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Cattle Disposal Scheme

Volume 572: debated on Tuesday 7 May 1996

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6 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question which has been asked in another place on what progress has now been made in giving effect to the 30-month cattle disposal scheme and whether a Statement will be made.

"Slaughtering started in Scotland on Friday and elsewhere in the UK today. Some 104 livestock markets and some 72 abattoirs have been approved as collection centres. I anticipate substantially increasing activity as the week proceeds and see no reason why the scheme should not be fully operational by the end of this week. I have made it clear that all operators in the meat business will have to work together to make the 30-month cattle scheme a success. I met representatives of livestock markets together with a number of abattoir representatives this morning. I am seeing the renderers tomorrow.

"These are the crucial steps in the chain. Large numbers of animals have to be processed and I will need to ensure that this is done as speedily as possible so that farmers can have surplus stock off their fields and quite reasonably be paid compensation as quickly as possible. At all times we have to have regard to the welfare of the animals concerned and the need to restore consumer confidence. This scheme is being put in place as part of a number of measures to help restore confidence in British beef; it is a novel scheme without precedent and we have sought to set it up with all possible speed.

"Farmers, livestock markets, abattoirs and renderers have to work together—they do so normally and they have to do so now. I intend every day to see representatives of all the main interests to deal with any problems that might arise, but hope that it is not long before the scheme no longer requires daily ministerial involvement. Farmers will, I am sure, recognise that there are a large number of animals that have to he culled and that they cannot all be culled immediately. As the House will know, there is finite rendering capacity, so I am examining with all speed whether and what possible further cold store capacity can be brought into play to help accelerate the scheme.

"I well appreciate the concerns of everyone in this House that this scheme operates fully and efficiently without delay. I promise to keep honourable Members regularly updated on progress and am determined that this scheme will make a positive contribution to our wider aim of restoring confidence in British beef as speedily as possible".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

6.3 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement that was made in another place. I declare an interest as someone who is involved in dairy farming. Tomorrow it will be seven weeks since the first Statement was made on this matter. How many cattle have been slaughtered so far? The Minister said that the scheme will be up and running by the end of this week. Does he mean that the slaughtering will take place at the rate of 20,000 per week by the end of this week, which is of course the normal slaughtering figure? Is the Minister also aware of the statement made today by the chairman of Unilever that the BSE fiasco is in the UK and not in Europe and that the answer has to be found in the UK?

Last Friday Farmers Weekly referred to chaos and shambles. There are also reports that the Meat Hygiene Service does not have enough qualified staff to deal with the matter. Can the Minister tell the House what is happening with the proposed exemptions from the slaughter scheme? I am sure he knows that this is extremely important for beef farmers who are producing prime beef which has had no exposure to BSE. As I understand it, at the moment they are still caught by the scheme. We were told some time ago that there would be an exemptions scheme. Can the Minister tell the House what is happening as regards the exemptions scheme?

As part of the slaughter disposal, what has happened to the selective slaughter scheme that was proposed as a bargaining counter in Brussels but was rejected? Most farmers, who are aware that they would be affected by this selective slaughter scheme if it were introduced, are now in limbo. They do not know what will happen. Is the scheme to be revived? Is it a part of the carcass disposal scheme? Is it to be left on the table as a bargaining counter for months until it is decided in Brussels and Luxembourg what it is proposed to do about the export ban? If the Minister could explain what is happening over that scheme, that would be extremely helpful.

On today's early morning farming programme and today in the Statement the Minister of State, Mr. Baldry, proudly announced that now—I believe it will start tomorrow—there will be a daily meeting with all the various interests involved, including the NFU, the CLA, the renderers, the slaughterers, the meat wholesalers and the rest. But we have had to wait seven weeks for this to happen. Why did this not happen on day one? Is there no contingency planning in MAFF or in the Department of Health?

We still have the problem of the feed ban. Some 27,000 animals have been born since the feed ban was introduced. The Minister's noble friend Lord Lucas confirmed in a previous Statement that there has been some malpractice either on farms or in the feed mills, or both. What action do the Government propose to take on this matter? It is clear that the feed ban has been transgressed; otherwise there would be much more serious and more worrying questions about the 27,000 animals which have been born since the ban was introduced. If the Government admit that there has been a substantial transgression of the feed ban, will the Minister tell the House what action they propose to take?

My honourable friend Dr. Gavin Strang has asked for an inquiry into the matter but the Government have rejected that. What alternative action is proposed? We are not being wise after the event. In 1990 we as an Opposition asked for the banning of the use of ruminant protein in all forms of animal feed, not just in ruminant feed but also in pig and poultry feed. That was rejected by the Government six years ago. Now they have introduced the measure, but the effect of their rejection six years ago is the problem of the 27,000 animals which have been born since the ban was introduced. I remind the House that the Prime Minister told my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition only last Thursday that the confusion surrounding this scheme was being examined and investigated and that he hoped that it would be resolved speedily. We can all agree with that, but if we have to go by what has happened so far, it will not be quick.

Does the Minister accept that it is vital that we stop BSE at source? As I said, there must be an investigation into why 67 per cent. of new BSE cases are now in cattle which were born after the ruminant feed ban. As hundreds of thousands of older cattle—perhaps up to 800,000—are to be destroyed under this scheme, does the Minister agree that a live test for BSE has become all the more important and that, if there were any delay on the part of the Government in the establishment of such a test, that would be unforgivable? Having taken the decision that there would be both a live and a deadweight option for the 30-month rule, I should point out to the Minister that it is the duty of the Government to ensure that the compensation arrangements are fair not only to farmers but also to the other sections of the meat and livestock industry and to taxpayers.

We all want to see the lifting of the export ban, but I hope that the Government will accept that we have to restore confidence to consumers—not just consumers in this country but consumers in Europe—but also to our European partners if we are to get the export ban lifted. I suggest that what has happened so far does not exactly give anyone confidence. Last week I asked a Starred Question about the use of the Food Safety Act, which requires the Government to show an imminent risk to public health before introducing a slaughter policy at all. We are told constantly that beef is safe, so where is the imminent risk to public health? I understand that there is now to be a legal challenge to the whole of the slaughter policy from the beef trade on the basis of the use of the Food Safety Act. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.

The NFU has approached first the British courts and now, I understand, the European Court of Justice. The Government have said constantly that they are proposing to challenge the ban in the European Court of Justice. I suggested here last week that they should use Article 186 of the treaty to seek interim relief. Will the Minister say when the Government propose to start proceedings in this matter?

We now have 120,000 cattle stacked on farms waiting for the scheme to get under way. All the parties involved wonder what they are supposed to do and how they are to be paid. Our European partners await clear policies to show that the eradication of BSE is being substantially speeded up. The whole morass is overlaid by actual or potential appeals to national and European law. The Government must get hold of the problem and give clear leadership. If they do so, we shall certainly support them.

6.10 p.m.

My Lords, I shall not repeat all the admirable arguments put forward. However, after seven weeks it does not look as though we are getting on as well as we should have done had the planning been right.

Certain facts are worth repeating. We know that without doubt the great spread of BSE in Britain has been due to feed. Since that time we have slaughtered 160,000 animals. However, from all quarters we have indications that the ban on the use of SBO rendered bonemeal has not been effective. The Government have to make up their minds to set in motion a sensible plan to accelerate the decline of BSE in this country.

Many of the proposed measures appear reasonable if they are put into effect. The capacity of the industry—whether that of renderers, or as regards total destruction through large premises—has to be the limit to which we stick. I do not believe that the Government should bargain with Europe. If they have a sensible plan to tackle the problem—by eliminating the obvious cases, using the 30 months scheme with sensible exceptions, and so on—they should stick to it.

On the Government's own admission they are not sure whether BSE can be passed on through the mother or by proximity. They hedge their bets. As regards heavily affected BSE dairy herds, there is no doubt that in order to give confidence a policy of slaughter in those herds might well be followed.

The Government should stick to their guns, apply those guns with a reasonable aim, and get things going. After seven weeks a lot of confusion exists. The Minister must have read all the farming press. Every single publication wonders what the devil is happening and is not satisfied that a competent scheme is in being.

One of the long-term factors is that without doubt manufacturers of cattle food should have to state the content on the bag. A number of these factors stick out a mile. The next two weeks will be absolutely vital. However, at present it does not look as though the farming community knows where it is going or where the Government are going, and whether all the matters to which the noble Earl referred, such as compensation, and so on, will be applied. I await with interest what the Minister has to say.

My Lords, I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, that we fully understand why the farming press and farming community seek answers to some of the aspects of the schemes, especially the 30 month scheme which is a massive scheme. It poses immense logistical problems. It is a scheme where we have pre-empted and anticipated many of the problems that would arise. But inevitably the scheme is throwing up other teething problems. We are in the business of solving those problems as soon as they are identified. However, the scheme is worth between £500 million and £600 million to the farming community in its first year of operation. It is absolutely vital both to the farming community and to consumer confidence. It is unprecedented. The scheme seeks to reverse the usual flow of the industry. The industry seeks to produce beef for consumption. This scheme seeks to remove that beef from the consumers' market. Therefore, no one should underestimate the challenge that the scheme poses and the effort involved in getting it into place.

I accept that the farming community, and tens of thousands of livestock farmers, seek answers to questions. Across the United Kingdom they have all received letters, in some cases two letters, from the relevant ministries. The farming press has carried advertisements from the relevant ministries. We have provided helpline numbers, and so forth. We are determined that farmers have the information and that we solve the problems.

I will not accept from the noble Lord, Lord Carter, that this is a UK fiasco or that there is a lack of leadership.

My Lords, it was the chairman of Unilever who said that. All I did was to repeat what he said.

My Lords, the noble Lord repeated it. If he seeks to ignore the European dimension of this saga, he is fooling himself and possibly others in the House. The domestic beef market is back to over 80 per cent. of its pre-crisis levels across many areas. It is the export ban which has caused so much chaos in terms of consumer confidence over a wider area. There is not a shred of scientific justification for the ban. It is unprincipled. It is disproportionate. I resent the fact that the noble Lord continues to apologise for the ban and refuses to condemn or deplore it. We think that the ban is worthy of action in the European Court. I have explained that it has no scientific basis whatsoever. It has done untold damage across the European markets. The German market is down 50 per cent. at the moment; the Portuguese market is down 80 per cent. It is that ban, introduced without any logic whatsoever, which has done a huge amount of damage.

We are producing the staff and resources for the MHS. We are consulting at present on the exemptions; we went out to consultation on Friday. We are pursuing an important initiative. We are consulting with the industry on the selective slaughter scheme. I remind the House that the commissioner himself called it logical and rational, and felt that there was no credible alternative. However, agriculture Ministers in other European countries did not share the good sense of the commissioner. That remains on the table. We shall continue to negotiate from that position.

If we proceed with that or any other scheme we shall do so only with the agreement of Parliament, the industry and our own veterinary scientists. We shall not depart on some sacrificial route simply to appease European feelings.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, suggested that the announcement made by my honourable friend the Minister of State in another place about daily meetings with the industry is somewhat tardy. All four agriculture departments have consulted and liaised extremely closely with their industries throughout the BSE crisis. My honourable friend announced today that in England he would have daily meetings to ensure that the 30 months scheme was running as well as possible.

In Scotland, as in the other territories, we have had very good relations with the industries involved. On Friday, we killed 100 cattle under the 30 months scheme. We expect to kill 500 today. I do not have with me the figures for the other territories. However, I repeat what my honourable friend said in another place: that by the end of this week the scheme should be up and running.

The vital figures which neither noble Lord should forget, especially when addressing the subject of cases in cattle born after the ban and the possibility of a feed inquiry, are those which illustrate how steeply incidences of BSE are declining in the United Kingdom. I can give the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, the Scottish figures immediately. In 1993 we had 2,200 cases. By 1995 we were down to 600 cases. This year we anticipate just 300 cases. The same rate of decline has been recorded across the United Kingdom.

Referring specifically to born-after-the-ban cases, 84 per cent. of all such cattle were born in the second half of 1988 and during 1989. Only 3,140 animals born in 1990 became born-after-the-ban cases. That figure has fallen; only one calf born in 1993 became a born-after-the-ban case. Therefore, the trend is very steeply downwards. That is why we must approach any selective slaughter scheme with great care.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, suggested that we ignore the European dimension of the proposal and go ahead with it on a unilateral basis with no linkage to European negotiations. Our own veterinary scientists say, and the SEAC advice is, that the rate of decline of BSE in this country is so fast anyway that in terms of human or animal health there is no need to supplement it with this proposal. However, given the importance of the European diplomatic challenge and of removing the ban, it is worth considering a logical supplement. That is what characterises the selective slaughter proposal currently on the table.

I address my last point to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie. The export ban is having a disproportionate effect in Northern Ireland and Scotland. It is vital that we use any means possible to remove it. If there is leverage in a selective slaughter proposal, we should use it.

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked an important question about the exceptions to the 30-month scheme. What progress has been made in dealing with the Galloways, Highland cattle and so on?

My Lords, I answered the question but briefly and at speed. The consultation document went out to the farming industry on Friday 3rd May. We regard it as being an absolute priority for the specialist breeds which may be grass-fed and herds which fall into the category of never having been connected with a case of BSE during the past six years. There is a strong case for exemptions being awarded rapidly and we regard it as an urgent priority.

My Lords, my noble friend referred to the ban on exports being challenged in the European Court. Has that challenge been put in? If so, when is it expected that it will be heard by the European Court? I shall be grateful if my noble friend could answer that and also give whatever estimate the Government have of the number of animals that will be slaughtered as a result of the cull.

My Lords, as regards the ban, we are launching our action within a matter of days. I cannot inform my noble friend with any accuracy of the likely timetable that will be pursued within the Court. However, as soon as it becomes known I hope that both my noble friend and the House will be informed. As regards the number of animals involved in the proposed selective cull, to which my noble friend referred, the approximate figure at the moment is 42,000. We regard those 42,000 cattle as being at the highest risk of contracting BSE at a later date. If, at any stage, there are developments in finding a live test through technology, it will pre-empt the need for selective culls and other programmes which involve the culling of cattle.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I rather regret the attitude that continues to come across from the Government of seeming to blame Europe for all their problems. We need to recognise that there is to a great extent a lack of knowledge and therefore difficulty in deciding who is right, who is wrong and what action should or should not be taken. One area where we are not faced so much with that problem is the feed ban. It was, I understand, a legal requirement on the feed industry to stop using SBOs in feed production. That is a legal requirement. Last week we were told by the Minister that the ban appeared to have been broken and that contaminated animal feed stuffs—cattle feed—have been supplied. First, what powers do the Government have to seek financial redress, whether by fines or levies on the feed industry, to recover the public moneys expended in dealing with the problem so far? The number of animals which have succumbed to BSE over the past five or six years is enormous and the cost to the Exchequer significant. What powers do the Government have to obtain financial redress from the feed manufacturers? Secondly, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that they extract money from those companies which presumably made significant profits because of their illegal activities over the past five or six years?

My Lords, in regard to the 30-month cattle disposal scheme, those in this House who saw how the Speaker controlled the other place during the discussion will realise that she kept the House firmly focused on the question. The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, has gone wide of the subject in his remarks; nevertheless I shall answer them. We do not necessarily seek to blame Europe in isolation of all other factors that pertain to the case. However, the fact is that the ban was imposed without any scientific evidence. It was imposed world-wide on our exports. We feel that that is of doubtful legality. So, both in terms of the science and of the injustice of such a move, we have strong feelings.

As regards SBOs and feed production, I remind the noble Lord of what I said to the noble Lords, Lord Carter, and Lord Mackie. With the incidence of BSE reducing so significantly, it is clear that the regulations on SBOs and feed have broadly worked. However, the SEAC recommendations of late March recognised that it was doubly important to ensure that it was not possible for ruminants to gain access to SBO protein in their food. Therefore, in case there had been leakage in the feed mills or on farms where farmers were running both ruminants and non-ruminants, it was decided that all livestock feed should exclude SBOs as a constituent. If any feed company is found to fail to comply with any regulations, then prosecutions will be considered. It is simple.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether it is true that, as has been suggested, exemptions could be made on a regional basis? Is there any possibility of that idea being taken up, particularly for the part of the country for which he is personally responsible?

My Lords, despite the obvious incentive for an agriculture Minister from Scotland to seek an exemption for Scotland, there is no basis on which we can logically hope to claim a regional exemption at the moment. Both the farming industry and we ourselves realise, as is confirmed by veterinary scientists, that the incidence and pattern of BSE in Scotland are such that we cannot convincingly defend a regional exemption.

What we can hope to achieve through more specific exemptions, such as those based on specific herds, is that a wide area of Scotland can become exempt. If we approach exemption on those criteria, we can defend it to our critics; we can defend it to those in the media who might perhaps seek to debunk any part of the UK seeking exemption. There is a strong basis on which we can defend such an action. The farming unions have looked very closely at that, and we are as one on the subject.

My Lords, will the Minister agree that, unlike many on the Continent, British consumers are to be commended for not being hysterical hypochondriacs in this matter, given that beef sales here are only 20 per cent. down as compared with 50 per cent. in many parts of the Continent?

My Lords, I commend British consumers for being so resolute in the face of the hysteria that has swept through some areas. Much of our beef market is up to 85 per cent. of pre-crisis levels. We welcome back the Wimpy burger chain—although we do not feel that it should have left in the first place. Its return to buying British beef is a welcome move. As the noble Lord said, there are other domestic markets in Europe which are suffering losses at the moment in excess of 50 per cent. of their usual domestic beef purchase levels.

My Lords, I believe I heard my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie say that it stood out a mile that we should go ahead with the labelling of feedstuffs. I did not hear the Minister reply to that. Perhaps he thought it a little wide of the Statement. But it is an extremely important point. Perhaps the Minister will say what the Government are doing in that respect.

My Lords, we agree with the noble Lord that the labelling of feedstuffs is absolutely vital, as indeed are the constituents. We therefore expect the labelling to indicate to the farmer what is in the product that he purchases for his animals.

My Lords, I hope the Government manage to get a speedy decision from the Court, particularly as regards the worldwide ban. On first examination that seems to go far beyond any power that the Union could have. There is much criticism of the action taken by the European Union. However, we must remember that this disease has prevailed for nearly 10 years in large numbers of cattle in this country. We can hardly say that Europe acted terribly precipitately when it put the ban into operation. That does not mean that I differ in any way from the views of the Government in trying to get the ban lifted as soon as possible.

My noble friend Lord Carter spoke about the number of animals that had been born infected during a period when it was assumed that there was no feeding of the wrong material. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, mentioned two possibilities. He suggested that the disease could be passed from mother to calf; he also suggested contagion as a possibility. Do the Government accept those as possibilities? If so, what examination is being undertaken of that aspect of the matter?

My Lords, I am grateful that the noble Lord, given where he sits in the House, is prepared to condemn the worldwide element of the European ban. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, and myself have now been through six or seven Statements. I keep waiting for the noble Lord, the Opposition spokesman on agriculture in this House, to deplore or condemn the ban in the same way as his noble colleague did.

My Lords, in a debate in this House on 17th April, my noble friend Lord Richard and I pointed out that, under the directive, the ban was illegal. We pressed the Government to take action. It is no good condemning it. We must take the matter to court because the decision is illegal.

My Lords, that is exactly what we are doing.

The second point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, related to the possibility of horizontal/vertical transmission, as the two pathways named by scientists, either between mothers and calves or between cattle in the same area. There is no evidence of either pathway. There is no evidence of the genetic transfer of BSE, nor indeed of contagious transfer.

My Lords, I do not like, "There is no evidence". After all, it was always said that "there was no evidence" that the disease could be passed from cattle to human beings; yet that is now obviously being explored as a possibility. Therefore we should not be so ready to act on the basis that there is no evidence. Perhaps we should be searching for evidence.

My Lords, we have spent millions of pounds searching for evidence; but it is the consensus of all the scientists involved in the research—through SEAC and the research centres that are employed for BSE research—that that is not the route. They have been able to find no evidence—nor indeed to manufacture any—in their efforts to prove that as a possible pathway. They are all as certain as scientists can be that it is through the feed that BSE has been transmitted and not through genetic or contagious transmission.

My Lords, the so-called worldwide ban is a complete mockery since we in this country still eat British beef, which is still the best in the world.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. We know that it is not only the safest beef in the world but probably the best quality beef in the world. We are therefore at a loss to understand why the Europeans, without a shred of evidence, decided that it should be banned, not only from the Continent but from all world markets.

My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will not mind my asking him why he stated so strongly that there was no evidence of the possibility of genetic transmission or transmission by proximity when a statement from the Scottish Office indicated that "there was no evidence to the contrary". In other words, it could not be ruled out.

My Lords, I meant exactly what I said. I assure the noble Lord that there is no evidence of vertical transmission of BSE from a mother to a calf. My understanding of the research is that the scientists not only seek to identify evidence where cases are known to be occurring, but also seek to manufacture such a pathway: they see whether they can infect a calf through infecting the mother. There is a very energetic search to eliminate that as a possible pathway. They have been unable to establish any proof that that is the pathway. They have, however, assured themselves that the most likely route, and the most likely explanation, is that BSE is spread through SBOs getting into feed.

My Lords, will the Minister explain how the particular age of 30 months came to be chosen? Why is it applied to all cattle? Is it not extremely heavy-handed to use the same age, irrespective of the breed, sex and type of the cattle involved?

My Lords, the 30-month definition was chosen because SEAC, which represents the greatest body of expertise on the subject, suggested on 20th March that all beef from cattle over 30 months of age should be deboned. Shortly thereafter the farming unions, different parts of the processing industry and retail groups lobbied as one voice that, were we to take beef from cattle in excess of 30 months off the market, that would go a considerable way to restoring consumer confidence and therefore to restoring market activity. So it was in response to a united voice from the producers, the processors and the retailers that we reflected the SEAC watershed of 30 months with this 30-month scheme. We do not see it as being permanent. It is a temporary measure until the market is back where it should be and consumer confidence is back where it should be.

As I assured the House, achieving these exemptions is an absolutely urgent priority. There is a very good case for exemptions. They should help restore some sense to an otherwise distorted market.

My Lords, is the Minister aware how grateful owners of slow maturing cattle will be to hear what he just said and that the Government are consulting on exemptions for slow maturing cattle? I hope that there will be a good scheme up and running as soon as possible.