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Mr. Douglas Hogg: I think that the House would like an answer to this question. If the Government come forward with a selective cull programme involving all the 128,000 beasts referred to in the Florence agreement, will the Opposition support us, and will the hon. Gentleman give a guarantee to that effect?

Dr. Strang: Of course. It would be nonsense for us to advocate that we would implement the Florence agreement and then vote against the means of doing so. Naturally, we would need to look at the details of the order, but we would not stand in the way of implementing the agreement.

The debate has revealed that all hon. Members representing all parts of the United Kingdom, even those who were initially against implementing the Florence agreement and the selective slaughter programme--and I can understand why--now support it. The Minister's intervention has confirmed that the House wants the selective slaughter programme to be implemented, and the only ones standing in its way and thus failing to honour the Florence agreement are the Government.

Mr. Home Robertson: When will they bring in the order?

Dr. Strang: My hon. Friend asks when the Government will bring in the order.

The Cabinet announced in September that they were suspending the selective slaughter programme. On 28 October, I heard the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster say on Radio 4:

I am not sure what he meant by that. Then, no fewer than five Ministers attended the Council of Ministers meeting in Luxembourg.

Since July, when it seemed that the Government were intent on implementing the selective slaughter programme, we have had the suspension of the selective slaughter programme, followed by an assurance from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that it would go ahead. Now we are no further forward. I defy any hon. Member to tell me whether the Government intend to implement the selective slaughter programme and honour their side of the Florence agreement. I appeal to the Minister to give us a clear statement on that when he replies to the debate, particularly in view of the overwhelming opinion of hon. Members that we should comply with the Florence agreement and implement the selective slaughter programme.

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Hon. Members will recall that the Opposition were less than enchanted with the Florence agreement. However, the Government insisted that the timetable was as solid as the Prime Minister described it and that our farmers and meat industry should accept it in good faith. Now we are nearly two weeks into November, and well past the Prime Minister's deadlines for lifting the ban, yet the beef export ban is still 100 per cent. in place and beef farmers have been given no idea about the Government's policy or when they can expect any progress to be made towards the lifting of the ban.

It is no wonder that our farmers are distraught, or that the National Farmers Union passed a vote of no confidence in the Minister and the National Farmers Union of Scotland called on the Prime Minister to

It is vital that the beef ban is lifted. Only the European Union can do that, and the Florence agreement is the only mechanism currently on the table.

[Interruption.] Attention has rightly been focused on Northern Ireland, where the beef industry is disproportionately more important. Farming is more important there, and exports are more important to the beef industry. Traditionally, more than half the beef produced in Northern Ireland is exported, and an additional quarter goes to mainland Britain. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is such despair in Northern Ireland.

The same is true of Scotland, where exports affect a large part of the beef industry, which is of particular importance to the Scottish economy. Given the low incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland and the exceptional cattle database operating there, it would make sense for Northern Ireland to lead the United Kingdom out of the beef ban. Right hon. and hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies will agree that any agreement that gave terms for lifting the export ban in Northern Ireland, but included conditions that meant that other parts of the United Kingdom, particularly Scotland, had no prospect of having the ban lifted in the short to medium term, would be unacceptable.

Obviously, the farming industry throughout Britain has accepted that, if we go ahead with the certified herds scheme, in the first instance the vast bulk of those certified herds will be in Northern Ireland. The debate has revealed not only the overwhelming support for implementing the Florence agreement, but the incredulity felt by all hon. Members--not just those representing Northern Ireland--when the Minister sought to explain to us that, after all these months, the Government have still not managed to submit the formal working document to the Commission as a basis for progress to be made and the decision to be taken to implement the certified herds scheme.

Let us be under no illusions. There is tremendous hardship and suffering in our farming industry. For example, people have invested a whole lifetime's work in building up a pedigree beef herd. It may be their livelihood and their investment, but it is also their lifetime's work. They have built a herd that has never had BSE and that is never likely to have BSE, yet they find that their lifetime's work and their livelihood have been put in jeopardy. Young farmers, perhaps, who borrowed money to move into a hill farm in the past few years and

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whose farms are heavily dependent on beef suckler herds, are on the verge of bankruptcy. Their businesses are on the verge of collapse through no fault of their own.

Hundreds of jobs have been lost in the industry. This morning, we had an excellent debate on the impact of the crisis on cattle head deboners. Tremendous strength of feeling and concern was demonstrated by hon. Members, who rightly argued the case for that industry which, overnight, was wiped out through no fault of its own. There can be no disagreement about the scale and the depth of the suffering in the industry as a result of what has happened. BSE is the biggest crisis to hit British agriculture this century.

The crisis has rightly been the preoccupation of hon. Members on both sides of the House. BSE was always going to cause the industry problems, but the Government's handling of the issue has compounded the problems, cost jobs and damaged livelihoods. It is right that the House of Commons should pass judgment on how the Government have handled the BSE crisis. We owe that to our constituents, to farmers and the industry. I urge hon. Members to vote for the Opposition motion.

9.41 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Tony Baldry): This has been a long six-hour debate, in which many constructive points have been raised. I intend to try to respond to them. I may, towards the end of my remarks, have some things to say about the Opposition and their approach, but in fairness to the farming community I should deal constructively with the constructive points that have been raised.

Since March, we have had only one duty--to seek to protect consumer health and confidence and to help the farming community and everybody associated with the beef industry. The over-30-month scheme sprang from that duty. Why did it come about? The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and others seem to be under some misunderstanding on that point. The scheme came about because SEAC recommended that all beef from cattle over 30 months should be deboned. Immediately, the supermarkets said that they would take no beef from cattle over 30 months, and that meant that there was no longer a market for that beef. The supermarkets and the farmers came to the Government and asked us to provide a scheme that took that beef out of the system and ensured compensation for the farmers. That we have done.

The scheme is a huge logistical exercise. Much of the beef would previously have gone into the food chain, and now all of it has to be rendered. There is a finite rendering capacity, and it was an enormous logistical exercise to bring together slaughterhouses, rendering capacity and refrigeration capacity. Inevitably, bringing on some of that refrigeration capacity took time, but I am fully confident that at no time could we have slaughtered any more animals than we have slaughtered. We have now slaughtered more than 870,000 animals. At the present rate, we are slaughtering them at the rate of more than 55,000 a week. Last week, nearly 60,000 animals were slaughtered.

People were rightly concerned about the backlog, so we introduced a registration scheme, which means that those who have registered will be given priority for their cattle

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to be slaughtered. I am confident that we will have cleared the backlog by Christmas. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was correct to say that, of the 320,000 animals that have been registered, almost 100,000 have already been slaughtered. I was asked about the capacity of the scheme. Once the registered cattle have been slaughtered, there is more than adequate weekly capacity to deal with any animals that come forward from the over-30-month scheme. Once the backlog is cleared, those who are bringing cattle to be slaughtered under that scheme should have no difficulties.

It is right that the House should appreciate that, on the basis of past Intervention Board records, we had every reason to expect that we would have to deal with 1 million animals in 12 months. In fact, we will have dealt with 1 million animals in seven months. We owe a debt of thanks to officials, to the Intervention Board and to many throughout the industry who have worked extremely hard to tackle an enormous logistical exercise.

We have given considerable support to farmers: including £81 million in suckler cow and beef special premiums, £29 million for beef marketing payments schemes, £60 million for hill livestock compensatory allowances, a further £29 million for a second beef marketing payment scheme, and aid worth about£50 million which we intend to spend in ways of particular benefit to suckler producers.

We have given aid of up to £118 million to the rendering industry. Similarly, £110 million has been provided to the slaughtering industry to provide a breathing space during which companies can adjust to the new marketing circumstances.

We have appreciated the enormous difficulties that farmers have faced throughout all this. My right hon. and hon. Friends in MAFF, the Scottish Office, the Welsh Office and the Northern Ireland Office have met farmers from throughout the country almost on a daily basis. I am grateful to the NFU for its fair acknowledgement in the briefing that it sent to hon. Members today. It said:

That is a fair summary by the NFU. On behalf of all Ministers present, I should like to say thank you to the NFU for recognising what the Opposition were so curmudgeonly not to recognise--that throughout we have sought to act positively and constructively.

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