Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Brown: I spoke to my French counterpart on the telephone about an hour ago. The right hon. Gentleman says that we have made some tremendous concessions; there are no concessions--[Hon. Members: "Meet?"] I shall meet my French counterpart next Tuesday at the Agriculture Council. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that we have made concessions on the date-based export scheme; no concessions have been made, nor, in all those discussions, were any new imposts imposed in the discussions.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): I am appalled by the decision of the French Cabinet, but I salute my right hon. Friend on the statesmanship he has shown during the past months and on the way he has conducted himself, on behalf of the Government. Time and again, he has fought for British farmers. Does he agree that it is shameful of the Tory Opposition to criticise the Government? They would be unable to act differently. On 16 November, the shadow Minister of Agriculture appeared on GMTV. He said:

He was right then; he is wrong now.

Mr. Brown: The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South Suffolk, has adopted such a wide range of positions on the matter that he might, once or twice, get it right--probably by accident. Of course, the best way forward is to discuss these matters with our partners in the European Union--while always protecting our rights in law. That is exactly what we have done.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), asked the Minister whether the issue was to be raised by the Prime Minister at Helsinki. In what terms will it be raised? Will the Minister give us a clear statement that the matter will be raised at the highest level, and that the Prime Minister will report back to the House on any progress that he has made?

Mr. Brown: I have already dealt with that question several times. We intend to pursue the matter through the courts.

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on doing what the National Farmers Union, to whom the Opposition clearly do not listen, and the agricultural workers unions want--attempt to fast-track a settlement of the dispute. Like all reasonable and common sense thinking Members, I congratulate him on the work that he has done. Does he agree that if we were not full members of the EU--wholeheartedly so--we should now be unable to make the next move: to ensure that the French admit our beef under EU law?

Mr. Brown: The route through the courts is open to us because we are members of the EU. My hon. Friend is

9 Dec 1999 : Column 998

absolutely right to point out that farmers' organisations and farm employees' organisations support the approach adopted by the Government; not one of them has endorsed the approach of the parliamentary Opposition.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): What further concrete measures does the Minister propose, or will he continue to wait and wait until the court decides the issue? Will he merely continue to talk and talk? If he does not take concrete action, will not the whole of Europe regard Britain as a soft touch?

Mr. Brown: I shall continue to discuss the matter with the French, if they want to do so. However, the formal discussions have reached their conclusion--the document accepted by the French as good enough to go before their food standards agency. That did not result in the French Cabinet's agreeing to lift the ban. They made a significant statement--that is why we must now look to the courts.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): I too congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way he has conducted the negotiations; it was not only constructive, but effective. He has defined and clarified the position--that would never have been achieved by the ranting of the Opposition. Having done that, will he find out from the Commission whether there is a fast-track way of obtaining a decision from the court--some form of summary judgment? His negotiations have now made it so clear that the French are wrong and we are right.

Mr. Brown: After my discussions this morning with Commissioner Byrne, it is clear that the Commission is looking at those aspects of handling the case now. Tuesday's meeting of the Commission is the last step before the court case commences, so we are getting on with this as quickly as we can. My hon. Friend is right to say that the way to deal with these matters is by explanation and rational dialogue--not, as the Opposition seem to suggest, by adopting a belligerent position and embarking on an unlawful trade war.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): The French action is utterly indefensible, but seemingly it will take 12--perhaps 18--months to get the French before the bar of the European Court. Is there not a glaring message here: that the whole procedure must be quickened up rapidly, because otherwise there is an incentive for states to act in a similar way? If the procedure were quickened up, that incentive would be removed and they would not be able to skew the market for so many months.

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Those who do wrong should not benefit from it, and if justice is to come, it should come quickly. I made exactly that point to the Commissioner this morning.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): May I point out to my right hon. Friend that a trade war would inflict serious damage on the Scottish fishing industry? I remind him that when the Spanish trawler owners complained to the European Commission about the Tory Government's Merchant Shipping Act 1984, the Commission quickly hauled the Tory Government before the Court in Luxembourg. Those fishing interests in Spain

9 Dec 1999 : Column 999

are to receive substantial financial compensation. I hope that the same will hold for farmers throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Brown: Compensation is a matter for the Court. If one wants examples as to how not to handle such issues, there are plenty from the previous Government's stewardship of these issues, including the case that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Does not the present position prove that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) was right all along that we should have been engaging in dialogue but that at the same time, in July, we should have initiated legal procedures? Will the Minister give the House an assurance that the matter will be raised at Helsinki? If he will not, will he ask the Commission to take accelerated legal procedures in the European Court; and will he do two things in those procedures? First, will he press for compensation for British farmers; and secondly, will he ask for substantial fines if the French are proved to be acting illegally?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of this, but the legal action is already embarked upon. We have tried to resolve the matter by dialogue with the French. I have discussed accelerated action with Commissioner Byrne this morning. He is consulting his professional advisers on that point. It is obviously the United Kingdom Government's position that we want the matter to be before the courts as quickly as possible. The route that we have taken to resolve the matter now, given the disappointing--indeed, astonishing--decision of the French Cabinet, is to deal with it through the courts.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): The French decision is inexcusable, but does my right hon. Friend find nauseatingly distasteful the gloating glee with which some Tories greet every new sad consequence of the BSE disaster, for which they bear terrible responsibility, and which has cost billions of pounds and a tragic loss of life?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right. It is not very pleasant to watch elected Members of the House taking a delight in a difficulty that has befallen an important national interest--the more so as it is a difficulty over which they presided in the first place.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Obviously, I share the horror at what the French Government have done. Will the Secretary of State, while pursuing legal action, ensure that the Prime Minister recognises that when, on Monday, he reports to the House on what has happened at the weekend, our farmers' morale will be greatly boosted if they can believe in his statement that he has made them a priority and not put them to one side for the sake of other negotiations?

Secondly, is there anything that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or other offices of the Government can do to assist farmers in the legal action that would compensate them personally for any loss of exports?

Mr. Brown: I am not sure that it is open to my Department to underpin private legal actions, although I

9 Dec 1999 : Column 1000

understand the hon. Gentleman's point. No one could have done more than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to try to get this matter resolved by conducting dialogue with the French. Everyone in the Government has been working very hard on this. However--as I have repeatedly told the House--following the decision of the French Cabinet, although of course the dialogue between me, Jean Glavany and our respective Departments remains open, we now look to the courts for a resolution of the matter.

Next Section

IndexHome Page