with prosecution. Ministers would have been spared the humiliation of arguing that our beef was safe abroad while declaring it deadly at home.

I have a few questions for the Minister. First, will she confirm that when the ban was imposed two years ago it was only one of three options that were put forward by the scientific advisers? There were perfectly sensible alternatives which the Government chose not to pursue. The first option was the publication of research findings and risk assessments on beef on the bone so that consumers could decide for themselves.

Secondly, my concern is now with the ramifications of the decision. Will the Government compensate, even over a short period, those involved during the past two years, for example, with the disposal of beef bones? Will the Government pledge not to prosecute those who bought or sold beef on the bone as recently as last weekend in Cornwall?

Will the Minister confirm that, from the date of the lifting of the ban, UK producers of gelatine, soups, stock cubes and so on will be able to use British bones? The Statement referred to reservations, particularly regarding infant food, but did not make the position clear in regard to the items I have mentioned.

Will the Minister also confirm that private killings of beef will be free of the restrictions? Will she also confirm that, even if the consultations that are to take place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not confirm the Government's suggestion of the lifting of the ban, England will still go ahead with lifting it?

Will the Minister accept that the retention of the ban on beef on the bone has added to the difficulty of farmers in their negotiations to gain an overall lifting of the beef ban, particularly in France and Germany? Finally--and this point is not directed at the Minister personally--do Ministers regret not listening rather more to some of the views expressed by noble Lords in this House in January 1998?

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches warmly welcome the lifting of the beef ban. We have certainly pressed hard, both here and in another place, for this outcome in order that negotiations on the consumption of British beef abroad will have more coherence and we can speak from a position of greater strength.

I hope that now the Government's commitment will be to rebuild the export market as rapidly as they can. I gather that tomorrow the Prime Minister will hold what has been billed as a "beef summit". I hope that there will be more behind the summit than merely fine words. I hope that the Government will put in resources, in terms of both people and money, to promote British beef and help Britain regain its export markets.

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I find the statement from the Conservative Benches slightly surprising, given that had it not been for so long a delay on the part of the Conservative government when they were in power, we should not have been in this position in the first place. The problem of BSE would never have taken off in the way that it did.

Finally, I should like to point out on behalf of the farming community that this is not only "a welcome boost in difficult times"; it is an absolute essential in impossible times. I note from an article in The Times that farmers' income, particularly that of hill farmers, has been reduced by 35 per cent. Two years ago, hill farmers received on average £7,500. Today, their income is about £2,000. It has more than halved. This decision is far more than a welcome boost. It is an essential lifeline.

I am sure that Members of this House and members of the British public will support our home farmers. I hope that the Prime Minister will take the opportunity tomorrow to push the point with British shops, particularly supermarkets, to make sure that they stock British beef, that their customers know very well which beef is British and that they look forward to eating British beef for Christmas.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Baronesses who have spoken. Our pleasure at lifting the ban should be underpinned by the fact that the advice of the Chief Medical Officers is that it can now be lifted. That reflects the reduction and decline in the epidemic of BSE. It is the reduction in the prevalence of BSE among the beef herd that we should be most grateful for.

The advice is there, both the scientific advice which has come from the figures which have been published from the Oxford Unit and the medical advice which is now uniformly shared by all four CMOs. We have always said that when the advice was there we would proceed to lift the ban. That is why I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that there has been no humiliation of Ministers in saying that they have accepted the medical advice. The advice is in terms of the perceived risk of a disease that, as we all know, has been highly erratic and invariably fatal.

We should all be particularly pleased today because the reduction in the epidemic is such that there is unanimity among the CMOs. The risk has declined to such a small figure that it is appropriate for consumers now to have choice.

On the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, throughout the process all the advice received and options put to the Government have been clearly put forward. The SEAC advice on the level of risk was published, as was the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, who was then Sir Kenneth Calman. Equally, when the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson, came through it was published and made explicit. As the noble Baroness rightly pointed out, we have had some debate and Members of the House have taken a great interest in it. I hope noble

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Lords will agree that throughout the debate the attitude of the Government has been that it was prudent to ascertain whether we could wait for the figures from the Oxford Unit and allow the other CMOs the opportunity to examine them so that we could take the matter forward on a UK basis. That attitude was soundly based and it allows us to avoid any confusion for the industry and the consumer. That was an important area of policy.

The noble Baroness asked me about manufactured and processed products. As I said earlier when we discussed the issue, the advice from the CMO, which has been endorsed by his fellow CMOs, is that the retention of the ban on the use of bones for manufactured and processed products would be prudent. In that area, as in others, we intend to continue to take the CMO's advice. Therefore, the lifting of the ban will concern the retail sale direct to the consumer in butchers' shops, restaurants and other catering outlets.

As for prosecutions, it is not a matter for Ministers but for the enforcement authorities. As I said in the Statement, in future enforcement authorities who decide on the action they take will wish to take note of the Statement today. But all along the policy has been based on medical advice. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to suggest to enforcement authorities that they take retrospective advice when we were acting in different circumstances when the analysis of the risk was different.

I agree that the issues of the export of beef under the date-based export scheme and beef on the bone are separate because the date-based export scheme only applies to de-boned beef in particular animals under 30 months, born after 1996. However, it can do nothing but good for the export industry that the decline in the epidemic in this country is reflected in the ability to lift the restrictions. I know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, like my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, is anxious to do everything he can to help build up the markets overseas for the export of British beef. They have been desperately damaged and we know the effect it has had on the industry.

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