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BSE (Agriculture)

4.25 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, perhaps I may now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question in another place. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said as follows:

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My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.28 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer to a Private Notice Question in the other place. As always, I declare an interest in that the farming company with which I am involved has dairy cattle.

I should explain that as it is a Private Notice Question I do not have the benefit of a written Statement to which to respond, so this is very much a preliminary response. If what we hear beyond the Answer--that animals born after September 1990 may be those included in the proposal--is right, that seems to admit implicitly that the feed ban was broken in the early 1990s. We presume that the scheme will deal with animals born after the feed ban on the basis that they risked eating infected food. That can come only through cross-infection in the feed mills or transgression of the ban by feed companies.

I believe that I am entitled to point out that it was six years ago that we suggested the banning of the inclusion of meat and bonemeal in all forms of animal feed. If that had been accepted at the time, it would have prevented the situation with which we are now dealing.

Have the Government the information to trace all the animals that they wish to trace in this selective slaughter scheme? There were proposals in 1989 and 1990 to improve the traceability of cattle. If it is to be the cohorts--animals born in the same year as the infected cattle--which are to be traced back, they could be spread over a large number of farms. Not all dairy herds are self-contained or have the good recording systems which are required. Are the Government confident that they have the systems necessary to trace all the animals that will be involved?

Let me take the example of what I might describe as a clean farm--a farm which has never had a case of BSE. It purchases perhaps an in-calf heifer which it does not realise is a cohort at another farm. Eventually the animal purchased is traced and removed because its sister animal, as it were, has gone down with BSE. That farmer, who has never had a case of BSE on his farm, will presumably lose his BSE-free status. What about the flying herds--that is, the herds which purchase their replacement heifers every year? We will have to trace back to heifer rearing farms and then trace all the cohorts over a large number of farms. Therefore, technically, this will be a fairly hard system to impose.

As I understand it, our negotiating position is that we will not introduce the system unless the export ban is lifted. However, the European Union has made it clear

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that it will not lift the ban until we introduce the system. That does not seem to me to be a particularly brilliant negotiating position to be in. It will be interesting to know how the Government propose to deal with it. As regards compensation, there will obviously be a cost to farmers over and above the cull value of animals in terms of lost milk production, the loss of profit, and so on. Can the Minister say whether that will be included in any compensation which is to be provided?

Can the Minister also tell the House what proposals the Government are putting to the Commission in the case of exemptions for beef animals over 30 months for human consumption where they are from BSE-free sources? I have already referred to the problem of the cohort animals which could mean a farmer losing his BSE-free status, even though he has never had such a case on his farm. Is the Minister absolutely confident that the proposed restriction order will not be open to fraud?

I also understand that there is a possibility that calves from cows which are subject to a restriction order will not be used for human consumption. Can the Minister say whether that reflects a change of thinking from the ministry on risk, or the possibility of the vertical transmission of BSE? As regards the hope that we have for funding from the European Union, can the Minister explain how much of the cost of the scheme it is intended will be met?

I should like to reiterate to the Minister the obvious point; namely, the concern of all of us that the ministry and all those involved recognise the potential welfare problems for animals under the new measures. We hope that they will ensure that full consideration is given to that aspect.

I am extremely glad that the Government have rapidly retreated from the sabre rattling we heard on Monday. Can the Minister say what the Government will do if the Council of Ministers rejects the proposals? What are the "other options" that the Prime Minister has mentioned? I believe that we are entering into a numbers game. We have produced the minimum number that we think we can introduce on the negotiating table. However, if that is refused, it seems to me that the number can only be negotiated upwards. That is a very serious position for the dairy and beef industry as regards the uncertainty that we all know currently exists.

From this side of the House I should like to say that, in our view, it is important that a negotiated settlement is presented and agreed on the basis of sensible measures rather than relying on empty threats and, as I said, on sabre rattling. We want to see a clear programme of measures that will help the beef sector at all levels and measures to protect and reassure consumers so as to restore stability to the beef market. We support any move that will put us on course for that objective.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, I should also like to thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Private Notice Question given in another place. I presume that I am right in assuming that the response clearly sets out the negotiating position, or part of it, for discussions with the Agriculture

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Commissioner with a view to having the European world ban on our exports lifted. I should say immediately that it is my view--which I have always expressed from these Benches and, indeed, which has been expressed by my party--that it is very much better to go down this pathway rather than the other one; in other words, to go for selective slaughtering.

I should declare an interest as, indeed, I have before. I am the owner of a pedigree suckler herd which, over the 30 years of its existence, has never had a case of BSE. I believe that I am representative of the majority of suckler herd owners and probably of the majority of other herd owners in the country. I do not understand why on earth one should embark upon the needless expenditure of getting rid of millions of animals which are perfectly healthy in a kind of panic reaction. That has always seemed to me to lack proper justification.

I believe that the Government should have announced such a measure immediately. I say that because what consumers, our compatriots and, indeed, members of the European Community are concerned about is that we should ensure that we take effective action. The most effective action is to get rid of all those animals which are most likely to have BSE; in other words, those which have been in contact with other animals which have had the disease.

As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, pointed out, there are many problems as regards tracing some of those animals. Am I right in thinking that, in putting forward the scheme, the Government have worked out, at least broadly, that they can carry out the operation pretty swiftly? Although drastic action is needed, it must, as I said, be effective action. That is what people are looking for in this country and elsewhere. After all, two or three months have now gone by since the outbreak and it is only now that we are getting close to something like effective action.

There has been a knock-on effect in the rural community. Indeed, I witness it every time I return home. It is not just farmers and slaughterers who are affected. All the ancillary industries in the rural areas have been enormously affected by the crisis. I hope that the Government will bear in mind the need to compensate some of them. Otherwise the whole of the rural economy could be badly damaged by the announcement originally made about BSE in cattle and the serious possibilities of it affecting human beings.

I shall not probe any further into the question because I believe that the Minister of Agriculture is now in a negotiating position and, obviously, he wants to present the scheme as a very effective alternative. I assume that it will be an alternative to the slaughter of 10 or 11 million animals. However, if it is to be part of it, I think that the matter should be reviewed after the initial slaughter of 45,000 animals, or whatever the number is. The progress that has been made could then be assessed. I make that suggestion because there has been a very sharp decline in BSE in this country over the past year or two. If this is an effective measure, we can look back on it afterwards with a view to reprieving all those very

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safe herds and animals which are really the pride of the country. It seems to me that there is no real justification for slaughtering them.

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