Select Committee on European Scrutiny Sixth Report


SIXTH REPORT

The European Scrutiny Committee has made further progress in the matter referred to it and has agreed to the following Report:—


CONTROL OF CERTAIN TRANSMISSIBLE SPONGIFORM ENCEPHALOPATHIES

(19751)
5196/99
COM(98) 623

(a) Draft European Parliament and Council Regulation (EC) laying down the rules for the prevention and control of certain transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

(b) Draft Directive amending Council Directive 91/68/EEC.


Legal base: Article 152(4); co-decision; qualified majority voting
Department: Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Basis of consideration: Ministers' letters of 18 December 2000 and 7 February 2001
Previous consideration: HC 34-xiii (1998-99), paragraph 2 (17 March 1999) and HC 23-xxxi (1999-2000), paragraph 1 (29 November 2000)
Discussed in Council: 19-20 December 2000
Committee's assessment: Legally and politically important
Committee's decision: For debate in European Standing Committee A (decision reported on 29 November 2000)

Background

  1.1  In 1997, in response to a European Parliament inquiry on BSE, the Commission undertook to bring forward a proposal based on Article 100a (now Article 95) of the Treaty in order to provide a secure legal base for Community measures against Transmissible Spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) which had previously been in the form of a series of protective steps against BSE taken under the safeguard provisions of the veterinary control Directives. The present documents, comprising a draft Regulation and a draft Directive, were produced at the end of 1998 in response to that commitment.

  1.2  The detailed provisions are set out more fully in our Report of 17 March 1999. However, the aim of the first proposal is essentially the continued control and prevention of all animal TSEs, and it thus covers live animals as well as food and animal feed. National trade, intra-Community trade, and imports and exports are also covered, and to be treated in an equivalent manner (thus leading to the abolition of what the Commission describes as the "dual standard for consumers in high-risk areas," such as the UK). A corner-stone of the proposal was that Member States or third countries would be placed by the Commission in four different risk categories, which would determine the level of protection required.

  1.3  The second proposal made amendments to Council Directive (EC) No. 91/68 (which sets out current animal health conditions covering trade in sheep and goats). These were to take into account the proposed Regulation, but did not make any alterations to the conditions under which sheep and goats would be traded.

  1.4  In our Report of 17 March 1999, we commented that it was apparent that these proposals were of some political and practical significance, and that implementation would be costly, especially as the Export Certified Herd Scheme and the Date Based Export Scheme were to be applied to meat placed on the domestic market. We also noted that the Treaty base proposed by the Commission was Article 100a, whereas it seemed to us that, since the aim was to control animal diseases, the proposals fell, fairly and squarely, within the scope of Article 43.       

  1.5  We subsequently received letters dated 27 October 1999 and 26 July 2000, and a Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum of 28 November 2000, from the Minister of State (Lords) at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman). The first two of these dealt with developments in Brussels up to the end of last summer, and addressed our query about the proposed legal base. The latter set out in some detail the state of the proposal as presented by the French Presidency at the end of November, together with an analysis of the changes this would entail to the Commission's original proposal. As indicated in our Report of 29 November 2000, these would include the categorisation of Member States or third countries (where there would now be five, instead of the four categories originally proposed); prevention of TSE transmission; provisions on the removal of Specified Risk Material (which reflected the rules in Commission Decision 2000/418);[10] the control and eradication of TSEs; and the rules governing the placing of animals and products on the market.

  1.6  We noted that the Minister had said that, although the UK still had a number of reservations, the areas previously of greatest concern had been "satisfactorily addressed" in the new text. These included the rules on Specified Risk Materials; the replacement of the earlier requirement for beef placed on the national market to meet the requirements of the Date Based Export Scheme or the Export Certified Herds Scheme by less stringent conditions (which the UK could meet because of the Over Thirty Month Scheme); and the inclusion of an exemption from whole herd or cohort slaughter where a Member State had measures, such as the Over Thirty Month Scheme and wider feed ban in the UK, providing an equivalent measure of protection.

  1.7  In summing up the current state of the proposal, the Minister said that it significantly improved the UK position, as compared with the Commission's original version, and that there would be "substantial benefits" from the introduction of Community-wide measures, not least in opening up the possibility of exports of live bovine animals. She added that these had to be weighed against the cost of the new measures, but she suggested that, since the proposals "more or less" reflected the regime already in place in the UK, its financial implications were "not as substantial as would appear at first sight".

  1.8  The Minister also said that the matter was to be considered by Chief Veterinary Officers on 29 November, and by COREPER on 6 December, before going to the Agriculture Council on 19-20 December, where she expected a Common Position to be adopted, given the current interest in BSE in the Member States and European Parliament generated by the recent increase in reported cases in France. She commented that it would be essential to protect the position of the UK during these final negotiations, particularly in relation to international markets, trade in live animals and eradication measures.

  1.9  In the conclusion to our Report, we commented that the complexity of the subject, and the structure of this proposal (which relied heavily on cross-references to various annexes and earlier Community legislation) meant that we were very dependent on the Government's assessment of its implications. We added that, although we noted the Government's view that overall there are likely to be substantial benefits for the UK from introducing Community-wide measures in relation to TSEs, we nevertheless regarded this as a significant proposal, particularly in view of the increase in reported cases of BSE in France and other Member States. We therefore said that the House should have an opportunity to raise questions on the measure before the meeting of the Agriculture Council on 19-20 December, and we recommended the proposal for debate in European Standing Committee A.

Minister's letter of 18 December 2000

  1.10  In her letter of 18 December 2000, the Minister confirmed that the proposal was to be put to the Agriculture Council of 19-20 December for a political agreement on a Common Position, and that agreement on the detail was likely to be sought "early in the New Year". She says that, because of the importance of BSE, especially in the light of the recent rapid increase in the number of cases reported in France and the first reported cases in Spain and Germany, the UK "would be unable to secure a postponement of a vote on this dossier in order to enable scrutiny procedures to be completed". She added that both the Commission and the European Parliament were keen to secure agreement as soon as possible, and that the Agriculture Council on 4 December had confirmed its intention to reach agreement on a Common Position before the end of the year. The Minister also made the point that, since the proposal would "further add to the protection of consumers in the UK", it would be difficult not to vote for it, and that, if we did not do so, it would leave the UK sidelined and unable to negotiate any further changes when the Council came to consider the details.

  1.11  The Minister then addressed a number of points which we had suggested might be relevant to the debate we had recommended. First, as regards the extent to which a Member State's classification according to BSE status will be genuinely objective, she points out that the Commission's assessments have been carried out according to methodology established by the Scientific Steering Committee, and published on the Internet. In order to ensure the consistent application of standards, information provided by Member States or third countries is initially evaluated by a small group drawn from a panel of independent experts, and then considered by a joint meeting of all panel members. The full risk assessments are then passed to the country concerned for comment before publication on the Internet. The Minister made the point that this enables the UK to have some influence over the accuracy of the information provided by other countries, and that no Member State has been classified as BSE-free.

  1.12  Secondly, as regards the classification likely to be granted to individual Member States, including in particular the UK, France and Germany, the Minister said that, although the UK will be placed in the highest-risk category, the assessment of the situation here was generally favourable, the main concern being whether the feed ban introduced in 1996 was fully effective. In addition, the assessors were concerned that considerable stocks of meat and bone meal from animals killed under the Over Thirty Month Scheme, which "may well contain material from some animals infected with BSE", have not yet been destroyed: although this material is held in secure storage, its continued presence is seen as a risk factor. However, the Minister also pointed out that the proposed Common Position contained a mechanism for changing the risk category of a country when further information justifying a lower risk classification was available, and that the UK expected to benefit from this in due course. France had been placed in the next to highest risk category, with BSE "confirmed in domestic cattle at a lower level". The Minister added that, although the Scientific Steering Committee had revisited this conclusion in the light of the recent increase in cases reported in France, it saw no reason to amend its earlier opinion. Germany was placed in a category under which "it is likely that domestic cattle are clinically or preclinically infected with BSE".

  1.13  Thirdly, on whether the different provisions applying to the various categories fairly reflect the relative TSE risks within the Member States concerned, the Minister said that the measures set out in the proposal were, for the most part, based on the opinions of the Scientific Steering Committee, having regard to an assessment of the degree of risk. She also made the point that most of the measures, including the differentiation between risk categories, had already been adopted by the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE).

  1.14  Fourthly, on whether, within the UK, the proposals strike the correct balance between the protection of the public and the need to avoid undue burdens on industry, the Minister said that, in the main, they reflected the regime already in place within this country in order to protect both public and animal health, which had been kept under constant review. She added that the Food Standards Agency's latest review was likely to conclude that the current UK measures should be retained, but that the feed ban should be extended to prevent intra-species recycling. Thus, the proposed Common Position did not go beyond what had already been considered to be proportionate in UK legislation, or was likely to be recommended by the FSA.

  1.15  Finally, the Minister addressed one further point, which we had felt needed to be explained more fully. This concerned the treatment of Specified Risk Material (SRM), where it appeared that different provisions would be applied according to the BSE status of a Member State, whereas we had been told by the Government in the summer that Community-wide controls not linked to BSE status would represent a major improvement on earlier drafts which would have made such a distinction. In view of this, we suggested that reversion to a system where the SRM rules are somehow linked to BSE status appeared to be a retrograde step. The Minister said that the current approach has been endorsed by OIE, and that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) had endorsed the proposition that, although a minimum standard should be applied to all Member States, the UK and Portugal, which are in a higher-risk category, must apply higher standards in relation to bovine animals. She pointed out that, as none of the Member States was classified in the lower-risk categories, they would have to remove risk materials, but that such materials would not have to be removed from material coming from those third countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, which are generally recognised as BSE-free.

  1.16  We considered this letter at our meeting on 10 January 2001, and, although we would have been content simply to report to the House on its substance, we were concerned to learn that the Council had adopted a Common Position at its meeting on 19-20 December. Our acting Chairman therefore wrote the next day to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (the Rt. Hon. Nicholas Brown) saying that, whilst we understood that, where a proposal moves quickly, the Government had on occasions found it necessary to agree in the Council before the scrutiny process has been completed, it was extremely unusual for this step to be taken where a debate recommendation was outstanding. He added that we were not convinced by the Minister of State's explanation of the need for this step, in that we saw no reason why the UK could not have entered a scrutiny reserve at the Council, since such reserves are a well-understood part of the Brussels process, and not peculiar to the UK.

Minister's letter of 7 February 2001

  1.17  Since we have only just received the Minister's reply of 7 February 2001, we have not been able to consider it before the debate in European Standing Committee A, which is being held today. However, the Minister says that, whilst he fully accepts that the normal course of events is to complete scrutiny before taking a vote in the Council, it was not possible in this instance to arrange a vote beforehand because of the close proximity of our recommendation to the date of the relevant Council. He goes on to explain that he felt it necessary to participate in the Council vote because the UK measures to control the BSE epidemic were proving to be very effective, and it was very much in the UK's interest to maintain these under any possible Community regime. He suggests that, had he not supported the TSE proposal, there would have been no incentive for the Commission to include measures intended to protect the position of the UK, including in particular the recognition of alternatives to the slaughter of cohorts of BSE cases and the slaughter of whole herds, which he says are of great importance to the UK industry. The Minister also says that, although the Council reached political agreement to a Common Position on 19 December, the text has now been referred to the European Parliament for a second reading, and it is expected to enter into force on 1 July 2001.

Conclusion

  1.18  We are grateful to the Minister for his letter. As the debate in European Standing Committee A is taking place today, a copy of the text has been made available to the Members of that Committee. However, in finally clearing this document, we think it right to draw this letter to the attention of the House, together with the answers given in the Minister of State's letter of 18 December 2000 to the various questions raised in our Report of 29 November.



10   OJ No. L 158, 30.6.00, p.76. See also (21315) 9440/00; HC 23-xxiv (1999-2000), paragraph 10 (12 July 2000) and HC 23-xxvi (1999-2000), paragraph 15 (26 July 2000). Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 2 March 2001