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French Beef

3.22 p.m.

Lord Geddes asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government treat all matters of food and consumer safety with the utmost seriousness. That is why we established the Food Standards Agency. The preliminary advice received from the agency is that there is no need currently for a ban on French beef. But the agency plans to visit France urgently to ensure that the French Government have in place effective measures to implement their planned action on beef and to ensure that the beef banned in France will not be exported to the UK. The position will be reconsidered by Ministers following the report from the FSA of its findings in France.

In addition, the agency is commissioning a risk assessment of French beef. Her Majesty's Government will be pressing for the European Commission to ensure the compulsory labelling of countries of origin of meat, including processed products. All allegations that imported over-30-months beef is being or has been sold for human consumption are vigorously investigated. The agency will be asking local authorities to step up enforcement action on the 30 months rules in licensed slaughter houses and cutting plants. The FSA has advised Ministers to consider tightening the 1996 regulations so that they cover certification and beef products, and we will be doing that urgently.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that comprehensive reply, which was a considerable expansion on that given by his right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in another place on 16th November, when he said that,

Can the Minister confirm or perhaps deny that his right honourable friend wrote to the Prime Minister on the following day, 17th November, on the same subject? If he did, what were the contents of that letter; and do those contents contradict or agree with the recommendations of the FSA?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, Ministers correspond with each other on a regular basis. The specific answer to the original point made by the noble Lord is quite simply that the matters which I have answered in your Lordships' House are ones for health Ministers, because the FSA is accountable to Parliament through health Ministers.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, if eating beef is supposed to be the cause of CJD, can the noble Lord explain why the French have had only two cases of

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CJD when they imported into France from the United Kingdom millions of tonnes of old cull cows before the trade was banned by the European Union at a time when BSE in this country was at its height?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am not sure that I am in a position to answer for the French Government. I can tell the noble Countess that the French Government have adopted a programme of action, including additional specified risk material controls, the banning of all mammalian meat and bone meal from animal feed, the exclusion of bovine vertebrae column from the food chain and the extension of BSE testing. Importantly, the French Government have also given a commitment that they will not allow meat which cannot be sold in France to be exported. Clearly, in terms of any decision the Government make in relation to the import of French beef, it is vitally important that we know that the French Government have the measures in place to ensure that the actions they are taking, particularly in relation to the export of meat, will be effectively implemented and monitored. That is the purpose of the urgent visit by FSA officials to France in the next few days. They will then report back to Ministers.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, are the Government making great efforts to convince the French that British beef is worth eating and importing?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there has never been a single scientific experiment that has demonstrated transmission of the BSE agent from muscle? Bearing in mind the stringent requirements that are now applied to British beef for export, can he be assured that the quality of the work being done in the abattoirs in France is such that the spinal chord and brain, which may transmit the agent, are removed?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is the very point of the visit by FSA officials. They will meet officials of the French Government in the next few days to assure themselves and to advise Ministers as to the effectiveness of the measures being taken in France. Following the advice we receive from the Food Standards Agency, Ministers will then be in a position to consider whether any further action should be taken by the Government.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, bearing in mind the fact that British beef farmers are having a really rough time, why is there a need to import any beef from France? Does the Minister agree that the answers to all three Questions today rather make one doubt the veracity of what is said by scientists, which people like the noble Lord have to repeat?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am glad to be able to endorse the noble Baroness's commendation

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of British beef. Her view will be shared by many noble Lords. The reality is that a very small amount of French beef is imported into this country. At the end of the day we have to ensure that the current controls are operated effectively. We need to see whether we can tighten up on any of those controls and the inspection regime. But, in terms of the original Question in relation to the import of French beef, that must rest on our consideration of the effectiveness of the controls put in place by the French Government.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, in the light of the report on BSE by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, does the Minister agree that one of the main lessons to be learnt is that the public deserve to be informed of the scientific advice being given? Can he confirm that the scientific advice that the FSA receives on French beef will be made available to the public, in order that the public can know on what basis the FSA is giving advice?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lord, my understanding is that that advice is available on the FSA website. I agree wholeheartedly with the principle, which is why I am able to make a such a statement today.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, even if the Government and the Food Standards Agency are prepared to give the French the benefit of the doubt about not sending us unsafe beef, can the Minister explain why he will not make immediate arrangements for consumers in this country to be made aware that they may be purchasing and consuming French beef? At the moment, imported beef--especially if it is manufactured--ends up with a label "Made in Britain", even if it contains French beef. Does the Minister agree that consumers need to know this?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, let me make it absolutely clear to the noble Baroness that we are determined to take the most effective action possible in the circumstances. That is why we have asked FSA officials to go to France immediately and to report back as soon as possible on the effectiveness of the measures being taken. So far as concerns labelling, I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Baroness. That is why I said in my first Answer that we shall press strongly for EU law to be amended to make this a legal requirement.

Business of the House: Christmas Recess

3.32 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I make a brief statement announcing the dates of the Christmas Recess. Subject to the progress of business, the House will sit at 11 a.m. on Thursday, 21st December, and rise for the Recess at the end of business that day. The House will return on Monday, 15th January.

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Business of the House: Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

Baroness Young: My Lords, I should like to raise a matter on the forward business for next week, of which I have given notice. Now that we have seen the forward business for next week, can the Leader of the House explain why it does not include the Report stage and Third Reading of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill? Does she not realise that this is a matter of great concern to many Members of this House, in another place and outside? It is particularly unfortunate because--as she will know--we on this side of the House have offered to waive all the normal intervals between the stages of the Bill in order to facilitate its passage through the House.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, I am delighted to respond to the noble Baroness's question. She will of course be aware that the usual channels will have discussed the organisation of business in the House, which is usually in the capable hands of my noble friend the Government Chief Whip. I understand that he wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, on 20th November on this subject, when he said that he was in consultation with the Home Office about the further progress and future of this Bill. He made it clear--it is obviously clearer still today--as the noble Baroness said, that there does not appear to be time to consider this issue further.

The decision has been made on the basis that the subject has been regularly discussed between the two Houses on three separate occasions under three separate Bills. My noble friend the Government Chief Whip has told me--he is very good at doing this kind of calculation--that, in the three Sessions in which it has been considered, it has had 48 hours of parliamentary time devoted to it. The recognition, in a practical sense, is that the House of Lords has, on each occasion when it has considered the matter, expressed a view different from and incompatible with that of the Commons, in which case the view of the Commons must prevail.

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