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5 May 1999 : Column 900

Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): The next debate is on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

12.30 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): If, like me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have had to practise saying "encephalopathies", you did extremely well.

The purpose of this debate is not to discuss the general issue of the spread of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, but to raise a particular case in which the rules to prevent it have been misapplied.

My constituent, Mr. R. Lennox of R. Lennox and Son of Layer de la Haye in my constituency, agreed to the sale of three loads of lambs to an Italian company, ILCO, in June 1997. I should say at the outset that I dislike the trade in live animals, and would much prefer United Kingdom-reared stock to be slaughtered before export--but that is another subject for debate and not one that I intend to raise now. My duty is to make representations on behalf of my constituent, who has suffered an injustice. Incidentally, not only Mr. Lennox but everyone in the supply chain has suffered--including those on hill farms in north Wales, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who cannot be present but has written to me about the problem.

The livestock were shipped on 4 July 1997 with all appropriate health records and veterinary certificates, as required by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They arrived in Italy on 7 July, and a certificate was issued confirming that their arrival in good condition. Mr. Lennox thereafter expected payment of £57,000.

As background, to cut a long story short, the Italian Government, acting under an ordinance dated 24 December 1996 on the prevention of the spread of TSEs, claimed that the MAFF certification was inadequate, and refused to accept the import of the lambs.

Incidentally, a similar shipment of lambs, which was sent to southern Italy, was accepted until the Romebranch of the Italian veterinary service contacted its representatives in the south. By that time, the consignment had been paid for. To be consistent, the Italian Government should have impounded those sheep, but the sheep had mysteriously disappeared. That consignment was paid for and disappeared, but Mr. Lennox's lambs have never been paid for.

After several days of exchanged faxes, during which time the condition of the lambs deteriorated, all 1,700 were slaughtered for non-food use on the order of the Italian Government. During that exchange, the UK Government made it clear that they considered that the Italian Government were acting illegally. On 14 July, Liana Smith, assistant to the first secretary at the British embassy in Rome, faxed the Italian Ministry of Health, apparently on the instruction of MAFF, stating that MAFF did not accept that the ministerial ordinance of24 December 1996 was a lawful restriction on trade. Moreover, the fax made it clear that MAFF would write to the European Commission asking it to take legal action against the Italian Government.

In summary, Mr. Lennox is owed £57,000, but ILCO is refusing to pay. Mr. Lennox has therefore issued proceedings in the High Court, but ILCO has filed a

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defence, which, in effect, blames the Italian Government for what occurred. The substance of the High Court action is not the subject of this debate. I question the UK Government's conduct in this matter, which is not sub judice. What have the Government done to help to remedy the loss suffered by UK businesses--notably that of my constituent--as a result of the Italian Government's legal action?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Donoughue, wrote to me on 20 July last year, saying that the Italian authorities were shortly to amend their ordinance. He confidently predicted:

A new ordinance was brought into force by the Italian Government on 24 August 1998, which replaces the previous one and conforms with Italy's treaty obligations. According to Lord Donoughue, Mr. Lennox is now in that "stronger position" to which his letter referred.

In February, I again wrote to the Parliamentary Secretary, asking his Department to raise the issue with its counterparts in the Italian Government, and to press them to ensure that compensation is paid. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food himself replied. Although he acknowledged that the Government had made representations on the illegality of the now-defunct ordinance, he refused to assist my constituent. The purpose of this debate is simply to ask why.

My constituent has lost a large sum of money through the illegal actions of another Government. Why do the UK Government refuse to help to rectify that injustice? It has had a devastating effect on the viability ofMr. Lennox's business. He has no working capital; he cannot run his business. The suppliers whom he owes in turn are threatening bankruptcy proceedings. Mr. Lennox has had to put his farm on the market. Is that what the Government want?

The High Court action against ILCO will take a considerable time to resolve and may finish up in the European Court of Justice, which would take years. The sum in question is dwarfed by the legal costs. Is such a route the only recourse open to British businesses when other Governments flout their obligations under the single market, or does the Minister seriously expect an ordinary Essex farmer to be able to sue the Italian Government without any support from his own Government?

I urge the Government to write to the Italian Government, pressing them to take action to ensure that compensation is paid to Mr. Lennox, and thereby to his suppliers. If that is refused, the UK Government should seek meetings on the matter, ultimately at ministerial level and in the Council of Ministers, involving the Commission, until it is resolved. At the same time, the Government should take a policy decision in support of Mr. Lennox's legal action, with such financial and other help as may be necessary.

The Government cannot dismiss this matter as though it were a private contractual dispute, as the Minister did in his letter of 18 February. This is a matter between Governments. Failure to act one way or the other will mean that the Government are opting for the interests of their political horse trading, rather than for the real trade for which European Community rules were ostensibly established.

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12.37 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) on finding a means by which to describe on the Floor of the House his constituent's important case and the circumstances in which he finds himself. As the hon. Gentleman knows from our discussion a few minutes ago, I was hitherto unaware of the specific nature of the issue. In fact, I have come to this debate armed with 1.5 in of briefing material on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies--one can say it if one does not think about it, by the way--in order to explain what is happening in respect of cattle and sheep. To reply with such information would be beyond the bounds of the subject that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and discourteous to him.

I recall the issue of what I call Italian sheep from the middle of 1997, just after we came into government. I remember seeing notes about delays concerning exports of sheep to Italy over which there was an argument. As the hon. Member for North Essex said, he has corresponded with two of my colleagues--Lord Donoughue and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The way in which Mr. Lennox has been treated is very unfair. I do not know how many similar cases there are, although the hon. Gentleman referred to the disappearance of a consignment following payment. As the Government, we took a view that the Italians' actions were unlawful, and made very strong representations to them. The Italians changed their law in December 1996. That went well beyond the Community rules at the time. Indeed, the chief veterinary officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food complained to the Italians about it.

The way in which the matter has been left is clearly unsatisfactory. I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that further inquiries about this case will be made. I will see whether anything can be done. It does not make sense that a fellow European Union member state can bring in an illegal order that causes British companies to suffer. I suspect that things would be different were matters the other way around. I do not know of other cases, but, although I cannot state that the Government will pay the bill or initiate court action against the Italian Government, the events that the hon. Gentleman described send an unsatisfactory signal to other traders, in all walks of life, who could find themselves in the same difficulties as Mr. Lennox.

Clearly, the Government cannot intervene in the High Court proceedings against the importer of the sheep into Italy. It would not be satisfactory for me simply to tell the hon. Gentleman that we succeeded in persuading the Italian Government to withdraw the relevant order last August, and to imply that the problem has been solved for the future. Mr. Lennox has been left high and dry: although I do not know what the answer is, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government's collective view is that the case is one of very unfair treatment of a British trader by another EU member state, which has led to court action.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's caveat about the trade involved, but in fact the nature of the trade is irrelevant. It does not matter whether sheep or car radios were involved: a British exporter has suffered because of the illegal activities of another EU member state Government.

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I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Ministry will look into the matter further. If need be, I shall advise my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make the strongest possible representations to the Italian Government and indeed to raise the matter face-to-face with them. I shall, of course, report back to the hon. Gentleman on the progress being made.

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