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The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture. The Statement is as follows:
"Late last night, just after 11 o'clock in Paris, the French Prime Minister announced his Government's decision on how they intend to proceed in the light of the new advice from the French food safety agency, AFSSA, which they received on Monday, 6th December.
"The French statement said in effect that, even though the risk is no more than hypothetical, the French Government are not ready to lift their ban now, but wish instead to press for further work on testing for BSE, and on labelling of British beef and beef products, on the basis of EU regulations, so that consumers can make an informed choice.
"Her Majesty's Government are surprised and deeply disappointed that the French have chosen to take this position. It comes after many weeks of intensive talks from which we received the impression that we had answered all questions and met all the concerns from the French side.
"My right honourable friend the Prime Minister immediately spoke to M. Jospin last night and said that he believed the position the French were taking up was totally wrong, that it flew in the face of science, and was against the law. I wholly endorse that view.
"I have spoken to the Commissioner, David Byrne, and called on him now to proceed immediately with the court action against the French. Mr Byrne has confirmed that he will do so. He will ask next Tuesday's meeting of the full Commission to issue the legal opinion which is the last step before the court case commences. Mr Byrne has already stated publicly that he, too, finds the French Government's refusal to lift the ban deeply disappointing. The Commission have worked as hard as we have to resolve this matter through rational discussion. Mr Byrne sees no alternative now but court action.
"Some people are suggesting we were wrong to think we would make progress with the approach we adopted when this problem first arose in October. I profoundly disagree. I have no doubt we were right to engage in discussion as we did. I believe too that, through the clarification and assurances we gave about how we are operating the date-based export scheme, we responded in full to the points which the French Government raised with us, and gave them the basis they needed for lifting the ban.
"I well understand the anger which British farmers feel at this impasse. It is a poor reward for the massive efforts which British beef farmers and traders have been making to rebuild their industry and rebuild public confidence in their product. British beef is as safe as beef from anywhere else in Europe. That is not just my view. It is the unanimous view of the Commission's senior scientific advisers.
"I can understand the frustration felt more widely around the country. The French action is astonishing. They have delivered a blow to the credibility of European law. But the French are on their own in taking this defiant approach. I assure the House that this Government are working by all means possible to ensure that the French Government honour their Community obligations and lift the ban".
Lord Luke: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. If I were a farmer, I should be absolutely amazed at the total failure of the Government to persuade the French to obey European law. I should also be extremely unhappy at the way in which this whole matter has been handled by the Government. What comfort is it to a British farmer to hear the Minister say that France is isolated in Europe when he cannot sell his produce there?
The Statement says that the Minister telephoned Commissioner Byrne and asked him to proceed immediately with legal action against France. Why was that not done in parallel with the discussions and concessions made in the past few months? Legal action will take months, or even years. Then there is the strong likelihood of an appeal. It looks as though the French farmers will have a free run for quite a long time to come.
In another place, speaker after speaker said that the Opposition had no policy except to advocate a trade war with France. What absolute nonsense! A call to ban imports of French beef to this country on the grounds of the contamination caused by feeding animals human sewage is both legal in European law and is by no stretch of the imagination the commencement of a trade war.
Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness some further questions concerning this matter. In parallel with agreeing to the commencement of legal proceedings by the EU, will the Prime Minister raise this whole matter at the summit at Helsinki? When did the Minister, Mr Nick Brown, last meet his opposite number in France, Mr Glavany? We know that he spoke with him on the telephone this morning. How could the Government be surprised, as described in the Statement, by this morning's French action when it was clearly flagged up by the French food safety agency's refusal on Monday to ratify the protocol of understanding between the French and British governments? Will the Minister consider how well the French Government look after, by fair means or foul,
Will the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food advise farmers on how to seek financial compensation from the European Court for the damage that French lawbreaking has caused them? Is France fit to take over the presidency of the European Union in July 2000 when it is likely to be under arraignment at that time for breaking EU law? I echo what my right honourable friend Michael Howard said in another place this morning. When will the Government start standing up for Britain in Europe?
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, we on these Benches are appalled by the French decision, which is clearly political and not based at all on science or on any legal position. It must be based on making sure that French farmers receive a present from their government for Christmas in a quite inappropriate way.
I agree with the noble Lord on the Conservative Front Bench that we must demand quick legal redress from the European Union. In this case, it is extremely fortunate that we have the EU on our side--as indeed it should be--to take such action on our behalf.
As to compensation, can the Minister inform the House what advice the Government will give farmers and whether they will address this matter on their behalf in a collective way? We believe that a trade war would be a disaster for the sheep and lamb industry and other sectors. As many farmers are involved in sheep, lamb and beef, we do not believe that it would be in their best interests to widen this dispute into a trade war. Although that might appear to be a nice knee-jerk reaction, it would not be in the best interest of our farmers in the long term.
It is clear that the French have no support for their action among other European countries. I echo the noble Lord's question: how can the French assume the presidency of the European Union in the second half of next year given their illegal stand in this case? Given today's dreadful news for farmers, can the Minister inform the House of the outcome of the beef summit hosted by the Prime Minister last week? What news is there about other countries which still do not take our beef but should be persuaded to do so?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the decision taken by the French Government is surprising because the science has been gone into, and studied in enormous detail again, at Community level. The concerns raised by the French food agency have been looked at by the scientific committee of the EU in great depth. The AFSSA judgment on the memorandum of understanding was in no way a clear-cut basis for this decision. The length of time taken by the French Government in debating it reflects that they had not received clear advice from their food standards agency. I also say to the noble Lord--it is important
A question was raised as to whether the Government had delayed in this area. The Commission has been extremely supportive. It is not a matter of initiating legal action now; it was initiated by the Commission on 17th November and has been proceeding in parallel with the discussions that have taken place. As I said in repeating the Statement, Commissioner Byrne asked on Tuesday that the last step be taken by the full Commission in terms of issuing the legal opinion. Some news has come in since my right honourable friend spoke in another place this morning. I understand that Commissioner Byrne has asked that the French be given only five days to respond before the case goes to court. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, that is a very short timeframe in this context.
I was asked whether this matter will be on the agenda at Helsinki. Certainly, it is not on the agenda in any formal sense. We are not now in a negotiating situation. Sadly, we are in a position where the law must take its course. This is not a bilateral dispute between us and the French but a matter where the French are isolated in Europe, and it is for Europe to take the appropriate action to ensure that the French obey the law.
The noble Lord asked me exactly when my right honourable friend had last seen, rather than spoken to, Mr Glavany, which was only a matter of hours ago. I believe that it was at the meeting of EU agricultural Ministers in the third week of November. A good deal of peripheral comment has been made to suggest that there has not been communication between Her Majesty's Government and the French Government over the past weeks in trying to resolve the situation. Throughout there has been a great deal of communication at all levels by my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture and officials.
We understand the deep disappointment that will be felt by farmers in this country. The question of compensation has been raised. It is possible for court action to be pursued, and those concerned must do that on an individual legal basis. But we are working from a position where we must rebuild the market for British beef abroad on a base that has not existed while the export ban has been in place. That task will take some time. There are 13 countries within Europe which accept our beef, and the Germans have today reiterated that they are putting in place the legislative process to do so.
The noble Baroness asked specifically about the Prime Minister's beef breakfast. At that meeting it was agreed that we would take several measures. One of them is to ease the cost of regulation on the meat industry by pegging charges by the Meat Hygiene Service this year and ensuring that they do not rise next year by more than the rate of inflation. We shall have
I was fascinated to hear the noble Lord's exposition of policy. He appeared to suggest that we should put ourselves in exactly the same position as the French: isolated in Europe and introducing a ban on French beef under Article 36 in a way that is completely illegal. As the president of the National Farmers' Union said when referring to the idea put forward by the Leader of the Opposition in another place, that idea is illegal. We export a good deal of food into Europe and to adopt tit-for-tat measures is not the answer.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, first I declare an interest as a dairy farmer. I express some sympathy for the noble Baroness for having to repeat such a Statement. Surely, no one can have been surprised that the French should decide to do this. Equally, is it not astonishing that even now the Minister says that he profoundly disagrees with the suggestion made by some that the Government were wrong to believe that they could make progress with the approach that they adopted? It was quite obvious that they would not do so. Is it not time to face the basic fact of political life that the French Government have no more intention of allowing British beef into France than Sinn Fein/IRA has of handing over its stock of Semtex?
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