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Mr. Yeo: What about illegal products?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is shouting about illegal products. If products are illegal, I and the rest of the Government stand ready to take action. I invite the hon. Gentleman to send me the specific evidence that he undoubtedly has--he would not have made the comments otherwise--about food products coming into this country without meeting the standards that Parliament requires; I will then have it looked at by the competent officials, and stand ready to respond to any serious detailed allegation that he can make.

I must tell all hon. Members that is not enough to make generalised charges--we can all do that. Just as we object to consumers in other countries saying that they are not sure that British beef is safe to eat--they are wrong, because British beef is among the safest in the world--surely it is not right for us to say that other nation states cannot produce food products to the standards that we insist on here, because they clearly can.

The hon. Gentleman asked about beef on the bone. I have told the House before that, when the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee reports to me that it is appropriate to lift the domestic ban on beef on the bone, I will do so. I will do so on the basis of scientific advice, not on the basis of political will, which is what the hon. Gentleman is advising me to do. At the Conservative party conference, he said that he would lift the ban. There would be no consideration of whether it would be right to do so: he would just lift it anyway. I cannot do that. It would not be responsible for me to do that. The scientific advice comes first. I will consider it, and, when it is proper for me to do so, I will lift the ban.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about the importation of pigmeat, and invited me to ban it. If he has specific evidence that pig products that are coming into this country do not meet the proper food safety standards, I will consider that, and make sure that the appropriate authorities look at it. He must come forward with specific evidence, not generalised assertions.

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The hon. Gentleman asked about consumers in Germany. I hope that consumers there, throughout western Europe and worldwide will understand that we have made an enormous effort, and spent an enormous sum--more than £4 billion will have been spent on the BSE crisis by the end--to ensure that our beef products are among the safest in the world. I fully accept that consumer perceptions may be based on the conditions of 10 years ago, not the conditions now. We must explain ourselves, and I stand ready alongside the Meat and Livestock Commission to explain what the Government have done to ensure that British beef is safe, and to enable us to recover our export markets. The effort includes serving British beef to service men overseas, and ensuring that education authorities and others in the United Kingdom who purchase meat products in bulk have confidence in British beef.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Commission inspections. The date-based export scheme process will have to be inspected by the Commission, and I am confident that we can get that scheme up and running, and get it through its inspection. The Commission is ready to make the inspection when we get the scheme up and running. The hon. Gentleman asked about slaughterhouse rules. The scheme is slaughterhouse-based, not farm- based. The rules require slaughterhouses to be dedicated to the date-based export scheme, but they may also handle other animals, such as pigs and sheep. They cannot handle non-date-based export scheme cattle.

The hon. Gentleman asked about progress on the cull. Some progress has been made with a voluntary cull, but there is more to do, and that is why the Government will make the cull compulsory. I shall introduce regulations soon, and compensation will be paid to farmers at market value.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to confirm that the arrangements for lifting the ban were first put in place by the previous Government. It is true that the agreement in principle was made at Florence, but that was not the difficult bit. The difficult bit was implementing the agreement, both credibly and in a way that would persuade our partners in the European Union that we had implemented it credibly. The agreement was based on co-operative working, and on our acceptance that we had to be able to explain the scheme, to prove it and to justify it on the basis of science and on its technical implementation.

I would not have been able to achieve agreement without the hard work, energy and skill of my predecessor, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). Agriculture Ministers from other nation states always ask after my right hon. Friend, mentioning the skilful way in which he managed the British presidency. The impact that my right hon. Friend made on the Agriculture Council during our six-month presidency convinced our EU partners that we were a new Government with a new approach, with whom they could deal. That was not the case with the previous Administration.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I unreservedly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement. It is a victory for effective diplomacy and quiet negotiation, unlike what happened under the previous Administration. Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about his welcome decision to extend the cull to beasts affected by maternal

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transmission of BSE, including cases in which cohorts are affected? Does he agree that we will be safe only if we move as quickly as possible towards implementing a food standards agency?

Mr. Brown: I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks. I am committed to the food standards agency, as are other members of the Government. I intend to discuss with territorial Ministers and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and the Chancellor how best to take the proposal forward, given that it has no slot in the legislative programme. That proposal is going to be taken forward. My hon. Friend is right to say that the cull is a necessary condition of the scheme. Of course, farmers will be compensated at market rates, but the proposal must be taken forward. The voluntary scheme has not brought in all the animals that I would have wanted, so we must make the cull compulsory.

I estimate that about 3,500 animals will have to be culled under the scheme, which is designed to deal with maternal transmission. It is so important that we not only get the date-based export scheme up and running, but that we do so in a way that will restore consumer confidence in our products, not merely in the markets that are used to dealing with the United Kingdom but among those countries that have been the most critical and sceptical. I look forward not only to a completely clear report from the Commission but to our being able to explain what we have done in countries such as Germany, where there is still uncertainty about British beef products.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): The Liberal Democrats warmly welcome the Minister's negotiating skills. This has been one of the worst crises to affect agriculture this century, and we are pleased with the result that he has brought back from Brussels. The industry has warmly welcomed the proposal, and rightly so. It is a bit rich for the Conservative Opposition to carp about it. After all, they are equivocal about qualified majority voting and the powers of the Commission that the right hon. Gentleman has announced today. If the Opposition's policy were in place, the attitude of the Germans, who wanted to maintain the ban, would have ensured that it stayed in place. That is an extraordinary state of affairs.

Perhaps the Minister will also accept that we are pleased that full market values will be given for animals that have to be sold under the offspring cull, which will greatly help the farming community.

The development of the market is extremely important. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can give us some idea what the MLC will be doing to promote British beef on the continent, and why the French and the Spanish, in particular, did not vote in favour of lifting the ban, but abstained. What were their reasons for doing so, and will that affect our ability to market in France and Spain?

Finally, the Agriculture Council discussed many other agricultural matters, and I am sure that reference was made to the package to supply food to Russia this winter to relieve starvation. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the possibility of a special scheme to send British

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sheepmeat to Russia this winter to alleviate problems in the sheep market here and assist the Russians by preventing starvation?

Mr. Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for today's announcement, and for the constructive part that the parliamentary Liberal Democrats have played in these matters.

On food aid and sheepmeat, we cannot use our food surpluses crudely to provide stocks to Russia. Humanitarian aid schemes to Russia are being put in place, which involve credit lines and the provision of some food aid. They are being co-ordinated on our behalf by the European Union, and the United States has put in place a separate range of measures.

However, in these matters we must be conscious of our obligations to the World Trade Organisation. It would not be fair to take other people's market opportunities by dumping our surpluses. Nevertheless, we should stand by Russia in what is going to be a difficult winter, and show solidarity with the Russian people, which means ensuring that any food aid sent--I am certain that some will be--gets to the people who need it. There are clear concerns about the distribution network there.

On the opposition from France and Spain, at the Standing Veterinary Committee, France, Spain, Italy, Holland and Germany voted against the Commission's proposal. I had bilateral meetings with each of those member states, and was able to justify the Commission's proposal, which is, of course, the United Kingdom proposal, on the basis of the science and the implementation of the scheme. I was able to ensure a welcome shift towards the Commission from all those national delegations. I would have preferred a positive vote for the Commission proposal, but the best that I could get was the abstention, which enables the proposal to be brought into effect by the Commission.

The overriding reason why countries are not able to give whole-hearted support to the scheme is the enormous damage that BSE has done to the beef market across western Europe. It is not only a United Kingdom problem; the market has fallen further in Germany than it has in this country, because of consumer fears about BSE. This is naturally a serious matter for our partners, and when we are trying to achieve agreement on matters of this kind, it is a good idea to step back and try to see the problem from their point of view, instead of asserting our own, and demanding that people always agree with us.

The measured, science-based approach that the British Government have adopted is the right approach. It has commanded respect from national delegations, even those that have not felt able to lift the ban yet. Nobody--not a single nation state--said that it should not be lifted; the issue was timing, and clearly the political leaders will have been worried about consumer opinion in their own countries. That is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to worry about--the protection of the public must come first in these matters.

As for explaining ourselves in difficult markets, the Government stand ready to work with the Meat and Livestock Commission--and, indeed, the industry--

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to make sure that we explain ourselves and rebuild our markets. I certainly stand ready to do what the Government properly can to help.

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