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Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Volume 175: debated on Thursday 28 June 1990

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Set-Aside Scheme


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps he is taking to review the workings of the set-aside scheme.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. David Curry)

We have been reviewing the scheme in the light of the first two years of operation and we shall be announcing decisions when the third year of the scheme opens.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the set-aside scheme will need significant changes if it is to be made acceptable to farmers and the public? Will he consider bringing forward cutting dates and supporting an extension of the countryside premium scheme? Most important, will he ensure that any proposals to support the so-called grazed fallow do not allow the grazing of additional breeding stock on set-aside land, because that would undermine the business of existing traditional livestock producers?

The Government recognise the great importance of the uplands for livestock grazing. However, there are anomalies in the present scheme. For example, if a farmer who has set-aside and livestock suffers from drought and runs out of fodder, he cannot use set-aside land to feed his livestock. There is a case for some flexibility, which would also be in the interest of the environment. If we make changes or introduce flexibility, they will be limited and designed to protect the traditional activities on the uplands, which I and 25 of my hon. Friends represent.

Notwithstanding the complex question of the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), is not he really saying that he wants farmers to get more money to watch the grass grow?

Watching the grass grow is an environmentally friendly activity and, of course, many wild species breed in the grass, so there is a good case for watching it grow. The scheme does not pay farmers to do nothing because they have to maintain their normal farming activity over the major part of the farm, and the taxpayer gets an extremely good deal for not having to finance surplus production on land that is set aside.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many parents of schoolchildren in Cleveland have made representations to him about BSE.

I have received representations about BSE from various organisations and individuals. I am sure that many parents of schoolchildren in Cleveland are unhappy that children compulsorily taught science and scientific values are now compulsorily being denied beef on entirely emotional grounds.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I should be surprised if any parents had written directly to the Ministry. There is no evidence from my postbag of any such representations from Cleveland parents. I have checked with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) and he has not had any either. Yet despite that, the Labour-controlled county council imposed a ban on beef long after most of the other county councils that did, damaging farming interests in the north-east and giving comfort to our competitors on the continent.

One should not judge the matter on the basis of whether this or that interest is damaged. One must judge it on the scientific basis of whether eating beef is safe. The chief medical officer said unequivocally that it is and the scientific advice given to the Government and the EC supported that statement. I find it odd that Cleveland county council considers that its local advice is better than the national advice.

I am sure that the Minister would not wish to mislead the House. Is he aware that good quality lean beef is still on the menu in Cleveland schools? What are not on the menu are products made from beef offal and mechanically recovered beef, and that is completely different. Is the Minister aware that Cleveland county council received advice from Professor Peter Blair of the department of environmental medicine, Newcastle university, and from Dr. Ted Holt at Middlesbrough general hospital, who specialises in BSE and scrapie? Therefore does the Minister accept that the subsequent decision was not alarmist but a sensible response to the representations of school governors, parents and teachers? Was not that a sensible approach when there was near panic on the continent of Europe?

I should have thought that, of all hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman would be careful about taking the medical advice of an individual of one sort or other. He knows how careful one has to be. Therefore, I say quite clearly that the chief medical officer, an independent person, made it clear that, in all the areas that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, beef is safe to eat. The European Community's scientific advice is exactly the same, as is the advice given to the Government. Science cannot be taught, and we cannot expect it to be accepted in our schools, if local education committees refuse to accept scientific advice and proceed on an emotional basis.

It is, Mr. Speaker.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in seeking to reassure the schoolchildren of Cleveland and other British citizens about the purity and safety of British beef, he has been greatly frustrated in his task by a bogus professor and by Opposition Members who make completely unsubstantiated claims, unscientifically based, about the possible dangers, as they see it, of British beef?

I think that my hon. Friend would want me to be clear that my first priority is to protect the health of the nation. I have absolutely no other priority. Great damage has been done by the creation of unnecessary anxiety. Part of that damage is that our ability to warn people where warnings are necessary has been undermined, as we found, for example, on the contamination of seafood. Yes, we must stand firm on the fact that British beef is safe to eat for adults, children and even the most vulnerable. I hope that Cleveland will soon reverse its ban.

Does the Minister appreciate that parents in Cleveland are often also pet owners? Does he realise that many of them, in the same way as pet owners elsewhere, are deeply concerned that four cats have been verified as having died of spongiform encephalopathy and that a further 20 are suspected of having done so? Will the Minister grapple with that problem and take decisive action by banning the use of cattle and sheep offal in all pet food?

I think that hon. Members will agree that we are concerned about the interests of pet owners and pets. But I wonder why the hon. Gentleman has moved the question from the subject of schoolchildren in Cleveland. Is it because he does not agree with Cleveland county council's ban? The hon. Gentleman's figures are completely wrong. Twenty cats were tested and found not to have an encephalopathy. Four cats—and I announced the figures one by one, of course—were found to have one, but there is no evidence that any of them were connected with BSE.

Food Safety


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the National Federation of Women's Institutes to discuss food safety.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. David Maclean)

Representatives of the National Federation of Women's Institutes were present at the first periodic meeting on 3 April 1990 between my right hon. Friend and consumer organisations. The next meeting is planned for 12 July. In addition, I had a meeting with the women's institutes on 16 January.

The Minister will shortly be receiving representations from the National Federation of Women's Institutes about the problem of bovine somatotropin, when he will be asked to use all his efforts to have the product banned in the European Community and not to grant a licence for its use. Will he take those points on board and respond to them?

I read carefully the motion that was passed at the WI conference, and I have no hesitation in saying that there is no question of the British Government allowing any product, including BST, to be used in this country unless it fully satisfies licensing requirements. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is currently a moratorium on BST imposed by the European Community, which we are content to go along with.

When my hon. Friend next meets that august body of ladies, will he explain that one of the most likely consequences of the BST threat will be an increase of beef imports from countries in South America and Africa, where regulations against diseases such as foot and mouth and tuberculosis are far less stringent than here? Does not that represent the real threat to food safety in this country? Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour Front-Bench spokesmen who have done so much to stir up fears about BST ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the high standard of foodstuffs in this country, especially beef. I can reassure him that we do not allow into this country any food that poses a health risk, so the concerns that he expresses about beef from other parts of the world should not materialise. He is also right to condemn the official Opposition, just as they were condemned by every party in the House when my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food delivered his statement late on Thursday 7 June, after returning from negotiations in Brussels. They were rightly condemned because they were seeking to create a new myth that, somehow or other, the British housewife is less well protected than the foreign housewife—and that is just not true.

When the Minister meets WI representatives, will he discuss with them the authoritative study by the Audit Commission showing that almost one in eight food premises in England and Wales presented a significant or imminent health risk? Given that it has been deliberate Government policy to reduce support for environmental health officers and that we are now more than 400 officers short, will the Minister announce a reversal of that policy and an increase in the number of trained inspectors and environmental health officers?

If the WI does not put that item on the agenda, I should certainly like to do so. I warmly welcome the Audit Commission's findings on food safety enforcement, and if environmental health officers discover in their survey a certain number of premises that do not come up to standard, they will have the Government's full backing in taking action against them. That is why the Food Safety Bill was passed in another place yesterday. It provides an extra £30 million for enforcement and gives new powers to environmental health officers to take action against the unacceptable minority. We have some of the finest food in the world here and we will not let a minority of filthy, scruffy takeaways or downmarket restaurants or shops destroy the reputation of the majority of our excellent eating establishments.

Food Exports


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what contribution the food industry has made to Britain's export performance in the current year.

In the year to March 1990, United Kingdom exports of food and drink amounted to nearly £5·7 billion, about 6 per cent. of the total value of our visible exports.

My hon. Friend gives slightly more encouraging figures than has been the trend in recent years. As he is widely acknowledged as a gourmet, he will know that British raw materials for food are about the best in the world. What are the Government doing to encourage people abroad to benefit in the same way from British food? Given that the food and drink industry is the largest employer and the largest industry in the European Community, and that many of the largest companies are multinational, we must ensure that our products are available throughout the Community on a wider basis after 1992.

I agree with my hon. Friend. As he will know, we have just appointed Mr. Paul Judge as the new chairman of Food From Britain, which is our major promotional arm, and which has been endowed with £3.5 million. The Government will contribute £1 for every £3 raised by business to promote British food. This is an important issue, and we intend to ensure that British food is widely available on the continent because of its excellence.

Fish and shellfish form part of our exports. As regards the export of farmed Scottish salmon, what action is the Minister taking to persuade the European Commission to institute anti-dumping measures against Norwegian farmed salmon producers? Was not that one of the recommendations in yesterday's Agriculture Select Committee report on "Fish Farming in the UK"? What action are the Government taking to persuade the Commission to sort out that dumping problem?

The Government have actively promoted the anti-dumping case on behalf of farmed salmon producers in the United Kingdom. I have spoken directly to the Norwegian Minister responsible for trade about the issue. I understand that in recent months there has been some relief, in the sense that the Norwegians have taken certain measures, and that prices of farmed salmon have begun to recover. This is a most important issue, and we shall continue to press the case with the Commission until we are certain that competition is fair throughout the Community.

Will my hon. Friend hold discussions with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that the food industry has the backing of our offices abroad as far as possible, especially because of the difficulties that some food industries have encountered with counterfeiting, so that we may increase exports by the food industry and that great British companies, in particular, confectionary companies, do not continue to suffer in this way—and Kit Kat can be exported without the problem of counterfeit Kit Kit?

I shall certainly undertake to discuss that matter with my friends from the Department of Trade and Industry. My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently visited several countries in eastern Europe with the specific purpose of promoting, among other things, British food exports and exports of British food-producing machinery to those countries.

Scotch Whisky


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he plans to meet the representatives of the Scotch whisky industry; and what subjects he expects to be raised.

I shall discuss anything that the industry wants, provided that it is within my competence.

Will the Minister discuss the concern of the Scottish Consumer Council about the introduction of the 25 ml measure to replace the existing choice of measures, normally a quarter or a fifth of a gill in Scotland and a sixth of a gill in England? As that would mean a slight increase in the normal measure served in English pubs, but a decrease of about 12 per cent. in the average measure in a Scottish pub, will the Government intervene to ensure the retention of a choice of measures, or at the very least, to ensure that the Scottish punter gets the benefit of at least a 12 per cent. cut in price for the metric short measure?

This appears to be yet another example of the Scots getting more per capita than the English. I shall certainly mention it to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. Of course, we want to ensure that consumers throughout the United Kingdom have the benefit of the excellent product that is made in Scotland.

When my hon. Friend discusses with the Scotch whisky industry its future, will he draw attention to its splendid record in the export market and to the fact that the quality of its products—worth £1,000 million of exports every year—has been protected by the Scotch Whisky Act 1988? Can my hon. Friend say what stage we have reached with the implementation of that Act and the subsequent orders?

As my hon. Friend will know, because he has taken a strong interest in the matter—indeed, he promoted the Scotch Whisky Bill—the Scotch Whisky Order 1990, which protects minimum strength and defines Scotch, was passed by the House last month, and the spirits Drinks Order, which adds the final touch to the process, is to complete its passage today. That gives the Government an excellent record in protecting and promoting Scotch whisky.

When the Minister meets representatives of the industry, will he discuss with them the difficulties of small independent brewers who, following the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report, expected—

The small independent brewers expected to introduce guest beers into some of the larger breweries' pubs. Will the Minister meet—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is rather wide of the question, which is about whisky, not beer. I hope that he will finish his remarks quickly.

The small independent brewers also wish to retail Scotch. Will the Minister meet his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and ensure that those small independent brewers can sell Scotch whisky and their own beers over the counter in pubs throughout the land?

The hon. Gentleman is clearly used to drinking his Scotch with a beer chaser, even if he had some difficulty in accommodating whisky in his question. I also represent a constituency that has an outstandingly small brewery, which brews the beer "Old Peculier" in particular, and I shall of course ensure that I do my best to protect the interests of the small artisanal beer producer.

Consumer Panel


to ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when his consumer panel last met; and what matters were discussed.

The last meeting of the consumer panel was on 2 May 1990. We discussed a wide range of issues, including water quality, food labelling, BSE, food irradiation and hygiene training for food handlers. A copy of the minutes of the meeting is in the Library of the House.

Does the Minister agree with the recent Consumers Association report, which says that the public are losing confidence in the Ministry's assertions about all the recent food scares? The Consumers Association says that the "bland assurances" that the public have received have failed to reassure them on a whole range of issues and that what is needed is an independent food agency. Does the Minister agree with our view that we need a food standard agency, independent of both the industry and the Government, which can give the public and the consumer the assurances that they need?

Despite the best attempts of the official Opposition to rubbish British beef, more than 80 per cent. of our consumers are still buying it because they are content to believe the assurances of the British Government, the independent experts who advise us and the chief medical officer. The hon. Gentleman asks for a source of independent advice. What does he think the Food Advisory Committee, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, the Veterinary Products Committee, the Tyrrell committee and the Southwood committee are there for? The hon. Gentleman asks for independent advice, but when we get such advice and act on it, the Labour party goes out and tries to rubbish the self-same advice that it claims it would like to believe.

When my hon. Friend next meets the consumer panel, will he impress on its members the remarkable contribution that is made to our economy by the agricultural sector of the food industry? Will he express his regret that the efforts of the farmers of Britain should be undermined and maligned at every possible opportunity by the Opposition, when they should be praised for their productivity, dedication and effectiveness?

I think that the official Opposition will regret some of the wilder statements that they have made about British beef and other food issues in the past few months. British consumers realise, as my right hon. Friend said on the day when he was made Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that farmers' interests and consumers' interests are one. If the consumer is satisfied with the quality of our food, that is in the interests of our farmers who produce such excellent food.

After months of adverse publicity, does the Minister agree that it would be advantageous for consumers and producers in Britain if hon. Members or official agriculture spokesmen from every political party in the House were to issue a joint statement saying that British beef and British foodstuffs are healthier than any others in the world?

I wholeheartedly endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said. It is notable that throughout this issue he has followed the scientific advice and accepted the facts as given to him and he has been supported by the Welsh nationalists, by the various Irish parties and by all other parties present in the House late on Thursday 7 June. The hon. Gentleman's remarks are very welcome and I support his initiative.

Food Research


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how much he plans to spend from his Department's funds on food research in the current year.

My Department plans to spend more than £20 million on food research in 1990–91, of which more than £15 million is earmarked for safety, hygiene, applied nutrition and consumer protection.

Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that that considerable sum is being invested in food research which responds to public concern about food safety and which also highlights the high standards of our food processors and packagers? Will he give examples of the different forms of research being carried out?

As we are concerned with more than 800 different projects at the moment, my hon. Friend will understand if I do not go through them all in detail. We are trying not only to respond to the public disquiet about this and that, but to ensure that there is no public disquiet about things which might arise. When I visited the food research laboratories in Norwich recently, I was interested to see a wide range of research, all of which will help to ensure that British food continues to be the safest in the world.

Is the Minister aware that on the east coast, and especially on the east coast of Scotland, sprats are caught by Scandinavian fishermen, taken to Scandinavia for canning and brought back here labelled as sardines? Surely the British consumer has the right to know what the product is and where it comes from. Will the Minister have a word with his counterparts in the Scandinavian countries to ensure that at least the labelling is correct so that consumers know what they are buying?

I am not sure that in this case the labelling would have a direct effect on the safety of the sprats or sardines when eaten, but if there is a problem in terms of misleading the consumer I shall be happy to take it up at once because it is a fundamental principle of the Ministry that we ensure that the consumer has full information so that he can make his own decisions and not have them forced on him by others who think that they know best.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House and many worried people in Britain whether any of the money that he proposes to spend will go to Professor Lacey and his research?

When we choose the recipients of money for research, we do so on the advice of their peers—their scientific equals. One of the difficulties with some people who seek to do research is that they are not over-eager to provide information about their research to their scientific equals or to the committees set up to judge them.

Live Exports


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the animal welfare implications of the trade in live exports.

There are detailed controls to ensure that animals leave this country rested, fed and watered, and inspected. We shall seek to maintain proper welfare safeguards under the proposed Community measures on transport of animals.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that there is a lobby today on this issue and that there is great concern that the new EC rules will remove measures that the House has seen fit to pass to protect animals being transported in terms of where they go and the conditions in which they are transported. Horses are not exported live at present, but they could be in the future.

Will the Secretary of State take every possible step and fight every inch of the way to defend the existing Government protections which apply to animals in Britain and which far exceed the protections in other parts of the EC? If necessary, will he invoke article 36 which allows us to prevent free trade on issues of public morality so that we can protect those animals?

I have already said, some months ago, that I want to increase European Community standards on animal welfare across the board. I notice that today's lobby is led by Compassion in World Farming. I cannot manage matters outside the Community, but we have to solve the problem of animal welfare not only in Britain but throughout the Community. Some of the proposals that have been put forward could harm the welfare of animals in the rest of Europe by raising standards here but not throughout Europe. It is a European matter and I am determined to take the lead in that regard.

The Government will fight all the way along the line for the present system of minimum value for the export of live horses. Other animals are subject to EC rules, so those rules must be of the highest standard. There is no possibility of using article 36. I am advised quite clearly that it would not apply.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement about the export of horses, but can I persuade him to accept the view of the British Veterinary Association that animals should be slaughtered as close to the point of production as possible? Will he seek to put that view to his allies in the European Community?

Our purpose is to raise standards throughout the European Community. The problem with the transport of live animals is that many other countries in the European Community do not share the view of the British Veterinary Association. My job is to get the best answer that we can and then to improve on it. My hon. Friend has my wholehearted support in her efforts to bring pressure on my allies in the European Community. On the matter of animal welfare, the number of my allies could do with some augmentation.

I appreciate that the Secretary of State is a voracious carnivore and likely to eat anything with legs other than a table, but is he aware that, despite his assurances to the House, a great deal of suffering is still caused to animals moved out of Britain for slaughter? Would not it be better, and meet the demands of the great majority of people in Britain, if no live animals were allowed to leave our shores for slaughter on the continent?

The fact is that that would be illegal, and this country stands by the law. Under European Community regulations, there has to be the movement of live animals. My job is to improve those regulations. The hon. Gentleman blames the European Community, but at least in the European Community we have a chance to raise standards for all animals in Europe, or perhaps the hon. Gentleman takes such an insular view that he cares only about British animals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that since, on grounds of animal welfare, we ended the system of rearing calves in veal crates, there has been a massive increase in the number of calves exported to France, Belgium and the Netherlands? About 1,000 calves per day are now exported to those countries. What proportion of those calves does my right hon. Friend believe are being reared in the very crates that we sought to abolish in Britain?

My hon. Friend puts his finger exactly on the point. If we do not raise standards throughout Europe, we shall make changes at home, for estimable reasons, only to find that the situation is worse in the rest of the continent. For that reason, three days ago I took the lead in the European Community Council to press for higher standards which would eliminate the very practices to which my hon. Friend refers. We now have a new programme which will make major changes in the rearing of calves and also the way in which pigs are cared for. I hope that that will be a further earnest of our determination to improve animal welfare throughout the Community.

Toxic Algae


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether his Department has carried out research into links between the recent toxic algae outbreak on the east coast and pollution.

The evidence is that blooms of toxic algae are naturally occurring and are triggered primarily by combinations of calm water and good sunlight.

I accept the Minister's answer, but does he agree that the emergence of a 300-mile toxic algal scum slick shows that using the North sea as an international flush lavatory is not doing the quality of the water any good? Does he further agree that we need an international agreement to stop these long sea outfalls? In the light of the comments made yesterday by the Minister of Sport about the effluent tendency, does he agree that the main body of people in this country with a tendency towards effluent are Ministers?

The hon. Gentleman is getting his science mixed up. There is no link between the production of these blooms and pollution. They were first noticed in 1814, which was mainly a pre-industrial society. The most recent manifestation was on the west coast of Scotland. It is difficult to get further than that from population centres or intensive agriculture. That supports the evidence that it is naturally occurring. In only five years since 1968 has some warning not had to be posted, so the relationship between that phenomenon and what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting is impossible to prove.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Ministry must accept that there is a nexus between nutrients and growth? Does he agree that nitrates and phosphates are fed on greedily by algae? Although they must have benign warm conditions in which to flourish, if their source of food were reduced or cut off they would not grow to the extent that they are growing at present.

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct, but nitrates and phosphates occur naturally in the water, as they did at the beginning of the 19th century when the phenomenon was first noticed. There is no link between the discharge of sewage into the North sea, which we have undertaken to stop, and these blooms.

The House cannot accept that at all. We know very well that phosphates increase algal bloom. I urge the Minister to listen carefully to the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment. Will he confirm that the Ministry's scientists have said that one of the reasons why the outbreak was so long and intense was that there was a constant source of nutrients in the sea off the east coast, the main source of which is raw sewage dumping and raw sewage outfalls?

That is simply not the case. The blooms appeared because currents brought the seeds to the surface, where they were in warm water and sunlight. That has occurred around Britain's coast, most recently in the west of Scotland, where there are no population centres or major intensive farming which would supplement the water with nutrients, so the link simply has not been established.



To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what effect the EEC directive on minced meat will have on the future of the British sausage.

The Government will fight to ensure that future Community measures will have no adverse effect on the British sausage.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as currently drafted, the EC proposals endanger the future of the British sausage after 1990? Does he agree that it is a safe, succulent, satisfying snack and with mash it is almost superlative? The British public enjoy £500 million worth of sausages each year. The proposals will do nothing to improve food hygiene and are likely to increase the cost of this most estimable product to the British consumer. If we have no objection to other countries' salami and bratwurst, why can they not leave our toad in the hole alone?

My hon. Friend has made a number of valid points. Many of us in the House have moved straight from the baby's bottle to the British banger. The proposed draft directives will have no effect on hygiene requirements for the existing British sausage. People in the House and outside who want to eat raw minced beef or steak tartare can choose to do so, but the millions of people in Britain who want to eat cooked British sausages do not need unnecessary EC rules.

Does the Minister accept that the logic of the rules may not be to improve hygiene, but to achieve unfair competition and commercial advantage at the expense of manufacturers in this country, which could lead to the loss of valuable jobs in many areas, including my constituency? Will the Minister ensure that he stands up and fights for the future of those jobs?

I will certainly do that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take to task the Opposition agriculture spokesman who said that he would refuse to eat British beef sausages, when there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. We all understand the necessity for tougher rules on minced beef which might be eaten raw, but there is no need for the rules about cooked sausages.