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EU Beef Ban

3.32 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on our continuing efforts to get the ban on British beef and beef products lifted, and on the implications for our wider European policy.

As the House will know, we have been making every effort with the European Commission and with the member states to lift the ban on beef and beef products imposed two months ago by the European Union. We appreciate the difficult situation on the beef markets of a number of member states, the fragile state of consumer confidence throughout Europe, and the 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 bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Britain is falling rapidly, and will continue to do so. 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 that we have taken--going well beyond those in many other European Union 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 made a proposal to lift the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen. That is based on the scientific evidence that those products are safe when produced in agreed ways. A majority of member states supported that 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 the matter to the vote.

President Santer and Commissioner Fischler have confirmed that they stand by the proposal that 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 3 and 4 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 that 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 that direction, for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the science involved.

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Important national interests for Britain are involved in this matter. I cannot tolerate those 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 the 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 shall continue our present efforts, although these are 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 the interim remedies should be heard within two to six weeks at the outside.

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 the ban on 3 and 4 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 that 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--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order to hear the statement.

The Prime Minister: I repeat that a third element is the ban on beef from specialist beef herds. That is not justified. As soon as appropriate verification schemes are in place, we shall ask the Council to lift the ban. If we get no satisfaction, we shall again pursue the legal remedies open to us.

But those legal steps are not in themselves sufficient. We shall continue to press the scientific case on our partners and pursue our own programme to eradicate BSE. 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 intergovernmental conference 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 seek special Councils. I shall make it clear that I expect agreement on how to deal with those problems to be behind us by the time the European Council meets in Florence on 21 and 22 June. If it is not, the Florence meeting is bound to be dominated by the issue. It could

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not proceed with our normal co-operation unless it faced up to the crisis of confidence affecting not only consumers but Governments throughout Europe.

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

I believe that the whole House recognises the strength of our case and the urgent need for progress. The approach that I have outlined deserves to command support throughout the House.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield): Let us now find out exactly what the Prime Minister means by that statement. We share the great disappointment at the failure to get the ban at least partially lifted. We believe that there is no justification whatever for its continuing. The right regulations are now in place, and all reasonable scientific measures have been taken. Of course we shall support the Government in any sensible moves to ensure that the negotiations are successful.

There is no doubt about the deep sense of frustration, especially if, as the Prime Minister says, assurances have been given privately and then broken. However, can I now be clear about exactly what the Prime Minister proposes? As I understand it, he is saying that, unless there is both an agreement to lift the ban on derivatives--as we know, that may happen for other reasons--and a framework in place for easing the wider ban totally by 21 June, Britain will engage in a policy of non-co-operation.

May I ask two questions about that? First, what does the Prime Minister believe would be an acceptable framework and time scale for easing the wider ban? Secondly, and more importantly, I ask him to be specific as to what the policy of non-co-operation actually means. For example, does it mean--[Interruption.] Conservative Members--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Mr. Marlow, do be quiet.

Mr. Blair: With all due respect, before judgment can be passed on the policy of non-co-operation, we must know exactly what is meant by it.

For example, does the policy mean non-payment of European contributions, or doing anything in breach of treaty obligations, as many of the Prime Minister's hon. Friend would like? Will it involve a boycott of European institutions, non-attendance at meetings, or attendance with silence? Or does it mean refusal to participate in any other discussions at the intergovernmental conference unless the ban is lifted? Will the policy involve, as we read in the newspapers yesterday, the blocking of progress on Europol, and Europewide co-operation on policing? That suggestion has been made.

I assume from what the Prime Minister said that he has a clear strategy. At the moment the language is strong, but there is an absence of particulars as to exactly what it means. [Interruption.] It is the Prime Minister who is proposing the policy, so we should be clear what he means by it.

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The right hon. Gentleman's statement should not mask or disguise the wider questions that must be asked about the Government's handling of the BSE crisis. There has been profound dissatisfaction with the way in which the negotiations have been conducted. What is the current negotiating position of other countries? What are they now asking us to do?

May I ask the Prime Minister about a specific point that has been raised by hon. Members from all parties? Is not the reason for the opposition of some member states to lifting the ban the collapse in their own consumer confidence? Does that not put us in a Catch-22 position, in that, to raise confidence in these countries, we need to lift the ban; yet to lift the ban, we need to raise confidence?

Should not one part of our strategy be a massive information and propaganda exercise in other member states--this has been suggested by representatives of the farming interests and by hon. Members from all parties--to tell those states exactly what we are doing, why it has dealt with the problem and why our beef is safe? May I put it to the right hon. Genetleman that farmers in this country--[Interruption.] Many farmers are deeply concerned about the situation, and would like some answers from the Prime Minister.

Is there not now a yawning discrepancy between what Ministers are saying about the current slaughter scheme and what the farming industry is saying? Reports from all parts of the country suggest that there is insufficient capacity in the abattoirs, confusion in the list of approved abattoirs, problems with collection centres, inadequate cold storage and uncertainty about the details of compensation. Does the Prime Minister agree that that situation cannot possibly be tolerated any longer?

Is not the incompetence with which the scheme is now being administered of a piece with the serial incompetence that has characterised the Government's handling of BSE? Is it not true that, throughout the early 1990s and late 1980s, the Government utterly failed to take action on BSE, although constant warnings were being given by Opposition Members that they had to act? The Government's response has been too late at virtually every stage of the crisis. Whatever the purpose of the Prime Minister's statement today, it should not obscure the incompetence with which the issue has been handled by him.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that no attempt was made before the announcement on 20 March to speak either to the farming industry or to our European partners to warn them or to secure their agreement to the measures that were being taken? Can he imagine any other Government behaving in that way? Does he accept that, at every stage--the years up to March 1996, the announcement itself, the policy of the slaughter scheme and the conduct of negotiations--his Government have shown a talent for error? [Interruption.]

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