31 July 1998
Commons beef debate
By Brian Brady, Press Association
NEW agriculture minister Nick Brown yesterday pledged that lifting the EUs worldwide ban on British beef exports would be “a top priority”.
In his first Commons question time appearance in his new post, Mr Brown underlined the Governments contribution to efforts to win back domestic confidence in British beef, which had drained away as a result of the BSE crisis.
“As a result, we have seen significant improvements in the level of beef consumption and in the first four months of this year a substantial increase in the UKs share of the domestic market,” he said.
Tory James Gray (Wiltshire N) welcomed Mr Brown to his new position, but he launched a scathing attack on previous agriculture minister Dr Jack Cunninghams failure to persuade the EU to overturn the ban.
He told Mr Brown: “I hope you show more interest and concern for the beef industry and beef producers than did your predecessor.
“The beef industry is deeply disappointed by the lack of progress towards lifting the beef ban, despite (ministers) constant boasts about their Euro-credentials.”
Mr Gray challenged ministers to pledge some £11 million in aid to efforts to promote British beef once the ban was lifted. He pointed out the figure was in proportion to the £2m received by the industry in Northern Ireland when Ulster beef was removed from the ban.
But Mr Brown dismissed the appeal, insisting the £2m pay-out was a “one-off payment related to the peace process and not to support for the industry in the UK”.
Defending Cabinet office minister Dr Cunningham against the criticism, he said his announcement yesterday of a three-year blueprint for his new department owed much to the “forward-moving momentum” of his predecessor.
For the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy said the return of British beef to its strong position in the market was “primarily a question of confidence”.
Noting the “great strides” made in consumer confidence in the product, he told Mr Brown: “Producer confidence in the British farming industry would be greatly assisted if you looked at the statement of aims agreed by your predecessor for your ministry.
“[It] quite rightly mentions environment and conservation, doesnt actually mention the word farming, and is coupled to a set of figures which in some of the most fragile parts of the beef-producing sector of the UK economy is talking about a phasing-out of support which will render even a lifting of the beef ban no great help in the longer term.”
The Minister replied: “I regard the lifting of the beef ban as a top priority for me and a top priority for the department. I will take it very seriously indeed. The point about confidence is right and I accept that I have a duty to set a lead.”
Questioned on the possible effect on beef prices of the forthcoming Office of Fair Trading investigation into the profitability of the supermarkets, Mr Brown said the issue was “a matter for the regulatory authority”.
Later, Deputy Agriculture Minister Jeff Rooker said the amount of compensation paid to farmers with “suspect” cattle would decline “as the number of animals with BSE continues to fall dramatically”.
But he insisted the 30 November termination date for the Calf Processing Aid Scheme had been known since it started two years ago, and the Government could not introduce a voluntary scheme to maintain protection for farmers.
Mr Rooker added: “Two-thirds of cattle farms and 80% of beef farms have never had a case of BSE, which is why they are so angry about the overall restrictions on the industry because of the ban.”