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Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord's last comment is singularly inappropriate in the circumstances. All of us hope and believe that the progress which has been made in Northern Ireland will continue and come to fruition. On the bona fides of the French Government, I believe that we have taken the appropriate and correct course in trying to rebuild confidence in the safety of British beef. Considering how much support we have had within Europe, both scientifically and in terms of the legal basis of the French action, it is surprising that they have not behaved as they should behave as members of the Community and obeyed Community law. Just because we have not been successful at this point in persuading them to act legally does not mean that it was not correct to try to do so.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I was glad to hear the Minister refer to the urgency of rebuilding British beef exports. I declare my interest in farming matters. Does the noble Baroness agree that three things are now
Secondly, will she facilitate the export of whole carcasses and of calves for rearing in other countries? Will the noble Baroness also do everything possible to encourage the export of British stock for breeding both in the European Union and the rest of the world?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the underlying tenor of the noble Lord's remarks is correct: that we have a narrow range of products available for export under the date-based export scheme. We want to make a start with those products, and then expand the scheme. There is a set process for going into a wider range of products which could be exported. I believe that we would all like to see progress along those lines.
The noble Lord is correct in saying that there are only two slaughterhouses licensed at present under the date-based export scheme. We would wish to see the number increased, but in response to an increasing market demand because of the success of marketing British beef abroad. That is why the initiative, since the meeting of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister with industry leaders, to seek to persuade other countries to lift their ban or, when they do not have a ban, to facilitate the export of goods is tremendously important.
Lord Haskel: My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Luke, and Lord Marlesford, seem to be criticising the Government for entering into negotiations rather than banning immediately the sale of French goods in this country. That is ridiculous. If the Government had not entered into negotiations, noble Lords would be criticising the Government--in my view rightly--for not entering into negotiations. The Government are right to enter into those negotiations.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful for those comments. My noble friend is right. I do not believe that it would have reassured potential export markets throughout the world if we had not been willing to put forward for scrutiny and examination the safety of our beef and the strength of the date-based export scheme. To have that scheme open and transparent, and examined again and endorsed at a European level by scientific experts, can only be of advantage as regards the long term export market.
Lord Biffen: My Lords, does the Minister accept that a situation as fraught as this inevitably leads to recrimination? However, there comes a point when one seeks some solace from this miserable affair. Is the noble Baroness encouraged by the growing significance now given to the idea of origin marking in beef, and on a wider extension into other agricultural products generally? Are the French requests on origin marking significantly different from those which the British Government have in mind? Does she look forward to the day when there will be sufficiently
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Lord asks an interesting question. We have never wanted to export British beef by stealth. There is nothing that the British beef industry has to hide. We have no concerns about consumers anywhere in the world knowing what they are buying. We believe that such transparency is to everyone's benefit.
Interesting trade issues come into the labelling of country of origin. That has been discussed at an international and European level. Progress is being made within Europe in terms of a beef labelling regime which I believe would be in everyone's interest. Great concern has been expressed widely, and in your Lordships' House, about misleading labelling. It can sometimes mean British consumers buying pig meat products marked as produced in the United Kingdom which come from imported Danish or Dutch pigmeat. We are tightening up on that aspect of labelling. I agree with the noble Lord that, for a range of reasons, including the very enhanced animal welfare standards and the very high safety standards for meat we have in this country, many consumers want to know exactly what they are buying and where it is from.
Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, in sharing the concern expressed by many noble Lords, I first declare an interest. My son is a farmer and president of the Berwickshire branch of the National Farmers' Union; and I served on the Southwood working party on bovine spongiform encephalopathy which reported to government in 1989.
I make three scientific points. First, beef cattle from which beef for export is being derived are no more than three years old. There has not been a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle under three years of age reported in the past few years.
Secondly, since the regulations were introduced many years ago to ban human consumption of what are called the Southwood offals and, more recently, since regulations were introduced, to remove brain, spinal cord and other nervous tissue from beef, the chances of any transmission of an agent are negligible. In fact, transmission experiments carried out have demonstrated that there is no way in which muscle can transmit the agent of scrapie or of bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Is this not a case where the French Government have been very badly advised by their scientists and food standards agency? One can only confirm that on all scientific grounds British beef is the safest in the world.
Perhaps I may follow that up by referring to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Will the Government take steps to increase the number of abattoirs capable of removing the spinal cord, brain and other nervous tissues from beef? Finally, is beef
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the Government are keen for more abattoirs to participate in the date-based export scheme. It is not for us to set up the abattoirs but to license them if they meet the conditions. We shall be happy to deal speedily with applications from a growing number of abattoirs.
Again, that leads to the issue of taking the argument forward--it is often best made by scientists and veterinarians--to third country potential importers. We have nothing to hide in terms of the safety of our beef and its origins.
On the noble Lord's exposition on the scientific situation, he is right. The noble Lord is always listened to with great respect in your Lordships' House. I would hope that perhaps the French Government might listen to him as well.
Lord Borrie My Lords, can the Minister say more about the legal proceedings now beginning? For example, will it be possible for the Commission--it is taking the proceedings on our behalf--through interim measures to force the French Government to lift their ban and ensure some amelioration of the present position, or to negotiate further towards a settlement of the legal proceedings? Awaiting a final decision and possible appeal will involve a much longer period of uncertainty for our farmers.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the fact that the proceedings could be drawn out for a long time has made us anxious to try and reassure the French, not by giving concessions and not by negotiations, but by explaining in detail exactly the provisions of the date-based export scheme. We want to resolve the problem without recourse to the courts.
We have been assured by the Commission that it is speedily proceeding through the different stages necessary in referring the case to the court. We are discussing the possibility of interim relief with the Commission, which is actively considering it. We are all looking at how the proceedings can be expedited, and the Commission is in no doubt of the need to obtain a speedy resolution.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, everyone must be disappointed about the news from the French Government, especially when all our efforts to control BSE and deal with the difficult problem have been open to detailed scrutiny for many months. I understand that the French Government made their decision on scientific grounds. Can the Minister identify the specific grounds and make them public? Where do the problems lie between the French scientists and ours who, together with others in the European Union, have judged our meat and its production to be entirely safe?
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