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Mr. Michael Lord (Central Suffolk): The right hon. Gentleman has been asked two direct questions, neither of which he has answered. He is making a clever speech that the House is enjoying in some ways, but he is not dealing with the problems facing a major industry in this country. Does he support the slaughter of thousands of healthy animals, with no guarantee that the ban will be lifted at its end?

Mr. Cook: Hang on. We were told that the Government secured the undertaking in Florence that, if they slaughtered the animals, the ban would be lifted. The hon. Gentleman is disagreeing with those on his Front Bench, not with me. We are asking the Government why, having sold that agreement to the House, they have ratted on it.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Surely the right hon. Gentleman realises that British agriculture is facing its gravest crisis this century. Will he tell the House and the country simply and clearly whether he believes that the ban is justified?

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that question again. We have repeatedly said that we regard British beef as safe and that we do not accept the ban, and we have repeatedly supported the Government in all the measures that they said would lead to a lifting of the ban.

After all that support, we are told that the ban cannot be lifted in the timetable that the Government promised, partly because they have done too little, too late, to combat BSE, starting at the very beginning, with their disastrous decision on taking office not to regulate the feedstuffs industry to a higher standard, on the grounds set out in their consultation paper:

The industry promptly responded by phasing out the chemical solvents that might have prevented BSE from getting into the food chain.

The Government long refused to accept the risk to public health from BSE, as exemplified by the famous observation of the present Secretary of State for the Environment that

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    Fortunately, he was moved to another job just before we discovered how worried we ought to be.

Finally, even when Ministers introduced regulations to control BSE, they failed to enforce them, and as late as last year, 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses and 17 per cent. of rendering houses were in breach of BSE controls; and, in March this year, eight feed mills were still found to be breaching regulations to keep animal protein out of feedstuffs. The crisis in our beef industry was made in Britain. The genius of Her Majesty's Government is that, instead of solving the first crisis, they have paralleled it with a second crisis, in our relations with Europe.

I began by referring to the human hardship caused by the collapse of the beef market. Farmers, especially hill farmers, watched their way of life being put at risk, and workers in the processing industry watched their jobs disappearing. They are watching this debate and will note how we vote; we owe it to them to vote against a Government who have failed them, and we owe it to ourselves to vote against the Government, because we know that they deceived the House in June over the deal they brought back from Florence, and that they have broken the commitment they gave about when the ban would be lifted. All hon. Members with any self-respect must resent that deception, and I urge them to join us in the Lobby tonight.

3.57 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I begin my response to the debate with at least one assertion with which we can all agree: BSE has been a disaster for British agriculture and a tragedy for all those whose lives and livelihoods depend on a prosperous beef sector. Against that background, we have a right to expect that all those who participate in a debate on BSE, whether in this place or in the newspapers or elsewhere, should do so in a rational, considered and sober way, because scares, alarmist headlines and ill-judged political point scoring damage consumer confidence. That reinforces the prejudices of those who do not wish to see the ban lifted and thereby damages the interests of British farmers.

Prominent among those whom I most condemn is the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). Her comments on 20 March, when she raised quite unjustified scares about the risks of feeding beef to children, did a great deal to damage consumer confidence in Britain.

In addition, I very much regret that on 22 March the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) gave his support to the imposition of a beef ban, making our task harder, reinforcing the position of member states when they did not deserve to have their position reinforced.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East): Let me correct that from the Dispatch Box for the second time. We have

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been round this course before. When the French Government took action immediately following the announcement to stop beef and animals moving into France, I said that I liked to think that had the situation developed in France, a British Government would have done the same. That is quite different from the worldwide beef ban. The French Government's action was justified. What was not justified was the subsequent worldwide beef ban. The French Government were talking about a temporary cessation of trade in the crisis, which was obviously justified. We have made it clear throughout that the worldwide beef ban is not justified, and the Minister knows that.

Mr. Hogg: That is a case of wriggle, wriggle, wriggle.

The hon. Gentleman made two statements. He made a statement on 24 March, which he has summarised reasonably accurately, but he omitted to mention the press release that he put out on 22 March, which is the one to which I was referring, when he said in terms:

He did not thereafter qualify it.

It is interesting to note that the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), in the first of the observations that he made on a ban in the course of this afternoon's speech, found a justification for the imposition by member states of a ban on British beef and beef products, and that is a profoundly unsatisfactory state of affairs.

That brings me to a point that I wanted to make about the right hon. Member for Livingston. I have seldom heard a more self-indulgent speech made in the House from the Front Bench. By adopting the case of member states he makes it much harder for us to secure a lifting of the ban. Furthermore, everybody in the agriculture industry will have noticed that the right hon. Gentleman could not or would not say whether he would support a cull order. In truth, it was the most irrelevant and least illuminating speech that I have heard for some while. It surprises me that it was thought right to allow the shadow Foreign Secretary to move the motion when the Opposition agriculture spokesman is sitting beside him.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): Will the Minister support a cull order?

Mr. Hogg: I shall shortly tell the House exactly where we stand on that matter.

Any discussion of BSE must start with the proposition that British beef is safe. I say that for at least four reasons. First, the only British beef on the United Kingdom market is from the younger animal, and that provides a high degree of assurance. Secondly, all BSE suspects are removed from the food chain. Thirdly, we have established in the slaughterhouses the most rigorous and comprehensive set of controls of any in Europe, with the result that all parts of the carcase capable of harbouring the infected agent are stripped out and destroyed. Fourthly, we have removed from the food chain all the meat and bonemeal that is believed to have triggered BSE in the first place.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hogg: No, I shall not give way at the moment.

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For all those reasons, I can say with complete confidence that British beef is safe and that the consumer can eat it, confident as to both its quality and its safety. That is not only my view or that expressed by the leading experts in the United Kingdom, but the view of the World Health Organisation and its veterinary equivalent, the Office International des Epizooties, and of Jacques Santer and Franz Fischler.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington): Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Hogg: I shall give way in a moment.

It is therefore all the more unreasonable--indeed, it is unlawful--that member states should have imposed the ban in the first instance and that they should have defended its continuation thereafter. The ban is not based on scientific criteria, nor on a proper consideration of the objective facts. It was imposed and is now adhered to because of internal pressure in member states. I say that the single market is being disrupted for reasons that are wholly improper.

I give way, first, to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend).

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