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Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am sorry to intervene so early, but did you see what happened just now at the Dispatch Box?

Madam Speaker: I saw nothing happen at the Dispatch Box, but I now see what looks like a rather nice box of chocolates. As hon. Members will know, if something is brought into the Chamber to be used as an illustration, it has to be described in such a way that it can be properly reported by Hansard.

Mr. Brown: The Opposition spokesman waves a box of Belgian chocolates at me. I am not sure whether that is intended as some sort of threat or as a goodwill gesture, but in any event I commend the chocolates to him and urge him to eat them.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) asked about the Food Standards Agency. The embryonic arrangements are already in place between my Department and the Department of Health and seem to have worked very well in dealing with this issue--officials were on to it straight away and issued the necessary notices in time. More than that, they worked closely with the United Kingdom food industry, which I praise for the close co-operation that the Government have enjoyed to make sure that the precautionary measures were put in place at once to provide protection for the public. Like the hon. Gentleman, the Government have that as their first and foremost objective.

I reject the charge of complacency. I was careful in my statement to go through the timetable of events and it would be impossible for any fair-minded person examining that timetable to decide anything other than that the Government have taken swift, effective and decisive action to protect the public.

As he always does on these occasions, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of beef on the bone. On the beef on the bone ban, I am acting on the clear-cut advice of the chief medical officer. There is no room for manoeuvre given to me, and the difference is that exposure to dioxin, we understand, is harmful to human health over time--it is necessary to be exposed to large quantities over a long period--but exposure to new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is invariably fatal to the victim. That is quite a difference and the ban is in place because the chief medical officer says that it is necessary for the protection of human health. Risk is proportionate, but if the disease hits, the effect is absolute--it is fatal.

The hon. Gentleman referred to traceability and asked whether the systems that are in place are faulty. That is not the case. We were able to act as proportionately as we have and in a targeted way precisely because of the traceability arrangements that are in place in the retail sector and in those sectors that service the catering sector.

The hon. Gentleman was on to a perfectly good point when he talked about labelling. All Agriculture Ministers are under pressure on labelling schemes--labelling for

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point of origin and method of production and to provide consumer information about ingredients. I am sure that we will return to that issue, but the Government are committed to providing proper information for consumers so that they can make informed choices on point of origin as well as on ingredients.

The hon. Gentleman implied that consumers have somehow been placed at risk in this country. It is the Government's view that no consumers have been placed at risk by this episode. He implied that we somehow made concessions that we should not have made in the recent renegotiation of the common agricultural policy. Far from it; I have told the House on a number of occasions that the United Kingdom's was a vanguard position designed to drive forward the agenda for reform of the CAP and I achieved more success in that than any previous United Kingdom negotiator.

I am disappointed that the Belgian authorities did not pass the information on to the Commission and other member states as soon as they had it and I believe that it is a scandal that the information was withheld. The hon. Gentleman asked when I first found out about it; the answer is 30 May, when Franz Fischler explained the situation to me in discussions about this and other matters. The Department first knew on 28 May, and officials immediately contacted the industry, particularly the sector that imports from Belgium.

We are having discussions with United States officials on the ban that the US has put in place. They are already re-examining the case for the ban, and are implying that it will not apply if European Union suppliers are able to show that their products have not been tainted with the contaminated Belgium feeds. So we are already making progress.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Canada. The Canadian ban applies not to the European Union as a whole but only to Belgium, which is a more reasoned, measured and proportionate response to the crisis.

The measures that the Government have taken, including using the reserve powers, are proportionate to the problem that we face. They provide for the protection of consumers, and do not require us to embark on the larger trade war that the hon. Gentleman seems to be urging on the Government.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether the dioxin in Belgium is anything like the dioxin that we had in Bolsover some years ago in many of the fields around the coalite plant? Does he accept that what the Tories have said today is in sharp contrast with what they said when I called for a public inquiry into the high penetrations of dioxin in the Bolsover area, which were affecting the cattle and fields? Despite the 12 attempts that I made in the House, I never got a Tory Minister to agree to a public inquiry. When we hear the Tories now, we understand what a load of hypocrisy it is.

Will my right hon. Friend make the necessary inquiries, because people in Bolsover want to know which variety of dioxin is involved and whether there is any comparison? The dioxin in Bolsover was 245T.

Mr. Brown: There is a comparison. For human health purposes, the dioxin is essentially the same. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The longstanding issue of

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dioxin contamination in his constituency is still of concern. If my hon. Friend would like to come and discuss what can be done about it, I should be more than happy to see him. Yes, the problem exists and these dioxins have the same effect on human health. It is a question not of the existence but of the levels of contamination.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The Minister has been rightly critical of the Conservative-led coalition Government in Belgium, who have obviously been extremely complacent and lethargic about giving information to the Commission and to other member states. Did he raise this issue with his opposite number in the Belgium Government at the Council meeting on 30 May? Does the Council of Ministers propose to make any improvement to the role of the European Commission as the watchdog on this matter? That is clearly an extremely important role.

Secondly, will the Minister enlighten us about what precisely is happening in this country to monitor the existence of these problems? The creation of the joint food safety and standards group, which was announced during the recess, is a welcome move, but it is extraordinary that the Ministry announced at the same time that the group does not intend to meet between June and October. Will it be a working, hands-on group carefully examining this issue, or will it simply be a backstop?

Thirdly, the Minister was right to draw attention to the action of the United States Government. Does he accept that, in the forthcoming trade talks in the World Trade Organisation, if the Americans are allowed to get away with this measure without proper scientific evidence that there is any public health reason to stop the import of food from the United Kingdom and to penalise British farmers and food producers, we will have a good case for resisting the import of American food products to this country because of the scientific concerns about genetically modified food?

Mr. Brown: I am absolutely convinced that economic protectionism offers no solution to any of these problems. The British Government believe that decisions in this area should be made on a scientific basis, and that public safety measures should be proportionate to the risk and should be targeted at the problem and not spread more widely.

The joint food safety and standards group was established in September 1997 to make the administrative arrangements that preceded the setting up of the Food Standards Agency. They seem to be working well, and officials stand ready to respond to any problem that may occur in the future. Nothing in their working arrangements would prevent them from doing so effectively.

As for the powers of the Commission, I believe that it acted firmly and decisively as soon as it found out about the problem. It was Commissioner Fischler who informed me of the issue and the background. The Commission seems to have taken a tough line with the Belgian authorities, which I consider wholly right. It has responded proportionately as well as firmly, and my actions here have paralleled those of the Commission on behalf of the European Union.

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The hon. Gentleman asked what I had said to the Belgian Agriculture Minister at the informal Council meeting. The Belgian Agriculture Minister did not attend that meeting, because he had resigned.

Audrey Wise (Preston): I thank my right hon. Friend for his speedy and effective action to protect British consumers. I suggest that he remind the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo)--in the context of his sniping at the Food Standards Agency--that the pre-legislative Select Committee considering the agency was, happily, able to conclude unanimously, in a helpful report, that the agency would be extremely helpful in maintaining food safety.

In the light of his answer to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), does my right hon. Friend agree that what some of us are after can be properly described not as economic protectionism in relation to the United States, but simply as a strong and passionate desire for our consumers to be afforded the full right to choose what they consume, rather than having food imposed on them by the United States?

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