§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer)
The House will be aware of the illegal ban on British beef exports imposed by France, Germany and Italy, and of the very vigorous response by the Government and the Commission to this unilateral action.
I attended a special meeting of the Council, called at the request of the Commission, to address this intolerable situation which had grave consequences for the Community institutions and their reputation.
The Council met on 6 June to consider advice from the Commission's independent scientific veterinary committee. Mr. MacSharry—the Agriculture Commissioner—stated clearly that this advice, reached unanimously, repeated the committee's earlier judgment that existing Community rules on bovine spongiform encephalopathy fully protected public and animal health. There is therefore no reason to prevent the free circulation of British beef on the basis of the measures already taken by the United Kingdom and the Community.
It was clear from the meeting that some member states were not prepared to stand by the best scientific advice—even when proffered by experts from across the Community. We therefore were faced with a range of trade-distorting and protectionist demands which we discussed throughout Wednesday night and this morning. I am pleased to tell the House that we achieved a successful settlement much to Britain's advantage.
The main features of the settlement are, first, the commitment by all member states to lift at once their import restrictions; secondly, British beef is to be accepted in all markets of the Community and that agreement is to cover calves, carcases, and boneless meat; thirdly, the Commission will take up immediately with third countries the need immediately to remove any trade restrictions that are still in place; and, fourthly, the Commission will take up the case for extending our ban on feeding ruminant protein to ruminants. The Netherlands has already followed suit. Denmark implements tomorrow and the French have said that they are likely to take a similar step. That is a major change which will defend and protect people's health throughout the Community.
Fifthly, there will be a research programme, which is designed to explore the likelihood of BSE occurring in Community countries other than the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
The Commission has undertaken to extend the coverage of beef intervention in this country. In large measure the export arrangements for British beef remain in place. We shall reinforce our control systems—particularly in the marking of calves. Importers of carcases from the United Kingdom have pointed to the fact that our cutting arrangements are not always duplicated in their plants. They are not therefore able to give the consumer the assurances that we give at home regarding the removal of all specified material. To provide some measure of similar assurance for consumers in other member states, we have agreed not to send bone-in carcases from holdings which have recently had BSE cases.
§ Mr. Gummer
There is no limitation of the export of bone-out British beef—[Interruption.]—precisely because Britain is covered by tougher regulations and the British housewife is better protected. The hon. Gentleman's constituents in Bolsover are better protected than people in any other Community country. He should know that and not undermine British beef.
All Community countries now express themselves fully satisfied on the export of British beef. The scientific veterinary commitee has reiterated its clear statement on the safety of British beef. The Commission has wholly vindicated the British position and we have averted an extremely damaging trade dispute—in a matter of a single week. Unilateral action should not have been taken. Tonight that action has been rescinded.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
I thank the Minister most sincerely for coming to the House at such a late hour after spending so many hours locked in deadlock in negotiations.
We very much welcome the lifting of the ban on the trade in British cattle, but having listened to the Minister with great care, I thought that he delivered a deliberately carefully constructed statement that concealed more than it revealed—[ Interruption.] When hon. Members have had time to study and assimilate it, they may come to the same conclusion. Therefore, may I ask the Minister several specific questions arising from it and perhaps relating to it? If it was such a successful outcome, why did he spend 26 hours fighting most of the proposals and why did he flatly reject the certification proposals when they were put forward by the Germans six months ago? Why did he say then that they were inoperative and, indeed, unnecessary? We demand, and have a right to, an answer to that point.
Secondly, will he confirm that there remains a total ban on all British cattle over the age of six months to every one of the European member states? Will he also confirm that there is a ban on all calves born of BSE cows to every one of the EEC states? We need to know the answer to that one. Will he also confirm to the House that the result of the triumphal statement that he made is that in effect we have extended the German ban on bone-in beef to every other Community country? I believe that that is the case. Has he assessed the capacity of meat cutting and packaging firms in Britain? Can they cope with all the deboning that will be necessary as a result of the agreement?
Will the Minister clarify another point that worries many people? Both the British and the French housewife will buy beef from British cows, but is there not a distinct difference between what they will buy? Are there not now two markets for British beef in Europe? Will the Minister confirm that following his cave-in today—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."]—beef will be allowed to be sold to the British consumer which cannot be sold to the French consumer? [Interruption.] This is a very serious point and people have the right to know about it. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may not be interested in what is on offer to their electorates but I certainly am and most Opposition Members are. I repeat the question. Is it true that beef will be sold to the British consumer which it would be illegal to sell to the French consumer? In short, is not the British consumer being treated as a second-rate citizen in that respect?
901 Finally, we welcome the fact that we have had the ban lifted. Will the Minister accept that he has merely bought breathing space? Will he take a major initiative to reassure the British consumer?
§ Dr. Clark
It is interesting that when I ask purely factual questions—[ Interruption.] When hon. Gentlemen read Hansard tomorrow they will find that I have not proffered any opinions but merely asked questions. If the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson) wants to shout from a sedentary position "Cheat", that is up to him. I know that he is in the butchering industry and that he has a vested interest in that respect. Conservative Members may not be interested in the long-term interests of the beef industry and the consumer, but we are—[ Interruption.] It is important that we save our beef and farming industries.
Will the Minister take some initiatives to get reassurances not only at home but abroad? Will he urge the EC to establish a committee of medical experts to complement that of the veterinarians to examine the human aspects related to beef? [ Laughter.] I wonder why Conservative Members laugh. Are they afraid of the scientific evidence? [HON. MEMBERS: "You are."]
Will the Minister now introduce the random sampling of routinely slaughtered cows to judge the extent of the disease? As part and parcel of that and his certification policy, will he introduce the tagging of cows and herd movement books to assist the tracing of individual animals? If the Minister feels that it is necessary to introduce legislation along the lines of that operating in Northern Ireland—introduced correctly by the Government——
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
Does the hon. Gentleman have a doctorate in defamation? Why does he not stick to subjects of which he has some knowledge?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. This is not a debate. The hon. Gentleman must ask his questions to which he will get the answers.
§ Dr. Clark
With the opinion polls showing Labour 23 per cent. ahead, we all know who will be the Opposition. I should point out that one can have a lower case as well as an upper case "o" with the word opposition.
Sensible arrangements have been introduced in Northern Ireland for the tagging of animals and movement books. Such arrangements are a prerequisite to any system of certification. If the Government feel that it is necessary to introduce such legislation we shall facilitate its movement on to the statute book.
902 The Minister mentioned scientific knowledge. Is he prepared to make facilities available to all bona fide scientists, at home and overseas, so that they can try to tackle and overcome the serious and dangerous problem of BSE? The first thing that we must aim to do is to eradicate BSE from the British herd. Only then can we restore the full confidence in our beef and cattle industry that we all want.
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman began by asking why we had taken 26 hours to achieve this decision. It is because we started with demands which were extremely unacceptable to Britain. The extent of the discussions—I put this in the mildest way I can—was much greater because I constantly had to counter the repeating to me by those with whom I was negotiating the wild statements supported by the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Gummer
I do not need to repeat them, because the hon. Gentleman repeated a whole range of them during his questions. I will not lower the debate to the kind of party-political debate I have seen on television tonight. Let me make a direct comment to the hon. Gentleman. When we have a solution that is backed by all 12 nations, for the hon. Gentleman to talk about temporary arrangements and about our returning again—in the way he talked on television tonight—can do nothing but undermine the agreement that has been reached by those nations in Brussels after 26 hours of negotiation.
The arrangements are those of the whole of the Community. It is not a special deal with Germany, which is what the Germans were seeking, and that is why it is entirely different. It means that we are selling into Germany beef that we were not able to sell in before. It is wholly wrong to say that this agreement applies only to bone-out beef. That is precisely what was being tried on us, with people pushing for that. In fact, this allows for bone-in beef carcases to spread throughout the Community, including into Germany, where they had been stopped by unilateral action for some months.
The British housewife is protected, and her confidence is supported, much better than is the case in any other country in the European Community, because our cutting arrangements for beef with bones, as well as bone-out beef, make sure that all the specified material is removed. With exported carcases, that cannot be assured in the importing country, so we are giving a secondary assurance that is not as extensive as that which we provide now for the British consumer. Opposition Members who suggest otherwise cannot have the interests of the consumer or of the farming community at heart. I put the consumer first. I wish that Opposition Members would do the same.
If the hon. Gentleman wishes me to talk about European Community committees, I gladly do so. I have upheld the European specialist committees and fought for them to be upheld, and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should still be proposing that I do things that scientific committees in this country and abroad have said we should not do, or have recommended that we should no longer do, because we should use the resources elsewhere. I have told the hon. Gentleman those facts time and again. He still repeats, on television and elsewhere, the statement that he made, and he must be careful lest someone accuses him—though I would never do so—of misleading the British people. I must tell Labour Members that it is 903 becoming increasingly clear that the interests at their heart are not the interests that we would seek to propose but the interests of party politics.
§ Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)
To an even greater extent—because of the extraordinary and deplorable comments of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)—I ask my right hon. Friend to accept the congratulations and gratitude of beef farmers in Hampshire and throughout the United Kingdom. I also ask him to pursue further the proposition that his sterling efforts to promote, protect and further the interests of British agriculture have been utterly undermined by the negative and destructive attitude of Labour Members, in this House and in the European Parliament.
§ Mr. Gummer
It is a pity if we cannot be pleased when we have achieved something that is to the benefit of the British consumer and British farmer. Once upon a time hon. Members on both sides of the House were keen to do that. In any event, let us accept that we have done what we set out to do. The bans are now raised. The Community has solved this problem within a week, whereas in the past it has taken months. Had we gone to court, however quickly it had been done—and the Commission instituted very fast measures—it would have taken much longer. We have come back with the best deal that could be achieved and a deal which is highly satisfactory for the nation.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)
On this occasion I hold the view that hon. Members on both sides of the House, never mind the party to which they belong, should back the Minister and the Commission to the hilt. I congratulate the Minister on his stand against the Germans and the French. Perhaps many Opposition Members are not aware that the beef industry in Wales is worth £253 million, and that it is also important to England, Scotland and Ireland. Over eight or 10 weeks irresponsible statements have been made by politicians in this country, by a few scientists and by some sections of the media. I hope that after this episode the people who have been responsible for such scaremongering will pull themselves together to safeguard the interests of agriculture and consumers.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, was compensation discussed? Secondly, can he assure our beef producers that exports of beef will be back to normal within the next few weeks?
§ Mr. Gummer
Certainly, the other countries have accepted that the ban must be raised immediately. I am perfectly prepared to be reasonable about the time at which the messages go out, although I see from the veterinary arrangements of the Federal Republic of Germany that notices to the Lander went out even before the final agreement was reached. That shows that the Federal Republic fulfilled its commitment honourably.
The hon. Gentleman asked about compensation. We were not prepared to discuss that because we were discussing the principle of trade within the Community. There was some attempt by some people to suggest that we 904 could be bought off, out of the business of trading. That was entirely to try to protect their own farmers. I am not prepared to go in for such discussions and would not countenance them. As I said in my statement, the Commission has agreed to extend the coverage of intervention so that it covers an area which other countries appeared to have and which we have not had up to now in the context of what I understand are referred to as 03 steers. This is not a vast matter, but it is an important matter of fairness and equality which I am pleased we were able to sort out.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
May I add my warmest congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Minister on his outstanding success in the interests of the consumer and the farmer? Was he able in his long night to cover the issue of the export of live breeding cattle to the continent? The performance of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), has been a disgrace to the nation and has greatly let down the farmer and the consumer.
§ Mr. Gummer
I believed that we ought to start the negotiations by accepting the scientific veterinary committee's advice, which was almost exactly the advice that it had given to us before on two separate occasions. Therefore, this was not the time to discuss with the Commission whether its past decisions ought to be changed. We were in the business of accepting the Commission's statement that it had already clearly protected the public and that we did not need to move from there. That was a proper basis.
I have made certain alterations, all of which are consistent with scientific advice. I was not prepared to be pushed down the route which I am often asked to go down by the Opposition and by those on the continent who took up the same arguments about going down routes that are not scientifically defensible. Once one does that, one cannot stand anywhere. As soon as one accepts a non-scientific answer, there is no reason not to accept another such answer. To do that would mean that we could not stand where we have been standing. I am proud that the Government are able to say that we have taken the necessary measures before the scare arose and are still taking them and have not added to them because there is no scientific judgment that would lead us to do so. However, if the scientists asked us to take additional measures because there was a change in the information that they received, I would of course take them. That is a sensible basis on which to operate, rather than rushing after any old hare that happens to arise.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)
The beef industry is most important in the Northern Ireland economy, and worth some £300 million to us. There is rightly resentment in Northern Ireland at the ridiculous, outrageous and hyped-up media coverage of this issue. There is disappointment about the statements from the official Opposition. I regret to have to say that, but it is a fact. On behalf of the Ulster Unionists, I pay tribute to the Minister for having robustly defended the industry. We appreciate what has been achieved in difficult circumstances.
As we in Northern Ireland can identify each animal in each herd, do we not have an opportunity to export both bone-in and bone-out meat? Should there be some 905 difficulty in getting the market to stabilise, will the Ministry continue to provide intervention support until the market does stabilise?
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. The intervention support will continue while the market continues as it is. As the hon. Gentleman knows, intervention is automatically triggered through the management committee on the basis of the market situation in any three regions of the Community—in this case, Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Both that and the promotion support going through the various organisations will continue.
There are great opportunities for British beef, from whatever part of the United Kingdom it comes, because we produce some of the best beef in the world. One of the reasons why it felt so satisfied about the agreement is that it allows carcase meat to continue to be sold throughout the Community. That is important to Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the robust way in which the north of Ireland organisations, the Secretary of State and the farmers' organisations have supported me in this. They could have sought an independent arrangement, but were determined that this should be a United Kingdom answer, and that is what we have.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)
The farming community and the meat industry in Northern Ireland have heaved a sigh of relief because the Minister has succeeded in getting this illegal ban, which was put on unilaterally and in defiance of the single market arrangement, lifted. The House knows my attitude to the Common Market. There are those who pay lip service to the single market, but when it comes to their national individual interests are prepared to flout it. Have not these people done serious harm to our industry and put a shadow over British beef? Under the rules of the Community, should not they be made to pay for what is a crime under the laws of the treaty?
Are not United Kingdom consumers better protected than those of any other country in the Community? For example, we are not subjected to meat that has been produced from cows that have been fed with concentrates. Yet these very nations that are crying out against Britain are still feeding offal concentrates to their animals. Therefore, our beef is better.
Would not it be monstrous if the Republic of Ireland, which has BSE, could freely export its meat to Europe? The Minister knows that cattle know no border in the island of Ireland, but Northern Ireland could be discriminated against.
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I do not normally agree with him about much, but this time we can be as one.
I strongly support the concept of the European Community and the single market, and I am a believer in closer relationships between the countries of Europe. That is why I considered this unilateral action so wrong, and why I was able to argue so vehemently against it. It is very noticeable how people who talk easily of solidarity and Community arrangements shift from foot to foot when confronted by those who not only talk of those principles but uphold them.
I pay tribute to the supportive chairmanship of the Minister from the Irish Republic, who was extremely helpful in the negotiations—as, indeed, was Mr. 906 MacSharry, the Commissioner. We tend to vent our wrath sometimes; let me say how much both helped us to achieve our end.
Although I might have put much of what was said by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) less robustly, I agree that we need to stop the Community descending into old-fashioned retributive arguments when it fears that its markets have been imperilled by the products of certain nations. We have to put up with it: I have stood at this Dispatch Box and refused the Opposition's demands for illegal action on imported eggs in relation to salmonella, and I could argue the case on the strongest ground.
§ Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
I think that the whole House—and at least some parts of the Opposition—will appreciate that the Minister has sought a communautaire approach to the problem—
§ Dr. Thomas
—and has not responded to the old-fashioned, unilateralist, nation-state nationalism exhibited by others. I am also grateful to him for expressing appreciation for the role played by the Irish Minister and Mr. MacSharry.
I ask the Minister to respond to the feelings of many of us that the official Opposition have used the issue as a handle to attack the Government. They have not based their attack on the needs of consumers, or the needs of United Kingdom agriculture; they have simply used the matter as another stick with which to beat their opponents. That has prevented them from addressing the real issues.
Will the Minister, for instance, tell us a little more about the Commission's decision to take up the case of the ban on feeding ruminant protein to ruminants? What will that mean Community-wide? He also mentioneda research programme … to explore the likelihood of BSE occurring in Community countries other than the UK and the Republic of Ireland.That is clearly part of the ongoing Community-wide solution to the problem, which will prevent us from becoming involved in sterile arguments about bans imposed on nation-state borders that are part of the old Europe rather than the new Europe that all of us are anxious to build.
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I think that this must be a communautaire answer: after all, we are talking about selling our products throughout the European Community, and we must therefore have a common regime governing how they are sold. We must also base that regime on the clear scientific evidence that British beef is perfectly safe. It needs to be sold, because much of it is some of the best in Europe. I said on French television today—in rather strong terms—that I hoped that French people would now be able to eat the best beef in the world, some of which will come from Wales.
The support of the Welsh industry has been very helpful, and I have been able to attend the negotiations with clear support from the nation as a whole. Although I do not want to pursue all the points made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas), the House must realise that most countries come to Community debates representing the entirety of their Governments and Oppositions: they are not faced with 907 quotations from others by those with whom they are negotiating. We must give serious consideration to that aspect of the matter.
Of course we shall look carefully at the Commission's proposals relating to the ruminant ban. We know that the Dutch have supported us all along, having imposed a ruminant ban much earlier. The Danes are doing so tomorrow; the French asked to be allowed to do so in advance of any decision by the Community in their case, and can do so as long as they do it in a particular form. It appears to me that they will take that view.
My view is that of all the issues that appear to be certain, one is the very real belief that the reason for this disease is the contamination of feed. It is much more sensible that ruminant feeds should not be fed to ruminants. Many of us believe that there is a natural business of that sort—but leaving that aside there is some pretty clear evidence that we should follow, and we shall press the Community on that.
The Community will carry out the research because many worry lest there may be cases that are not so clearly notifiable as they are in this country. We protect our public very much better than any other country does because we face the issues. We have the largest incidence and we have put into place all the measures that the scientists have recommended. That is why we can, with real confidence, support what the chief medical officer says about the safety of British beef.
§ Mr. Robert Boscawen (Somerton and Frome)
The British livestock industry has faced a severe crisis during the past 10 days, and therefore the consumer has also faced a severe crisis—despite the sour grapes of the Opposition. One would think that they did not know what had happened. My right hon. Friend deserves the gratitude of this country—and not only in the short term—for his salutary manner, which means that this will not easily be repeated.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that herds that suffer this tragic disease will not in any way be penalised, as was suggested in earlier reports from Brussels?
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank my hon. Friend and can confirm that there were proposals of the sort to which he referred. We cannot provide the same protection as we provide for our home produce because we do not do the deboning and cutting up of the carcases when they go in carcase form. Therefore, we have agreed to measures which do not provide the same level of protection—they cannot—but which will help in the ability to sell abroad. The measure will help producers in a number of parts of the country. Everyone recognises that Britain protects everybody by taking every animal with BSE out of the food chain and destroying it, and taking the insides and any specified material out of every animal, even though it is healthy. That is something that we can do for the British consumer that cannot be done by countries that do not have the same cutting practices.
§ Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)
Is it not clear that the European Council of Ministers has failed to endorse the Minister's claim that all British beef is safe? It said—the Minister agreed with it—that 95 per cent. of British beef is fit enough to be exported. Has not the right hon. Gentleman replaced a total ban on exports with a creeping 908 ban? The rate of spread of BSE is doubling every six months. It now affects 5 per cent. of our herds. Within a year it will affect 20 per cent. and within two years all our herds will be affected. Has not the Minister agreed today to a creeping ban? Why does he not take decisive action to eradicate BSE? European countries have their doubts about vertical transmission, which is why the Minister reluctantly agreed that calves of cows with BSE would not be exported. Why does he not introduce a slaughter policy for the calves of BSE-affected cows with 100 per cent. compensation for farmers?
§ Mr. Gummer
There have been a number of interventions from Members from the Principality, but that was the least helpful one to the consumer or to the farmer. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's constituents hear exactly what he said. I shall not do what the hon. Gentleman proposes because the expert scientific committee, the Tyrrell committee—I understand that the hon. Gentleman is a doctor of chemistry—has said that that would not be helpful.
§ Mr. Gummer
It may be only one page but there is a great deal more truth on that one page than we have heard from the hon. Gentleman today.
The hon. Gentleman must accept that what he has said is not based on fact at all. He must also come to terms with his conscience and decide whether he is prepared to bear the burden of the sort of things that he is saying when they are wholly contrary to the expert advice that has been given. That must question whether what he says is helpful to consumers or to farmers.
§ Mr. Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)
Will my right hon. Friend accept the congratulations of Conservative Members and all thinking Opposition Members? Does my right hon. Friend realise that there are only 10 Back-Bench Labour Members behind the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and only four of his trouper friends next to him? Despite every detail of every incident being theirs for the asking during the past four years—if the Opposition did not know to ask, they did not know what was happening—they have made up their mind to destroy the small British high street butcher and the small British farmer, all because they think that they will cull a few votes from the consumers who woo them every day for lunch in London. Again, I add my congratulations to those from the packed Conservative Benches and the packed ranks of the miserable 12 Members on the Labour Benches.
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The real issue is that we should not put the interests of farmers, butchers or anyone else ahead of the consumer. Nor must we ever damage the interests of the consumer because we wish to push a particular personal or party point. The real argument here is that the interests of the consumer demand that we publish and act upon the best scientific advice. I clearly committed myself to publish and give the information and I have done so in every particular. I do it day in and day out, but I am always accused by the Opposition of not doing so. I would 909 certainly not resile from that commitment because if everybody knows the facts, they need have no fear, and that is how to support the consumer.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I do not care tuppence for the French and the Germans and the Common Market, and I have listened to farmers on "News at Ten", some of whom are not very happy about the deal. Can the Minister explain why the French, Germans and others in the Common Market will have beef that has a seal of approval, while the British consumer will get the scrag end?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. He knows that he is wrong. He heard my comments, and he only makes the remarks he does because he thinks that he might get the odd bit of support in the country. Every consumer in Britain is better protected than any consumer in the whole of the rest of the Community. We have in place a much more comprehensive protection system than it does. The hon. Gentleman may refer to himself when he speaks of scrag end, but he does not refer to the high-quality beef provided for British consumers and cut for British consumers in Britain.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister, particularly on behalf of the Cheale family in my constituency, which is one of the largest exporters of British beef in this country—and whose business has been grievously damaged by the action of our so-called partners on the continent.
The Cheale family informs me that it is inconceivable that the problem does not exist among continental herds. That is confirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who is himself a beef farmer. I was interested by the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Minister about investigating the problem on the continent. Is he aware of the link between BSE and rabies? Apparently, the physical symptoms manifested by an animal with BSE are very similar to those of rabies. In countries where rabies is endemic, animals are often put down because they are suspected of having rabies when they are probably victims of BSE. I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear that in mind when he begins his investigations, so that there is no cover-up of continental cases.
§ Mr. Gummer
It is certainly true that the United States of America is reconsidering a number of cases of bovine rabies to establish whether they were misdiagnosed and might have been cases of BSE. We must wait to see the results of that work.
I am not one of those who want to understate the seriousness of the problem in Britain by saying, "BSE is found elsewhere as well." I am concerned about the protection of the public. If one wants to protect animal and human health, one must take the best measures possible. One of the measures that we have taken, as have the Dutch and the Danes—it is one which we hope the French will take—is to get rid of ruminant feed for ruminants. I am sure that that is a good step. I hope that the rest of the Community will take the steps now applicable to them in their particular circumstances—because this is a Community decision—if incidents of BSE are found in other countries.
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
Will the Minister confirm that there have been more than 11,000 confirmed cases of 910 BSE in England and Wales alone, and that the number is rising? Is not it the case that bone-in beef from non-infected herds only will be exported to Europe? Does not that mean that a higher proportion of beef from infected herds will remain in this country? Will the Minister answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that one standard of beef will not be exported but will be made available to the British consumer?
§ Mr. Gummer
It is clear that the hon. Gentleman does not understand anything at all about BSE. It does not involve infected herds. It is not like foot and mouth disease. BSE is caught by eating contaminated feed. 'We have always proceeded on the basis of the worst possible case, which is that there might be some kind of maternal transmission. Although we have been unable to prove that, I have always thought it best to take that possibility into account. However, it is not a sensible proposition that BSE affects herds in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. The hon. Gentleman should not say such things. If he does, those people who think that he knows about such matters might take his words seriously.
I confirm absolutely to the hon. Gentleman that the meat provided for the consumer in Britain is better protected than the meat provided for the consumer anywhere else in Europe. Therefore, if there are two standards, ours is the higher.
§ Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)
Will my right hon. Friend accept that all farmers, especially livestock producers in Dorset, have nothing but contempt for the damaging politicking that we have had from the Opposition Benches over the past few weeks? He has agreed today to certain quality controls, and to certification for British cattle. Does he hope and expect that our partners within the European Community will move towards acceptance, on a Community basis, of the same controls, because that will be of crucial importance in the future?
§ Mr. Gummer
I am sure that that is the right direction to move in, but it is obviously more important to deal with the problem where there is a large incidence of it, rather than where there is a very small incidence, which is perhaps localised. That is a situation which is found, for example, in the Republic of Ireland. It might be different if one had two or three cases, which perhaps could be traced back to particular circumstances. I am not one of those who say that because we find one case we have to have a whole paraphernalia of controls in a particular country. What is important about this decision is that if another country found itself in similar circumstances, the measures would apply to it, because this is a Community proposal. It merely says that it is at the moment epidemiologically applicable only in the United Kingdom. Therefore, I am clear that what my hon. Friend says is true.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
The House will be aware of my interest in these matters, and I am sure that the whole of the food and farming industry is grateful to my right hon. Friend not only for this achievement—getting the immediate ban lifted—but for the very robust view that he has taken in defence of our great industry during the crisis. Will my right hon. Friend take this 911 opportunity to explain to the House that the vast majority of meat eaten in Britain today is prime beef, and is not to be confused with cow meat?
§ Mr. Gummer
I am sure that that is true, and of course the better cuts of meat are those that we eat with greatest enjoyment. All beef sold in this country is safe to eat, and all beef sold in this country is better protected than anywhere else in the world.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best response from the British farmer to these circumstances would be to sublimate their understandable anger at continental protectionism into a commercial challenge to the continental producers on their own ground, based on the superior competitiveness, the greater quality and the undoubted safety of British beef?
§ Mr. Gummer
I am sure that that is true, especially as we have been able to make a big change in the green pound, which will make it much easier for that to happen. I remind my hon. Friend that the reason that we have been able to get that market for our beef is the Community institutions, and it is a triumph not only for the work done by the Commissioner and the President but for the Community itself. It was very nearly a disaster for the Community, but has turned out to show that its institutions can work.
§ Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)
Will my right hon. Friend accept that beef producers in Sussex haye reason to be very grateful for his tenacity and determination in defence of their industry? Does he think it reprehensible of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), to have encouraged needless anxiety about BSE for imagined political gain, when the Government have taken the best available professional advice, followed it to the letter, and informed the public scrupulously throughout the whole episode?
§ Mr. Gummer
I believe that my hon. Friend is right to say that the encouragement of fear when there is no need to be frightened is something that we should all avoid. In so far as it has not been avoided, it has not helped the consumer or the industry.
§ Mr. Conal Gregory (York)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm to the farmers of Yorkshire, who will be delighted by this evening's news, that the media have been misled by the mischievous comments of misguided scientists, particularly in West Yorkshire? As he has referred specifically to the EC, is he arguing tomorrow with the EFTA countries so that the ban will be removed there in the interests of great British beef?
§ Mr. Gummer
I just think that we ought to make a distinction between scientists and pundits. The scientists who are represented on all the committees in the European Community and in Britain have wholly supported the Government's position because the Government have followed their advice in all particulars. Therefore, we must hold the scientific view and not the view of those who seek to put forward their idiosyncratic views by way of the media rather than giving their information to the scientists, their peer group, who can judge it.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
Will my right hon. Friend accept the thanks of the major beef exporters in my constituency to whom I have spoken this evening, as considerable damage was being inflicted on their business and had the ban not been lifted there would have been many bankruptcies among farmers and livestock exporters? In his discussions with the French Minister, was he able to get a guarantee that there will be no other action by French farmers such as blockading ports to prevent our beef from reaching French shops? Did he discuss with him sending our our own veterinary experts to look into the problem of la vache tremblante?
§ Mr. Gummer
No doubt the problem of la vache tremblante, if it exists, will be examined by the Community under the arrangements that I announced earlier. My discussions with the French Minister were sometimes rather sharp and clear. I made clear what I thought about the entire procedure of acting unilaterally and not going to the Community to get this result without the action that took place. When one has reached a conclusion which has been supported across the board, it is better to forget about that and proceed from there. Therefore, I have made it quite clear that we expect vigorous action to lift any blockade attempted on the port of Cherbourg.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The statement has now been running for nearly an hour, but I will call those hon. Members who wish to speak. I ask them not to repeat what has been said before. With respect to the Minister, he has received sufficient congratulations, so I ask that we have questions now.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)
May I thank my right hon. Friend for standing up for British consumers and farmers in the face of the French allegations against British beef? Does he agree that it had more to do with placating the French farmers than with British beef? Will he confirm that those French senior vets that came here last week to discuss BSE were junior officials who knew nothing whatsoever about the disease?
§ Mr. Gummer
I think that we can now draw a veil over the situation which we have now suitably ended. The French equivalent of the National Farmers Union made it clear that it considered the ban to be the result of its own pressures which were entirely to protect the French market for itself. That is what we said and the ban has now been lifted. I hope that this will never occur again.
§ Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is incumbent on us all to play a part in restoring confidence in beef production and consumption? Furthermore, will he confirm that today's meeting in Brussels revealed that there is no evidence whatsoever that this dreadful disease is transmitted horizontally within herds and, therefore, no decisions should be made that will act to the detriment of those herds which unfortunately have had an affected animal?
§ Mr. Gummer
I can confirm that the scientific committee made it absolutely clear that the evidence showed that no such decisions ought to be made, so there is no question of that. But it would be quite wrong to attempt to raise people's confidence in British beef unless we were utterly sure that that confidence was properly placed. We are utterly sure. We have the chief medical 913 officer's clear statement. We have the clear statements of the Tyrrell committee and the Southwood committee and we have a Government who have carried out all that they have asked us to do to protect public health. That is why we can try to restore the confidence and why we can, with some realism, ask those who have taken a different path in the past now to accept their responsibilities.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the farmers in Kent will not merely thank him for what he has done, but will applaud his stand on behalf of the farming community, as will the consumers applaud his assurances? Does he agree that the negotiations have revealed two points? First, they have stripped away the veneer on the Opposition Front Bench and revealed the opportunism and treachery that lie there. Secondly, they have revealed that this country is the good European and that, in this case, the French, the Germans and the Italians have sought to break the law. Is it not time that the Commission sought to enforce the existing directives before applying others to the Community?
§ Mr. Gummer
The last point is not necessarily the result of the negotiations. The negotiations have shown that when countries have tried to act unilaterally, the institutions have eventually enabled them to come together to find an answer. That is what we have done. The answer is satisfactory to us and the others have agreed to support it. The Community emerges stronger in the end than it was before. I see no reason why those things that are better done together should not be done together. There are many things that we do not yet do together which we could do together.
If we decide to do something in common, we must accept that that means that we do it even when it is embarrassing and unhappy because our farmers do not like it. That is why it was wrong for the others to take action. They were saying, "We keep to the Community rules in fair weather, but if there is a bit of rockiness and there are a few sheep in the streets of Paris, we take different measures." They have resiled from that position and I am pleased about that. We must now move on without referring to the matter further.
§ Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)
In his busy day, has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to see this week's edition of Farming News, which came out today? It is a weekly that has sometimes been fierce in its criticism of the Government, but today it carries a survey showing that 60 per cent. of farmers questioned expressed full confidence in my right hon. Friend's policy. Does not that speak volumes for the way in which he has defended the agriculture and consumer interests in the crisis? Is it not in sharp contrast with the failure of the Opposition to defend either agriculture or the consumer? Is that why they have been so poorly supported tonight? They made miserable efforts, once again, to undermine my right hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Gummer
I had seen the article and it was rather cheering because the latest poll suggested that the figure was 6 per cent. It is at least a considerable improvement and we can, perhaps, manage the other 40 per cent. some time. It is important for farmers to recognise that they cannot be supported against the consumer. The only way in which the farming community can be properly supported is if we put the consumer first and foremost 914 because the consumer is the market that the farmer has to get. That is why I believe that the Ministry is a consumer Ministry and why we must put the consumer first.
§ Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that he deserves the appreciation of the whole House for the way in which he has held up the interests of British farming in the attacks against it by many foreign farming communities, whose standards are considerably lower than ours? Nevertheless, does he agree that there has been damage to the beef exporting industry and that that damage has been caused primarily by the fact that the French took action that was illegal, opportunistic and cynical, and that had nothing to do with the health regime, as they pretended? It was purely to try to protect their own farmers. If the Single European Act means anything, is there not a strong case for at least some compensation from the French Government to British farmers who have suffered as a result?
§ Mr. Gummer
The most important thing is to get the trade back and sell the beef. That is our objective, arid that is why we sought to do it as quickly as we have done. The best thing for British farmers now is to make up in the coming weeks the market which they have lost in the past. They will benefit very much from the united support of the House to rebuild the confidence that there should be in beef. The real message is "Let us get together to ensure that the consumer recognises the truth and the facts and, therefore, buys the beef."
§ Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that I rarely intervene on his statements because I represent consumers rather than producers? Nevertheless, I thank him for his action today, which has protected the favourite meat of the majority of my constituents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only the farmer but the taxpayer has suffered as a result of the illegal and regrettably typical action of the French, German and Italian Governments in this matter? Will he continue to pursue through the Community the possibility of compensation to the British taxpayer for the extra costs that will fall on the British taxpayer through the Community contribution to support the beef market that was illegally damaged by the action of those Governments?
§ Mr. Gummer
It would be difficult to apportion the cost that my hon. Friend is talking about. There must be many others, too, who probably feel today that they have contributed towards that reduction in the market. Now that we have the clear scientific evidence in Britain, in the European Community and from the chief medical officer, we should base our actions and statements on it and not seek to give credence to the personal views of one or two individuals.
§ Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)
The House will wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend on remaining in such sparkling form after battling with the Community for two whole days and answering questions for more than an hour tonight. What would have been the outcome had the delegation been led by the official spokesman for the Opposition, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)?
§ Mr. Gummer
I must say that I am not given to contemplate either the impossible or the intolerable.
§ Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)
May I, in winding up, ask my right hon. Friend to assure farmers that he and his Ministry will keep a close eye on the French and Germans to ensure that they do not seek to prevent British beef from entering their shops by means that are more underhand or less publicised than those attemped so far?
§ Mr. Gummer
I am in the business of making sure that the agreement that we have works. I repeat that this is one of those things that shows that Community institutions can and do work. As we have large markets in the rest of Europe for our agricultural products, I prefer to encourage the whole industry to go out and sell British beef, dairy products and farm products generally. Many parts of the industry are not yet doing as well as they could, and I want them to go out and show the rest of Europe that 1992 is the year in which we expect to make our farm products the best and most widely used in Europe.