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House of Lords

Wednesday, 11th February 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

The Earl of Stair (Lord Oxenfoord)--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

World Trade Organisation: 50th Anniversary

Lord Thomson of Monifieth asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the United Kingdom delegation to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva in May will be led by the Prime Minister.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis): My Lords, the composition of the United Kingdom delegation to the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade has not yet been decided.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he agree that the WTO is one of the most important of the world's international organisations, and arguably more effective than the UN in both its settlement and its enforcement procedures? Does he therefore agree that as the UK at present holds the presidency of the EU--one of the biggest single trading blocs in the world, with an immense interest in protecting the world from any reversion towards protectionism--it would be highly appropriate for the British delegation to be led by the Prime Minister?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, the point raised by the noble Lord is right. The WTO, and not least the way in which dispute resolution is achieved, is of the highest importance. It represents an international rule of law relating to trading. The Government are fully committed to the multilateral trading system at whose very heart the WTO stands. The Prime Minister has already entered into a number of important commitments for that week. I am sure that he will take note of what has been said and what has been communicated to him by his colleagues about the importance of the WTO. It is a question of unravelling a difficult situation. He has, for example, no fewer than three summits during that week,

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so it is difficult to organise. However, I am sure that my right honourable friend will read with great interest what the noble Lord has said.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, when the time comes will the Government carry the clear message that social and development issues be taken into account in multilateral decision-making?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for raising that important issue. I can assure him that we do not lose sight of social and environmental issues, not least in the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which is being negotiated at present and which has considerable immediacy. I have made it clear that we shall use every possible avenue to raise those matters. However, when it comes to the WTO there is a difficulty. Is it the right venue at which to raise this issue? Due to the almost unanimous decision, which I hope can be broken down, of the developing countries, there is little prospect of agreement there. The right locus at the present time has to be the ILO, where we shall be concentrating our efforts. In the margins of all those conferences, my ministerial colleagues and I take every opportunity to raise these issues.

Lord Lang of Monkton: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government remain committed to the target of global free trade by 2020--a target set by the previous government, and supported by the WTO? Does he agree that it is important to adhere to such targets to avoid the re-emergence of protectionism?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to emphasise that protectionism, especially at this juncture, with the difficulties in Asia, is the enemy of the prospect of advancement of the countries which are most affected. I share the view that he expressed and endorse every word of what he said.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, would not the existence of global free trade, which I should have thought must be everyone's objective, make it impossible for the EU to exclude any country if it were not a member?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, the noble Lord poses a question which it is difficult for me to answer in about half a minute. The EU is not engaged in excluding people from trading opportunities. It accepts the ambitions of the WTO, and has played an important part, especially in recent days, when dealing with the liberalisation of financial services. Every member state, and the Commissioner himself, deserves the plaudits of the House for what has been achieved in that direction. The convention against corruption is another significant success in terms of the OECD--again, registered in the past month or so. What the noble Lord said is not altogether right.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, does the Minister's reply mean that, if Britain were to withdraw from the

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European Union, the European Union would be prevented by the World Trade Organisation from putting up any tariffs against British goods?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am not in the business of answering fanciful questions.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, surely Her Majesty's Government must acknowledge that the express and explicit views of the European Commission on this matter are very much at variance with those of the World Trade Organisation? Does he agree that sooner or later this Government or others will have to choose which they will adhere to?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, with respect, my noble friend is wrong because in most respects, if not all respects, the WTO has been supported by the European Union. We accept the disputes mechanism resolution procedure and the need for liberalisation of world trade. Where my noble friend gets his idea, without evidence, that the European Union opposes the principles and precepts of the World Trade Organisation, I do not know. At every meeting I have attended as mandating Commissioner of Britain, the European Union has stood firmly behind the principles of the WTO.

Oxtail: Sale Ban

2.45 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend their ban on the sale and consumption of oxtail to be permanent and which other countries have taken similar action.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, the ban on the sale of oxtail will, like other BSE control measures, be kept under regular review. Any future decision to lift it will be taken in the light of scientific developments and progress with the eradication of BSE. It is a national measure to protect public health and to enhance confidence in British beef. We are not aware of other governments taking similar action.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I hope that the Minister will be persuaded to open his mind a little further than is permitted within the narrow confines of his department. Will he accept that the risk now attaching to eating beef produced in this country is so minuscule as to be non-existent? Will he also accept that the ban, which is difficult and expensive to enforce, will prove haphazard in its application and is causing unwarrantable damage to the beef industry in this country? Surely there are other greater perils from which a vigilant government would wish to protect us before getting into a mess with this one.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I have always enjoyed the noble Lord's interventions, but I have not

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hitherto been on the receiving end. I repeat that the Government are convinced of the reasons for the ban. The reasons relate to public health, restoring the confidence in British beef and assisting us to lift the European ban on the export of British beef. I do not accept that there is no risk. There is a small risk, but there is a real risk.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, in how many countries is British oxtail already banned? Have not this Government and their predecessor been told to give the highest possible priority to the removal of the international ban on British beef? Would that ban have been more easily removed without the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food having taken the decision which was entirely justified on medical evidence?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. We are working hard to try to get the beef ban lifted. It is conceivable that not every member of the European Union is as enthusiastic as we are in that process. It is important that we give them no ammunition to delay the process of lifting the ban. In Brussels, I was assured that had we allowed into our human food chain meat which was technically not safe that would have provided ammunition to delay the lifting of the beef ban.

The Earl of Radnor: My Lords, does the Minister believe that, when we are so frightened of eating our own beef, the right message is going out, and that we are convincing members of the Community to eat our beef and our oxtail? Surely the message going out is: we are terrified of eating our own beef, so why should you eat it?

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