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Lord Hooson: My Lords, I also wish to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement in this House. I have an interest to declare in that I am a farmer. I have a pedigree beef suckler herd which I have bred over 30 years and which has never had a case of BSE. That is in common with many other rearers in this country who have herds of cattle entirely free from BSE.
I entirely agree with what the noble Lord just said. I cannot remember a crisis of anything like these proportions. I was in the other place, representing a totally agricultural constituency when the foot-and-mouth epidemic occurred on our borders at Oswestry. But it was nothing compared with the present disaster.
Having said that, and heard the Statement today, perhaps I may first say that I regret to a great extent the tone of the Statement. It is very important that we and our European partners co-operate to the utmost in dealing with this matter. One would have expected a clear exchange of information. The third paragraph of the Statement in fact states:
I sincerely ask the Minister: who caused the panic? On 20th March a joint Statement was made by two Ministers--which was unusual in itself--in the other place about the possible link between BSE and the human disease. Reference was made to 10 cases which
That caused great panic in this country. Are we surprised that it hit the headlines in every European country and every other country? To blame the European Community for a panic reaction is overdoing it, to put it at its slightest. Since that time, we have had great co-operation from the European Community. It is a pity that there are no figures to suggest what the cost of the whole exercise will be and how much will be contributed by the other members of the European Community.
I live in the heart of an agricultural community. I am totally aware of the problems that it faces. For example, our area is a great store cattle rearing area. No store cattle have been sold since this happened. They are all in the pipeline. Farmers do not have the fodder to feed them or the straw. The fatteners who normally every week would be moving them have had to hang on to them. That creates an enormous problem. The slaughterhouses are empty. They have had to discharge staff and so on. Everything is an enormous problem at the moment.
I listened to the Statement and I had read it beforehand. If I were one of those people who advise as a result of inquiries, what could I advise a farmer about his position? How could I advise the slaughtermen or the owners of the slaughterhouses of their position? There is nothing tangible. I am convinced that within two months confidence would have returned. It is interesting that the very distinguished scientist Sir Christopher Cockerell, a Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote a letter to The Times last Saturday from which I quote the third paragraph:
What is required is a subsidy of some kind immediately that has effect all along the line. There are so-called passports for all beef animals. Cannot an additional payment be made there to enable those who are hanging on to the stores to feed them and buy straw and so on? What about the finisher who has held back his stock? No doubt some of those cattle will be getting into over-condition. The finishers will need some kind of payment to carry them over the next two months. In a similar way, the slaughterhouses have an enormous
I should have thought that the Community experts would have been provided with a scheme from this country to show how we could achieve that kind of result, so that gradually confidence is re-built for the consumer. It is very necessary to build up that confidence. But I do not see signs of it. I am very sorry to say that.
I turn to the suggestion made by some members at the Community meeting who said that the Community's response must be prompt and effective but also soundly based in fact. Surely there should have been a very much greater exchange of information. I think I am right in saying that in this country 158,000 cases of BSE have been reported and all the animals involved have been slaughtered. The incidence of BSE is decreasing. The country which comes nearest to us in terms of the number of cases of BSE is Switzerland, with 200 cases. Otherwise, every case of BSE, including Switzerland, is said to be traceable to this country. So it has been a particularly difficult British problem.
How do we deal with the problem at the present time? We should give ourselves a two-month period for reflection. It is not unreasonable, although it is undesirable perhaps from our point of view, that the Community does not want to lift the world ban until it is certain what steps we are going to take. The Statement says:
Perhaps I may ask a practical question on the 22 per cent. of the total UK beef production that will be eligible for intervention during the next month. Does that cover all categories of beef animals--steers, young bulls and heifers?
Surely this situation has demonstrated the enormous effects worldwide of an incident which happens to have affected our country but has also affected our European partners. I had a telephone call the other day from New York to say that what has occurred has affected the sale of beef in New York. It may affect the sale of beef all over the world unless the matter is sensitively dealt with. What is required at the moment to deal with the matter
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for various elements of today's package. I agree with him about the absolute need to restore and sustain consumer confidence in what is a great product produced by a great industry. The irony is that we have not only perhaps the best beef in the world but the safest beef as well. So there is every good reason to be sensitive to consumer confidence and to seek to sustain it wherever possible.
I wish to say a few words about the phrase "slaughter policy". Both when the noble Lord, Lord Carter, referred to it and, substantially, when the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, referred to it, I believe that on the whole they were referring to our policy that beasts going to slaughter in the normal way at the end of their working lives will be excluded from the food and animal chain if they are over 30 months old. What we will not be doing in this part of our response is compulsorily slaughtering animals which would not otherwise have been going to slaughter because of the natural cycle of their lives. It is an exclusion policy in a sense rather than a slaughter policy.
We are considering details of a targeted cull. The details of any such programme will be carefully worked out. The consultation with the industry itself would be comprehensive and the discussion in this country would simply be a prelude to a discussion with the Commission and with the veterinary committee. We would make absolutely certain that any targeted cull, if instituted, would have to deliver benefits for the costs that are involved. I am not talking just about the financial cost but the cost to cattle numbers and herd numbers. We tread into this area with great care and with all the advice that the national and international veterinary community can bring to us. The other benefit we would expect from such a movement is a lifting of the export ban. It is a substantial move and the very least we would expect is a removal of the ban.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, spent some time on the total cost of the slaughter and the total value of the rebate. At this stage it is too early in the game to have worked up accurate figures. Rather than mislead the House by guessing, I would ask the House to be patient on this matter. We shall be debating this subject fairly shortly and I imagine that the subject will be returning to your Lordships' agenda at regular intervals. When hard figures are available they will be delivered.
On the targeted cull, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, painted a picture of a dairy farmer who was being faced with a super-levy charge, with perhaps quota problems if he were to lose his herd, and wondered to what extent we might be able to alleviate the obvious problems arising from that scenario. We want to think through such situations carefully before even initiating a selective cull, even if we want to do that anyway. We will be very careful about such problems.
The ability to institute random testing effectively in such a way that the scientists feel that it will deliver useful information is continuously reviewed by SEAC among other authorities. If it recommends that it should be done and it can convince itself that it will deliver something it can work with, we will do it. At the moment SEAC is not recommending it because it is very complex. The noble Lord asked about reliable live tests. If one were available we would want to consider just how widely it could be applied and how usefully it could provide information to prevent other types of cull or exclusion. Good progress is being made on the research towards a live test to detect BSE in cattle but it is not yet complete. There is no way we can practically implement what is known to date.
On disposal, the funding package agreed with our European partners, which is a 70/30 split, covers the value of the livestock themselves but not the cost of the disposal. The UK Government will be covering the cost of the disposal.
The noble Lord asked about the Meat and Hygiene Service. The relief from rates will be retrospective. The 1995-96 charges will effectively become a holiday so those paying MHS charges will receive money in the form of a cheque and, as has been agreed, the holiday will continue for an interim period. As regards resources and the staffing needed, we do not know at the moment exactly what the cost is and how many staff are needed. We shall simply spend what needs to be spent and employ the number that needs to be employed in order to deliver what we know needs to be delivered.
The exclusion policy for beasts over 30 months of age from the human and animal food chain will be instituted as soon as possible. I gather that that involves the following approximate timetable. The Beef Management Committee meets on 12th April when we hope that it will adopt the proposal. Three or four weeks thereafter we hope to have the system up and running. The noble Lord himself will know better than most noble Lords that the kinds of considerations and issues which must be clarified and defined before the system starts are complex and therefore we do not wish to rush into a scheme and find that we have misconstructed it through too much haste.
The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, delivered a great deal of his own experience to the House. Like many farmers, he has a BSE-free suckler herd. I believe that the anxieties felt by our farming community spreads from both those who have had experience of BSE to those who know that they have never ever had any BSE at all in their livestock. I acknowledge the anxieties that the noble Lord feels. He is completely inaccurate when he seeks to accuse the Government of generating the panic. I remind the House and the noble Lord himself that SEAC delivered a report to the Government followed by recommendations. It would have been quite incorrect if we had sought to keep that from the public and Parliament.
When we responded to that information by tabling Statements, we were very closely guided by, and proceeded extensively from, the reports of the scientists and from the Chief Medical Officer himself. We
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