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Beef Exports: Ban

Volume 572: debated on Tuesday 21 May 1996

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4.10 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is on our continuing efforts to get the ban on British beef and beef products lifted and the implications for a wider European policy. The Statement is as follows:

"As the House will know, we have been making every effort with the Commission and the member states to lift the ban on beef and beef products imposed by the European Union two months ago. We appreciate the difficult situation on the beef markets of a number of member states, the fragile state of consumer confidence across Europe and political pressures faced by a number of governments.

"But we have put in place a wide range of measures to ensure that all products reaching the market are safe on any normal definition of the word. As a result of controls on feed, the incidence of BSE in Britain is falling rapidly and will continue to do so. We believe that there can no longer be any conceivable justification for the ban remaining in place. It is having a hugely damaging effect on the beef industry throughout Europe.

"We have explained very clearly the extent of the measures we have taken—going well beyond those in place in many member states—to ensure the safety of British beef and beef products. The Commission has played a notably helpful role in following carefully the scientific advice.

"As a result, the Commission recently put forward a proposal to lift the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen. This is based on the scientific evidence that these products are safe when produced in agreed ways. A majority of member states supported this proposal when it was put to the Standing Veterinary Committee yesterday but it did not attract the required qualified majority to enable it to take effect. I should like to thank those countries that supported it and President Santer and Commissioner Fischler for their determination to put it to the vote.

"President Santer and Commissioner Fischler have confirmed that they stand by the proposal they put to the Standing Veterinary Committee yesterday. That proposal has to be confirmed by the Commission tomorrow. It will then be submitted to the Agriculture Council on 3rd and 4th June. Under the procedures the proposal would then be implemented unless there were a simple majority against it in the Council.

"There is therefore a prospect of progress on this narrow front. I am grateful for the firm view taken by the Commission and for the support of the majority of member states. However, the present position is clearly unacceptable. A balanced proposal based on the best scientific advice has been ignored by a number of member states, in some cases despite prior assurances of support. I must tell the House that I regard such action as a wilful disregard of Britain's interests and in some cases a breach of faith.

"Moreover, we have still been unable to reach agreement on further steps towards a progressive lifting of the wider ban, which is clearly our main objective. Some of our partners are reluctant even to contemplate moves in this direction, for reasons which have nothing to do with the science involved.

"Important national interests for Britain are involved here. I cannot tolerate these interests being brushed aside by some of our European partners with no reasonable grounds to do so. The top priority of our European policy must be to get this unjustified ban on beef derivatives lifted as soon as possible and to establish a clear path for the lifting of other aspects of the wider ban. We will continue our present efforts. But this is not enough.

"We have a strong legal case against the ban as a whole and particular aspects of it. We made it clear from the outset that we believed the ban to be unlawful and disproportionate and that we would therefore be bringing proceedings. Those proceedings will begin this week. We shall also begin this week our claim for interim measures aimed at achieving those interim remedies unreasonably denied us in negotiation. Although our wider proceedings will inevitably take time to be heard, the application for these interim remedies should be heard within two to six weeks.

"The interim measures application has a number of separate elements. One is the lifting of the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen. If the Agriculture Council does not approve the lifting of this ban on 3rd and 4th June, we shall ask the Court to lift it. We shall also be asking the Court to lift the worldwide ban on exports of British beef. The beef is safe and there is no practical possibility of it being reimported into the Community.

"A third element is the ban on beef from specialist beef herds, in particular slow maturing grass-fed herds which have never seen a single case of BSE and are among the finest in the world. As soon as appropriate verification schemes are in place—and preparations are already well advanced—we shall ask the Council to lift this ban. If we get no satisfaction, we shall again pursue the legal remedies open to us.

"But these legal steps are also not enough. We shall continue to press the scientific case on our partners and to pursue our own programme to eradicate BSE. But I have to tell the House that without progress towards lifting the ban we cannot be expected to continue to co-operate normally on other Community business.

"I say this with great reluctance. But the European Union operates through good will. If we do not benefit from good will from partners, clearly we cannot reciprocate. Progress will not be possible in the IGC or elsewhere until we have agreement on lifting the ban on beef derivatives and a clear framework in place leading to lifting of the wider ban.

"We will raise the question of the ban at all Councils, including the Foreign Affairs Council. If necessary, we shall ask for special Councils. I will also be making clear that I expect agreement on how to deal with these problems to be behind us by the time the European Council meets in Florence on 21st and 22nd June. If they are not, the Florence meeting is bound to be dominated by this issue. It could not proceed with our normal co-operation unless it faced up to the crisis of confidence not only affecting consumers but also governments.

"This is not how I like to do business in Europe but I see no alternative. We cannot continue business as usual within Europe when we are faced with this clear disregard by some of our partners of reason, common sense and Britain's national interests. We continue to want to make progress through negotiation. But if this is not possible, we are bound to use the legal avenues open to us and the political means we have at our disposal.

"I believe that the whole House recognises the strength of our case and the need for urgent progress and that the approach I have outlined should therefore command support across the House." My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.19 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement that was made in another place by his right honourable friend the Prime Minister, and, as always, I declare an interest as someone involved in dairy farming.

My first response to the Statement—I have to say this with some regret—is that it has much more to do with the internal problems of the Conservative Party than the future of the beef industry. That split within the Conservative Party and the attitude of some members of the Government have been in large part responsible for the problem. When Ministers refer, as they have, to ignorance and malevolence by our European partners, that is no way to influence them or to get them on our side. We have had a Statement a week, sometimes two, for the past nine weeks. Every Statement has promised progress and each subsequent Statement has revealed another reversal in Europe.

The Minister referred to the controls on feed. The incidence of BSE in Britain is falling rapidly and will continue to do so. However, the Government have still not produced a satisfactory answer as to why there have been 27,000 cases of BSE in animals born after the feed ban. I understand that some time ago Professor Lamming, who is well known in agricultural scientific circles, recommended the appointment of a committee to oversee the feed ban. The proposal was supported by the SEAC but was not accepted by the Government. Why was that?

It has been agreed and recognised that contaminated feed is the cause of the disease. However, we have been told that there was a continuous flow of contaminated feedstuff to our cattle after the feed was banned and that that was why the rules were tightened up as recently as April this year. Does the Minister accept that if we were able to identify more accurately the cattle which are likely to have been exposed to the contaminated feed a more effectively targeted slaughter policy would be allowed, which would do us no harm when it came to convincing our European partners that BSE was under control and that therefore the ban on beef should be lifted?

We all welcome the Commission's proposal to lift the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen. That is important but it is not the major problem. Billions of pounds are involved in the overall ban affecting the beef cattle and not the derivatives. Furthermore, it appears that in the Standing Veterinary Committee the proposals did not attract the required qualified majority. Will the Minister confirm that the proposals that we made to change the qualified majority have now caught us out, which is ironic?

There is to be a meeting of the Agriculture Council on 3rd and 4th June. If there is a simple majority—there is a chance that we will get the proposal through that meeting—it will take three months to achieve the lifting of the ban on tallow, gelatine and semen.

The Statement refers to establishing a clear path for the lifting of the other aspects of the wider ban, which is much more important than the ban on the beef derivatives. However, as it has taken three months to lift the ban on the tallow, gelatine and semen will the Minister give us an idea of how long the Government believe it will take to get the rest of the ban lifted? We welcome the fact that the proceedings will begin this week in the European Court but why has it taken so long? When we debated the matter on 7th April we were told that the proceedings would be brought soon. We also welcome the claim for interim measures. I believe that we suggested that; indeed, I referred to a claim under Article 186 of the treaty.

The appropriate verification schemes have been mentioned. When will such schemes be in place? We have heard about them for weeks and weeks but still there is no sign of verification schemes to exclude the old and the clean beef which never had BSE. When will those schemes be in place to relieve the great worry on all the farmers who are involved?

A disturbing figure was given on the "Farming Today" programme this morning. The estimate for the cull cows is 750,000; that is, 15,000 a week to be slaughtered. However, this morning's programme reported that when the proposal was made neither the NFU nor the Government knew the number of clean beef animals over the age of 30 months which would be involved. We are now told that the figure could be between 300,000 and 400,000. Can the Minister confirm that or say whether the Government have other figures?

The Statement refers to pursuing our own programme to eradicate BSE. We have the cull cow slaughter policy, the problem with the clean beef animals and also selective slaughter. We began with a figure of 40,000 but yesterday that rose to 80,000. We have said many times that the Government are playing a numbers game which they cannot hope to win. We were told that the slaughtering of the first 40,000 animals would catch one in 30; in other words, for every 30 animals slaughtered one potential BSE case would be removed. I was told only last night that the slaughter of the second 40,000 would produce an incidence of 300 cases; that is one in 100. Are those figures correct? If so, the slaughtering of 80,000 cattle to reduce incidence at that level is extraordinary. I see that the Minister is nodding. How many more animals must we slaughter in order to get the ban lifted?

If the ban is lifted through the European Court, what will happen to the slaughter schemes? Presumably the cull cow, the over-30-months scheme, will stay in place. If the ban is lifted, will the selective slaughter scheme have to be imposed? The Statement refers in Delphic terms to matters in Europe not proceeding with our normal co-operation. If the normal co-operation of the past few weeks has been any example we can all worry. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister would tell us exactly what the Prime Minister means by,
"could not proceed with our normal co-operation".
The Statement marks a complete failure of our negotiations in Europe; it contains vague threats of non-co-operation. However, I ask your Lordships to consider the dates. We are told that interim relief might take from two to six weeks. If we know the European Court it will be six weeks. That takes us to the week beginning 1st July to wait for the judgment on interim relief. There will be the Agriculture Council meeting on 3rd and 4th June and the European Council in Florence on 21st and 22nd June. All our partners have to do is to sit and say that they will wait for the judgment of the European Court in July on the interim measures.

Non-co-operation is not defined in the Statement. It has taken two months to get the claim to the European Court and it will probably be July before we know the judgment on interim relief. In the meantime, how will any of that help the farmers and those in the rest of the beef industry to deal with this truly awful crisis?

My Lords, we in no way under-estimate the seriousness of the problem and the great desirability for British beef farming of finding an early solution. Therefore, we are fully disposed to support the Government's objectives on British beef, if not always their tactics. The Government increasingly proclaim that British beef is the safest in the world. In that case, what exactly was the point of Mr. Dorrell's Statement on 16th March which began the whole matter?

Government policy has tended to alternate from day to day—indeed, sometimes within a few hours in the same day—between pleading for support and reaching for a big stick. The latter tactic was generally renounced within a few hours on discovering that we did not have a big stick. Today's Statement appears to combine the two tactics within the same 10 minutes. The first part of the Statement thanks the Commission, which is something fairly new from this Government, for its constructive attitude and the fact that its view was supported by a majority of member states. However, under the present rules it was not sufficiently large enough to get it adopted.

That is a classic example of the Government being hoist by their own petard. We all enjoyed yesterday's intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, when he asked what on earth is allowing the German Government alone to hold it up. What is allowing them to hold it up is the near approach to a national veto, which I believe the noble Lord considered to be the epitome of the only thing good about the European Community. Indeed, the fact that we could not get the vote through yesterday marches oddly with the tremendous effort of the British Government in ensuring that the qualified majority should be as high as possible. Our hope for the future is that we shall be able to achieve that by the Commission having a second go at it with a simple majority. I hope that the Government will reflect on those issues and will learn a little from their experience in these matters.

If that does not work, we go to the Court. That seems to me perfectly proper. I am glad that the Court has not so far been undermined by some of the Government's ideas—although they are put forward by their Back-Benchers—so that it is not in a position to be totally ineffective on this matter.

Beyond the Court, if necessary, we shall withhold our normal co-operation up to and at the European Council in Florence in late June. That threat might be more formidable if our normal co-operation was more co-operative than it normally is. As our normal co-operation is to try to block everything and, if it goes through, to ask for an opt-out, I am not sure that that will be exactly earth-shaking in its effect upon the Community.

I just make two further points. In order to try to understand this issue in a more co-operative way from the point of view of Europe, we should occasionally put ourselves in the shoes of others. Let us suppose that there was no case of BSE in Britain and there were 160,000 cases in France and another 160,000 cases in Germany. What does the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal think would be the attitude of the Sun or the Daily Mail—the Euro-sceptics, the Euro-nihilists—to that filthy foreign food coming across the Channel in those circumstances?

Finally, I believe that certain other factors which have emerged rather slowly illustrate, like a flash of sheet lightning across a rather bleak landscape, how few are our other options in reality. Should we turn from the unco-operative Community which, it was suggested, is almost conspiring against us, to welcoming countries across the oceans? The Americans and Canadians banned British beef in 1989, as did the Australians. The New Zealanders had a flicker of co-operation. They imposed a ban which they then removed but it has now been imposed again. There is not a great alternative course. I hope that the Government will succeed because I really wish to see confidence restored in the British and European beef industry and I wish to see removed those grave difficulties for British farmers. But I hope that the Government will reflect on some of the lessons which can be drawn from the rather sorry experience of the past two months.

My Lords, I am at least grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, for his support for the Government's objectives. Knowing the noble Lord, Lord Carter, as I do, I am sure that he would associate himself with that expression of support although he confined himself to what was clearly a rather tempting jibe about what he sees to be the internal divisions of my party. The noble Lord also declared a direct interest. Sadly, I am no longer able to declare a direct interest, as the noble Lord knows, because I sold my dairy herds as soon as I discovered a high incidence of BSE in them. But, as he knows, I have something of an indirect interest which perhaps your Lordships would expect me to declare.

What underlies the questions of both noble Lords is some puzzlement about what precisely my right honourable friend and the Government mean by a threat to withdraw co-operation. I make it clear to your Lordships beyond peradventure that this Government are not now, never have been, and never will be interested in pursuing policies which involve the breaking of the law. I do not believe that either noble Lord would expect that of any British government. Also, we are not interested in pursuing what I might describe as a Gaullist empty chair policy. However, the Government have followed a determined co-operative policy in the wake of the original SEAC declaration. But, as my right honourable friend says in his Statement, they have been confronted by evidence of at least lack of goodwill and some bad faith on the part of some of our partners. Therefore, it seems reasonable that we should react fiercely and firmly when we have tried as hard as we can to show co-operation, in spite of the elegant jibes of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, a few moments ago.

We have in mind that there are certain matters which require unanimity and not necessarily agreement by QMV. Until there is a clear path established towards the lifting of the ban we propose to withhold our agreement to those matters. We shall look extremely carefully at any decisions which can be blocked at the IGC. In consequence, we may find it extremely difficult to co-operate in relation to reaching decisions.

I merely give two examples of the sort of matters which my right honourable friend and my colleagues and I have in mind. The convention on insolvency requires unanimity and that is to be brought forward this week. There is also the convention on Europol. We hope to reach some agreement on those parts of it which relate to the ultimate power of reference to the European Court of Justice. We have made some very good progress on that but we shall find it difficult to see our way towards making any further progress.

Also underlying the remarks made by both noble Lords is the implication that we are interested in being difficult for its own sake. I make it clear that we are interested in establishing a clear path towards the eventual lifting of the ban. We regard the lifting of the ban on tallow, gelatine and semen as a first step towards that. There is no question in my mind that the assurances that we have been given were those on which we thought we could rely. It would be curious if any British government worth their salt were not to react firmly in the face of what we regard as an act of bad faith by some of our partners.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked, in so many words, "How long, oh Lord, how long?" As I say, we need to agree a framework. We hope that we shall be able to see that first step taken by 3rd and 4th June. We should like to see the next steps taken in as short a time as possible.

The noble Lord also asked about the relationship between the lifting of the ban and further culls. I should remind the noble Lord that our original proposal for a selective cull was based on identifying cases of BSE in cattle born between 1990 and 1993. The proposal was to cull cattle born on the same farms and at the same time which might therefore have been exposed to the same infected feed. It was estimated that that would lead to the culling of about 40,000 cattle, as the noble Lord knows.

The new proposals put forward last week extended that to cover any cases of BSE which are confirmed in the future. The impact of that is clearly uncertain for obvious reasons. The best guess at the moment is that that may lead to the culling of some 80,000 cattle in total. That includes the first 40,000. But that could be implemented only in the context of a programme for lifting the EU ban. The two would operate in tandem and we should not volunteer a further cull unless it was clear that it would lead to a full agreement implemented in good faith by our European partners.

As the noble Lord said—and he is a considerable expert in these matters, as the House knows—we are happy to rest on the advice given to us by SEAC and Professor Pattison. That advice is clear: for all everyday purposes British beef is safe. Therefore any additional measures that we take must clearly be measures directed at restoring confidence rather than implying that the measures we have taken so far are not adequate to improve safety. This is a distinction which again I know the noble Lord understands extremely clearly.

I am conscious that I am taking rather a long time over this but both noble Lords asked a number of questions. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, also talked about traceability schemes. As he knows, these are complicated but we hope to have them running by early June—June this year, I hasten to add! We have taken steps to tighten the feed ban, including extremely rigorous inspections of feed mills. These, I am advised, are bearing fruit. I would be interested—as indeed would my colleagues—in view of the professional skill and knowledge of the noble Lord, if he could make any further suggestions for improvements in that area. He is in a good position to do so.

I do not think there is any point in having any more committees. We have more than enough committees as it is. What we need is clear and simple direction. Both noble Lords had a good deal of fun at the Government's expense over the question of QMV. I am sorry to disappoint them. I think it is perfectly plain that whatever the position of QMV, it had no impact whatever on this particular vote. The vote in question was 39 votes. I think it is clear that QMV would not have changed matters at all.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, asked me about the Statement of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health. With the greatest of respect to the noble Lord, I should like to ask him what he would have said to me if my right honourable friend had not made a Statement as soon as possible and as soon as it was clear what the advice from the SEAC was. Even if the Government had not been careful to adhere to their long established policy—which I fully support—of telling Parliament as soon as possible and as frankly and as clearly as possible what the situation was in regard to matters of public health, I have no doubt whatever, given that we live in the world we live in, that the Government's desire to dissimulate (which of course does not exist) would have been revealed in an immediate leak from some helpful individual in the know. Given that the matter was leaked on the morning that the Statement was made, it was entirely sensible, purely from the point of view of self-preservation, let alone the higher motives which informed the Government's actions, that my right honourable friend came to the House at the earliest possible opportunity, as he did.

I ought to emphasise again in this context—this underlies a number of the comments made by both noble Lords—that the entire basis of the Government's approach in terms of safety has been to act on the recommendations of the SEAC under its chairman, Professor Pattison. We are not scientists—or at least I am not—and even my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is not a scientist. It would be rather curious if we had established a committee to give us clear advice in these matters and we had decided to disregard the advice it had given either by not doing as much as it had recommended or by doing more. As I say, it seems to me that the fact that we acted immediately on the advice that the SEAC gave us seems to me to be not only sensible but also in the best interests of all political self-preservation.

On the matter of cull cows and the operation of the various schemes which the Government have brought in, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Carter, would expect me to admit that the introduction of the scheme so far has been far from free of difficulty. He and I are probably in daily contact with people who have experienced difficulty. As he equally well knows, the introduction of a scheme on this scale is hugely complex. The Ministry of Agriculture has been extremely fortunate in the co-operation that it has received over the past few weeks from the National Farmers' Union, from individual farmers and from the agriculture industry in all its manifestations. It is absolutely essential that that scheme should be up and running as soon as possible with as few glitches as possible. The entire government machine is bent to make sure that that will happen, and that improvements are put in place.

I hope I may add one other remark in this context. I think that a free flow of information is extremely important. It is, I would suggest, important both that the victims of this ghastly crisis should feel that they have free access to government agencies and to the Government themselves, and that the Government should describe as openly as possible not only what their own position is and what they want to do, but be frank about the difficulties that they are experiencing because it is only through the building of a team effort that we shall be able to succeed in addressing the problem. I am glad to see that the noble Lord is nodding.

I have two other remarks to make. I apologise for taking so long. Let me make it perfectly clear that the European Court of Justice is an absolutely essential entity if we are to realise what is one of the most valuable benefits of European Community membership as regards the Government, and that is the establishment of the single market. It is clearly impossible for the single market to operate effectively unless we have an effective European Court of Justice. We therefore in no way wish to denigrate the existence of the court, or indeed to try to ensure that it cannot carry out its work properly. I hope that noble Lords will read again what we have put in the White Paper, which we published, setting out our negotiating position on the IGC. I hope noble Lords will agree with me that what we are proposing will, if accepted, improve the operation of the court rather than the reverse. After all, as I emphasised, it is no business of this Government not to support the rule of law.

I must finish with a rhetorical question. I listened as always with the greatest of respect to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who probably knows more than anyone else in this House about the nuts and bolts of agricultural matters. However, I have to say that I was particularly struck by the fact that he was—if I may put it this way—rather long on hindsight and rather short on foresight. It would be extremely helpful if during the coming weeks and months—and indeed perhaps during the coming days—the Labour Party could tell us in some detail what it would do now that is different from the Government's policy. If it would do nothing different I would hope that, with the good will that I always associate with the noble Lord, he would come forward with an enthusiastic endorsement of what the Government are doing.

4.49 p.m.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this Statement appears to many of us to be much more robust than any of the preceding ones, and that for that reason it is particularly welcome? I for one found the tone of the Statement ideally adapted to the situation and clearly calculated to have a substantial beneficial effect. I would therefore like to thank my noble friend for making the Statement in this way, and equally I express gratitude to the Prime Minister for originating it.

I have only one question of fact. I was not clear as to when it was indicated that the hearing by the European Court of the application would begin. Presumably we can be given a precise answer as to when the Government contemplate that the decision will be made and known. It would be extremely helpful to have the one certain date for the beginning of the hearing and the Government's judgment as to when the result of the hearing is likely to be announced.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for the welcome he gave to the tone and content of my right honourable friend's Statement.

I emphasise that we would be wise to remind our European partners that our habit of adhering to the rule of law makes us slow to anger and that we have attempted, as always, to be as reasonable and co-operative as possible, despite what our opponents occasionally allege in this House and the other place. However, it is clear that there has been some evidence of ill faith, in stark contrast, if I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, to the extremely co-operative and helpful attitude of the Commission, which we have been only too happy to acknowledge. It is only when driven, if I may so put it, beyond endurance that we are forced to defend our interest in the only way left open to us.

On the hearing, as regards the interim measures we would hope to have some result within two to six weeks. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, expects it to be nearer six weeks than two weeks. But I would not venture down the road of prophecy with quite the same gay abandon as he does.

As regards the main hearing, my right honourable friend the Attorney-General will probably begin proceedings this week; and those could be expected to take very much longer.

My Lords, I listened to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. In Germany and in other countries the issue appears to be one of confidence. That confidence was severely dented by the Government's attitude. The noble Viscount said that the Government announced that there could be a link as soon as they had the facts in their possession. However, the Government asked the committee to sit over the weekend to give them the essential facts. I believe that that dented confidence more than anything else.

Two months have now passed and I hope that the Government will take measures to ensure that the scientists now give a reasonable answer. For example, two or three who appear to seek publicity more than anything else prophesied an enormous increase in cases of the new form of CJD. Can the noble Viscount tell us whether there is any rise in the normal incidence of CJD? That appears to be a factor which could be used in argument in Europe. I believe that it would help.

First, the confidence of farmers at home in the effectiveness of the Government's measures has been severely shaken. I realise that the issue is complicated. The organisation of slaughter on the scale talked about is difficult. However, the allocation of slaughterhouses to different tasks should have been carried out quickly. That would have given confidence to the marketing chains which sell beef.

Secondly, the Government should press ahead with a test; I know that there are tests. What are the Government doing to see whether we can have a test for BSE? Slaughter of animals would then be a logical process instead of the guessing game that it is at present.

We are all anxious to back the Government and to make progress instead of being in the extraordinary state that we now are. But the Government must take some blame for what has happened.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for the constructive tenor of his remarks. I do not wish to swap anecdotal history with the noble Lord. However, I should point out to him that the first intimation that my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture had about the SEAC's revised views on the possible transmission of BSE to humans occurred the weekend before the weekend to which he referred. Therefore, it was important that the Government made as rapid a judgment and as rapid a Statement as they possibly could in order to keep the public informed. It was important, if, as these issues always do, the matter were to leak, that the Government came forward and were frank earlier rather than later. The penalty was obvious; it meant that we had to wait a little longer before we and the public could be fully informed about the further deliberations of the SEAC. This is the goldfish bowl in which we all live. We must do what we can to ensure that the situation does not lead to panic.

As regards the allocation of slaughterhouses, I take to heart what the noble Lord said.

I believe that I am right in saying that at present we do not have a suitable test for BSE. Vast sums of money are now being spent on research into BSE in this country. The most obvious result is that in this country we probably know more about BSE than any other country in the world. That means that it is easier for people with a strong sense of sensationalism sometimes to build into scientific reports conclusions which they do not merit. Of course, if a test were to become available, it would be a very splendid result and we would hope to introduce it as soon as possible.

My Lords, can my noble friend help me on two points? First, there seems to be doubt about the link between the food and the cause of BSE. Many other countries, especially the Republic of Ireland, use the same food that we used and have not had a BSE epidemic. Secondly, the number of cattle with BSE does not seem to have been affected by the food ban in the bell curve of the epidemic. It fits more naturally into the phosnate use for warble fly eradication. The type that we used was, I believe, called Phthaladine. That was the active ingredient that caused the hassle as regards thalidomide babies. Will my noble friend please ask his scientists to look even more carefully at this issue? The logic that the food caused BSE seems to be broken by the fact that some places where such food is available do not have an epidemic. And the figure is not falling at the same rate as it should do had the feed ban worked.

The Government have stated consistently that there is no harm in any beef, even that over 30 months, and that they are doing this not for a public health reason but for a consumer protection reason. What possible legal authority do the Government have for killing many of our cattle so that the Germans will not be frightened? It seems more sensible not to pander to frightened Germans. If we say, "We're not going to kill the cattle. It's all right", and continue to eat the beef, eventually the Germans will not be frightened. They are so keen on being frightened, yet we seem to pander to their fear. Will my noble friend give the legal authority for the slaughter of healthy cattle when his colleague said that there is no health risk whatever?

My Lords, although I should not be, I am constantly surprised by the breadth and variety of my noble friend's technical knowledge. I am sure that government scientists will have noted his point. I am glad that I have no ministerial responsibility for what beef cattle or any other kind of cattle are fed in the Republic of Ireland so I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I do not comment on that point.

As to the authority, it is plain that my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture has the authority to make the culls that he has suggested and to pay the proposed compensation. As regards the Germans, from my reading of the Spectator, I understand that, particularly in recent decades, the Germans have become almost obsessively keen on hygiene. It is greatly to their credit, but it is no business of mine to do anything but encourage my right honourable friends to do the best they can to restore confidence in the British beef market. If possible, despite hysterical claims to the contrary, they should try to reassure our German friends and allies that British beef is a great deal more health-giving than sausage.

Lord Desai: My Lords, although the Statement concerned European matters, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, said, British beef is banned almost around the world. I believe I heard on a television programme that only Afghanistan and El Salvador have not banned British beef. First, what are the Government doing to lift the ban in countries other than those in Europe? Secondly, I am ignorant of such matters, but I heard that when a similar disease occurred in the Republic of Ireland, the culling was much more thorough and total and therefore the republic was able to restore confidence more quickly.

Lastly, if it is true that there have been 27,000 cases of BSE since the ban on the feed was introduced, do the Government know where the farms are? Should they be singled out not to receive compensation for their culling? After all, they broke the law and should therefore not be compensated for damage due to breaking the law.

My Lords, on the final point, it is by no means clear that it is always the farms' fault that BSE occurred after the ban on feed. There may be a number of reasons for the disease occurring. I agree with my noble friend Lord Onslow that we are by no means certain that the new form of CJD is caused by BSE. It just appears on scientific advice to be the most likely cause.

There is one aspect which we must examine, as I tried to explain to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who knows a great deal about such matters. If we can find a sensible way of passporting cattle, it would be a better way of closely directing the cull than having a blanket cull of animals. None of us wishes to see that, particularly when we know that not only is there a small danger but also, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, the overwhelming likelihood is that the majority of animals would be unaffected by BSE.

As for non-European countries, I merely observe to the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that one of the most effective ways in which we could reassure non-EU members as to the safety of British beef is for the European Union to lift the ban. That would be an enormous step forward. We shall continue to do the best we can to provide unbiased and sensible information to all inquirers and to press those in posts abroad to ensure that people are aware of the facts. The noble Lord has given me a chance to add that it is surprising how little foreign Ministers and some heads of government and state understand not only what is at stake but also what we have done so far. It is important that Her Majesty's Government should pursue a powerful information campaign. That is in the minds of a number of my right honourable friends.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept, from someone like myself who has been involved in the production of beef cattle over a considerable time, that we realise the enormous logistical problem involved in the proposed killing of so many cattle? From time to time, we hear criticism of the Government for being slow in getting the process under way. However, those of us who understand slaughtering and what it involves become angry at those criticisms. Can my noble friend assure me that although the slaughter of the cattle is necessary and is going ahead, the process will be humanely carried out?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his understanding. We all wish to see the difficult process proceed seamlessly and without problems. The fact that it had to be introduced speedily, involving a massive number of cattle, has made teething problems more the order of the day than anyone would wish. However, I hope and believe that they are being solved rapidly.

Of course, humane killing is extremely important. My noble friend will be aware of the improved measures that have been taken in that respect in the past few years.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for the Statement. All of us in this country who are connected with animal health, as well as those on the continent, in Germany, France and countries which appear to be giving us trouble, understand that the scientific evidence is that there is no reasonable connection between BSE and the human disease, CJD.

What needs to be done now is to make that fact abundantly clear, both to our own public and to people in the European Union by whatever means the Government have in their power. Unfortunately, I meet many people who ask me about the evidence when it is quite clear to me, but it seems that it has not yet reached the public. I make the plea that an effort be made in that direction, not only with our own public but also that of the European Union and elsewhere in the world where our beef is banned.

My Lords, as the whole House knows, my noble friend speaks with great authority on such matters and I am grateful for what he said. I can only refer him to my earlier answers. The fact that he is as keen on it as I will make us redouble our efforts.

My Lords, in order to put the significance of our current negotiations in Europe in proportion, can the noble Viscount tell us approximately what percentage by value of our traditional exports of beef and beef products is accounted for by tallow, gelatine and semen?

My Lords, I fear that I cannot do so off the top of my head. Rather than mislead the noble Lord with an approximate answer which I could give him, I shall write to him.