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Mr. Brown: No. Let me treat the House to a quote instead:

Of course, that would be illegal, but it is what the Leader of the Opposition said.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the French Government's decision will be regarded with astonishment throughout Europe because it is wholly unjustified? Will he seek to ensure that legal procedures are expedited as quickly as possible, because the integrity of European Union decisions would otherwise be called into question? Will he confirm that had we followed the advice of the Conservative party and launched a trade war by banning French imports, we would have been acting illegally, would have lost the support of 13 of the other 14 European union nations and would have undermined the legal recourse that we may now pursue?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not a bilateral dispute between the UK and France, but a dispute between the French and the rest of the EU. Legal action is being spearheaded by the Commission. I spoke this morning to Commissioner Byrne and urged him to move the action on as speedily as possible.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Since 8 November, when the Prime Minister said that the ban would be lifted within days, how many meetings has the Minister had with his French counterpart, and how many telephone conversations have they held?

Mr. Brown: I cannot treat the hon. Gentleman to the statistics that he asks for, but a substantial number of meetings has been held with the French and the Commission as we have tried to resolve the issue. The British Government have worked very hard to make dialogue work. Dialogue involving the French and the Commission resulted in a protocol that the French thought good enough to take back to their food standards agency. That agency then produced a further report for the French Government that could have provided a method by which the ban could be lifted. It is regrettable that that did not happen, but it was a political decision for the French Cabinet.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a trade war with France would not help my farmers? Confidence in British beef is the key factor if our overseas market is to be restored, and playing politics with British beef will not help.

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Farmers have said over and over that they do not want a damaging trade war of the kind advocated by the Leader of the Opposition. The domestic beef market is enormously important to beef farmers in the UK, and it

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speaks volumes for public confidence in our thorough public protection measures that beef sales are now higher than they were when the BSE crisis first broke.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Does the Minister recognise that we seek not a trade war, but the rule of law? Does he realise that although we now have no option but to have recourse to law, and although the French action is both a crime and a mistake, what farmers want is a livelihood, not a court drama? Will the Minister ensure that he keeps talking to arrive at a settlement?

Mr. Brown: I shall keep talking to the French, although the right hon. Gentleman's parliamentary colleagues jeered at me when I said so earlier. I accept that he is sincere in what he says, but he must acknowledge that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow agriculture spokesman advocate a trade war. They want the United Kingdom Government to break the law by illegally invoking article 36.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): May I invite my right hon. Friend to recall the situation that he inherited when he took office, which was exemplified by the case of an eight-year-old boy in my constituency who lost his mother to new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease? May I encourage him to continue to press the scientific case--through legal means if necessary--with his European colleagues? Will he also continue to ignore the bombastic Barbour jacket diplomacy of the Conservatives?

Mr. Brown: Bombast and pompous rhetoric will not get us through this problem. BSE has been a national tragedy for our country. The cost to the Exchequer is enormous--£4.6 billion is the latest calculation. It has also been a tragedy for the victims of new variant CJD. My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of our powerful public protection measures, which are the foundation of the case for the date-based export scheme.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): Will the right hon. Gentleman not realise that his softly, softly negotiating approach on the matter has been a disaster? Will he realise that when the French want a position they adopt the stance of de Gaulle and stand out and fight, irrespective of what the rest of Europe thinks about it? Hon. Members on both sides of the House are, hopefully, concerned for the farming community. What help will he and his Department give to farmers who are losing considerable sums of money because of the illegal continuation of the ban? How can they, rather like the Spanish fishermen, attempt to get some of the money back so that they can sustain a livelihood on the farm? What help will he and the Government give to assist farmers in that way?

Mr. Brown: Of course, we give a substantial amount of support and assistance to the beef sector, as the right hon. Gentleman knows--some domestically and some under the common agricultural policy. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that if, instead of negotiating reasonably, we behaved differently in the European Union, we would get a different outcome. I think that he is right. The previous Conservative Government behaved differently in Europe--they offended all our partners and

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launched a foolish beef war against the European Union and comprehensively lost it. Our partners view what we are doing in the European Union as different from the way in which the previous Government proceeded. That is why, in this dispute, they are all on our side.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Would my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to succeed in law, we must come with clean hands, we must remain on the high ground where we are now and we must avoid irresponsible and counterproductive populist gestures of the type suggested by the Opposition?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why I am rejecting the approach recommended by the official Opposition--of taking illegal measures against other countries, in particular the French. That is not the right way forward. It would turn this into a bilateral dispute between us and the French, instead of a dispute between them and the Commission, which is where we are at the moment.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): How right the Minister was to say that the catcalls should come after his statement. Does not this woeful saga in fact mark the collapse of the Government's entire European policy? Does it not demonstrate that, despite all the concessions that the Prime Minister has made on qualified majority voting and on joining new defence initiatives with the French, the fact remains that other European Union member states will pursue what they see as their national interests even if that is in breach of European law? When will the Government start to stand up for Britain's interests in Europe?

Mr. Brown: We are standing up for Britain's interests in Europe. The distinction between us and the previous Government is that we are doing it intelligently. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was a prominent member of the previous Government, who presided over the BSE crisis. I notice that in his contribution to the debate there was not a word of apology or regret from him.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Is not some of the Opposition's sham anger today intended to obscure the fact that my right hon. Friend has tried to bring the problem to a speedy conclusion and has tried to use the procedures with vigour and firmness to get the earliest conclusion and to avoid resorting to law? Is that sham anger perhaps intended to hide the cost to this nation and to the farming and meat industries of the Opposition's failure? Should we not remind people of what that cost was?

Mr. Brown: The cost is a substantial £4.6 billion and 47 lives tragically lost so far, with potentially more to come. We have had not a word of sorrow or regret, or even an admission of blameworthiness, from the Opposition, who presided over all of this; yet they jeer from the sidelines as the Government try to clean up the mess that they left us.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): The Minister goes on about having proper dialogue with the French. Does he not realise that to have a proper face-to-face dialogue, he must change the position of the

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British Government, because it is difficult to have dialogue if they are lying supine on the mat at the feet of the French Government? He must adopt a tougher negotiating position, having already given away all the aces and cards with which he had to play. Will the Minister answer this simple question? When did he last personally meet his French opposite number?

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