HC Deb 21 May 1996 vol 278 cc99-113 3.32 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on our continuing efforts to get the ban on British beef and beef products lifted, and on the implications for our wider European policy.

As the House will know, we have been making every effort with the European Commission and with the member states to lift the ban on beef and beef products imposed two months ago by the European Union. We appreciate the difficult situation on the beef markets of a number of member states, the fragile state of consumer confidence throughout Europe, and the political pressures faced by a number of Governments, but we have put in place a wide range of measures to ensure that all products reaching the market are safe on any normal definition of the word.

As a result of controls on feed, the incidence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Britain is falling rapidly, and will continue to do so. There can no longer be any conceivable justification for the ban remaining in place. It is having a hugely damaging effect on the beef industry throughout Europe.

We have explained very clearly the extent of the measures that we have taken—going well beyond those in many other European Union member states—to ensure the safety of British beef and beef products. The Commission has played a notably helpful role in following carefully the scientific advice.

As a result, the Commission recently made a proposal to lift the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen. That is based on the scientific evidence that those products are safe when produced in agreed ways. A majority of member states supported that proposal when it was put to the standing veterinary committee yesterday, but it did not attract the required qualified majority to enable it to take effect. I should like to thank those countries that supported it, and President Santer and Commissioner Fischler for their determination to put the matter to the vote.

President Santer and Commissioner Fischler have confirmed that they stand by the proposal that they put to the standing veterinary committee yesterday. That proposal has to be confirmed by the Commission tomorrow. It will then be submitted to the Agriculture Council on 3 and 4 June. Under the procedures, the proposal would then be implemented unless there were a simple majority against it in the Council.

There is therefore a prospect of progress on that narrow front. I am grateful for the firm view taken by the Commission, and for the support of the majority of member states. However, the present position is clearly unacceptable. A balanced proposal based on the best scientific advice has been ignored by a number of member states, in some cases despite prior assurances of support. I must tell the House that I regard such action as a wilful disregard of Britain's interests, and, in some cases, a breach of faith.

Moreover, we have still been unable to reach agreement on further steps towards a progressive lifting of the wider ban, which is clearly our main objective. Some of our partners are reluctant even to contemplate moves in that direction, for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the science involved.

Important national interests for Britain are involved in this matter. I cannot tolerate those interests being brushed aside by some of our European partners, with no reasonable grounds to do so. The top priority of our European policy must be to get the unjustified ban on beef derivatives lifted as soon as possible and to establish a clear path for the lifting of other aspects of the wider ban. We shall continue our present efforts, although these are not enough.

We have a strong legal case against the ban as a whole, and particular aspects of it. We made it clear from the outset that we believed the ban to be unlawful and disproportionate, and that we would therefore be bringing proceedings. Those proceedings will begin this week. We shall also begin this week our claim for interim measures, aimed at achieving those interim remedies unreasonably denied us in negotiation. Although our wider proceedings will inevitably take time to be heard, the application for the interim remedies should be heard within two to six weeks at the outside.

The interim measures application has a number of separate elements. One is the lifting of the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen. If the Agriculture Council does not approve the lifting of the ban on 3 and 4 June, we shall ask the court to lift it. We shall also be asking the court to lift the worldwide ban on exports of British beef. The beef is safe, and there is no practical possibility of it being reimported into the Community.

A third element is the ban on beef from specialist beef herds, in particular slow-maturing, grass-fed herds that have never seen a single case of BSE and are among the finest in the world. As soon as appropriate verification schemes are in place—and preparations are already well advanced—we shall ask the Council to lift this ban— [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order to hear the statement.

The Prime Minister

I repeat that a third element is the ban on beef from specialist beef herds. That is not justified. As soon as appropriate verification schemes are in place, we shall ask the Council to lift the ban. If we get no satisfaction, we shall again pursue the legal remedies open to us.

But those legal steps are not in themselves sufficient. We shall continue to press the scientific case on our partners and pursue our own programme to eradicate BSE. I have to tell the House that, without progress towards lifting the ban, we cannot be expected to continue to co-operate normally on other Community business.

I say this with great reluctance, but the European Union operates through good will. If we do not benefit from good will from partners, clearly we cannot reciprocate. Progress will not be possible in the intergovernmental conference or elsewhere until we have agreement on lifting the ban on beef derivatives and a clear framework in place leading to lifting of the wider ban.

We will raise the question of the ban at all Councils, including the Foreign Affairs Council. If necessary, we shall seek special Councils. I shall make it clear that I expect agreement on how to deal with those problems to be behind us by the time the European Council meets in Florence on 21 and 22 June. If it is not, the Florence meeting is bound to be dominated by the issue. It could not proceed with our normal co-operation unless it faced up to the crisis of confidence affecting not only consumers but Governments throughout Europe.

That is not how I wish to do business in Europe—but I see no alternative. We cannot continue business as usual within Europe when we are faced with the clear disregard by some of our partners of reason, of common sense and of Britain's national interests. We continue to want to make progress through negotiation; but if that is not possible, we are bound to use the legal avenues open to us and the political means at our disposal.

I believe that the whole House recognises the strength of our case and the urgent need for progress. The approach that I have outlined deserves to command support throughout the House.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

Let us now find out exactly what the Prime Minister means by that statement. We share the great disappointment at the failure to get the ban at least partially lifted. We believe that there is no justification whatever for its continuing. The right regulations are now in place, and all reasonable scientific measures have been taken. Of course we shall support the Government in any sensible moves to ensure that the negotiations are successful.

There is no doubt about the deep sense of frustration, especially if, as the Prime Minister says, assurances have been given privately and then broken. However, can I now be clear about exactly what the Prime Minister proposes? As I understand it, he is saying that, unless there is both an agreement to lift the ban on derivatives—as we know, that may happen for other reasons—and a framework in place for easing the wider ban totally by 21 June, Britain will engage in a policy of non-co-operation.

May I ask two questions about that? First, what does the Prime Minister believe would be an acceptable framework and time scale for easing the wider ban? Secondly, and more importantly, I ask him to be specific as to what the policy of non-co-operation actually means. For example, does it mean—[Interruption.] Conservative Members—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Mr. Marlow, do be quiet.

Mr. Blair

With all due respect, before judgment can be passed on the policy of non-co-operation, we must know exactly what is meant by it.

For example, does the policy mean non-payment of European contributions, or doing anything in breach of treaty obligations, as many of the Prime Minister's hon. Friend would like? Will it involve a boycott of European institutions, non-attendance at meetings, or attendance with silence? Or does it mean refusal to participate in any other discussions at the intergovernmental conference unless the ban is lifted? Will the policy involve, as we read in the newspapers yesterday, the blocking of progress on Europol, and Europewide co-operation on policing? That suggestion has been made.

I assume from what the Prime Minister said that he has a clear strategy. At the moment the language is strong, but there is an absence of particulars as to exactly what it means. [Interruption.] It is the Prime Minister who is proposing the policy, so we should be clear what he means by it.

The right hon. Gentleman's statement should not mask or disguise the wider questions that must be asked about the Government's handling of the BSE crisis. There has been profound dissatisfaction with the way in which the negotiations have been conducted. What is the current negotiating position of other countries? What are they now asking us to do?

May I ask the Prime Minister about a specific point that has been raised by hon. Members from all parties? Is not the reason for the opposition of some member states to lifting the ban the collapse in their own consumer confidence? Does that not put us in a Catch-22 position, in that, to raise confidence in these countries, we need to lift the ban; yet to lift the ban, we need to raise confidence?

Should not one part of our strategy be a massive information and propaganda exercise in other member states—this has been suggested by representatives of the farming interests and by hon. Members from all parties— to tell those states exactly what we are doing, why it has dealt with the problem and why our beef is safe? May I put it to the right hon. Genetleman that farmers in this country—[Interruption.] Many farmers are deeply concerned about the situation, and would like some answers from the Prime Minister.

Is there not now a yawning discrepancy between what Ministers are saying about the current slaughter scheme and what the farming industry is saying? Reports from all parts of the country suggest that there is insufficient capacity in the abattoirs, confusion in the list of approved abattoirs, problems with collection centres, inadequate cold storage and uncertainty about the details of compensation. Does the Prime Minister agree that that situation cannot possibly be tolerated any longer?

Is not the incompetence with which the scheme is now being administered of a piece with the serial incompetence that has characterised the Government's handling of BSE? Is it not true that, throughout the early 1990s and late 1980s, the Government utterly failed to take action on BSE, although constant warnings were being given by Opposition Members that they had to act? The Government's response has been too late at virtually every stage of the crisis. Whatever the purpose of the Prime Minister's statement today, it should not obscure the incompetence with which the issue has been handled by him.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that no attempt was made before the announcement on 20 March to speak either to the farming industry or to our European partners to warn them or to secure their agreement to the measures that were being taken? Can he imagine any other Government behaving in that way? Does he accept that, at every stage—the years up to March 1996, the announcement itself, the policy of the slaughter scheme and the conduct of negotiations—his Government have shown a talent for error? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order. [Interruption.] Order.

Mr. Blair

We are entitled to ask questions about the Government's handling of the issue. These are the questions that are being asked outside this House. The Prime Minister has embarked on a new initiative today.

I assume that he has a clear understanding of what it will mean in practice. I certainly hope so, because otherwise he will make a serious situation even worse.

The Prime Minister

The leader of the Labour party has a great gift for hindsight, but very little for foresight. In all of that long, rambling address, he did not express a single opinion on how to handle the matter in any respect. In that, he was consistent with the approach of the Labour party from the outset of this national problem.

Let me answer those of the right hon. Gemtleman's questions that were clear. We are seeking a plan for a progressive lifting, and have already been discussing that with the Commission—starting with the beef derivatives and moving on progressively through herds that are clear of BSE, with a stepped lifting of the ban. That is under detailed discussion with the Commission.

On what I had in mind when I spoke about us not being able to reciprocate if we were not receiving good will and co-operation from Europe, I will be quite specific with the right hon. Gentleman and the House.

I do not believe that we will be able to agree any matters requiring unanimity until such time as we are able to agree on how to deal with this crisis with our European partners. I do not believe that we will be able to make progress at the intergovernmental conference, and any agreement that may be reached against our wishes at that stage we would reopen at the point at which we were again in a position to reach agreement with our partners. We will certainly take the issue to Florence and ensure that it dominates the proceedings at the Florence Council. There will not be co-operation with Europe until our partners in Europe are prepared to sit down and co-operate with us.

Mr. Blair

What does this mean?

The Prime Minister

I have just explained to the right hon. Gentleman. If he reads Hansard, he will find it perfectly clear. I am sorry that he is being quite so slow on this occasion.

As to what the right hon. Gentleman had to say about 20 March, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture did speak to Commissioner Fischler before the statements in the House. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that the question was leaked in a Labour-supporting newspaper on the morning of 12 March. We spent hours that morning discussing the matter with scientists, before doing what he would have condemned us for if we had not done—coming straight to the House to report on precisely what was happening. He tries to suggest at this stage that we should not have come to the House, but should have gone outside and tried to fix deals. I wonder what he would have had to say this afternoon about us ignoring the House if we had done so.

Right from the beginning of the affair, we have followed the scientific advice on public health that we have been given—followed it as any responsible Government must and should. What is so frustrating is that the right hon. Gentleman asks what we are discussing with our European partners, but in the discussions it has not yet proved possible to persuade some of those partners to engage seriously in debate on the decisions that need to be taken.

We are ready for that debate; some of our European partners are not. That is why we are taking the approach that we have taken this afternoon. It is necessary that they consider the problem seriously so that we can find a way through. Until they consider this problem, we shall be unable to consider other matters that are of interest and concern to them.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

Since beef consumption has been affected to a greater degree in the European Union than in this country, does it not make sense that it is in the interests of the EU countries to lift the ban as soon as possible, and that, above all, a decision should be based on scientific evidence and not on populism to do with their national electorates? That being the case, does it not make sense that any progress must be made through hard negotiation, and that nothing whatever will be achieved by threats of our leaving the EU?

The Prime Minister

Yes, there is no suggestion of our leaving the European Union, or, indeed, of indulging in actions that would be illegal before the British courts or the European Court. That is not what we are seeking to do. We need to continue with the negotiations, but it is essential that we are able to persuade our partners properly to negotiate on the details of how we proceed, and that, as yet, we have been unable to persuade all of them to do. Some of our European partners and the Commission have been, in many respects, extremely understanding and helpful, but we need to ensure that that extends right across the European Union, so that we can reach an agreed way forward.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Does the Prime Minister find any irony in the fact that the Government's hopes now rest in the operation of the majority voting system—something that they are determined to get rid of, or diminish, in the forthcoming IGC? Does he find any irony in the fact that the Government's first action in this matter is to run to the European Court of Justice— something that his Back Benchers want to get rid of and whose power some of his Cabinet Ministers want to diminish? Having listened to the Prime Minister's statement today, most people will conclude that the Euro-sceptic minority on his Back Benches has taken control of the Government's foreign policy, and that this has much more to do with appeasing them than restoring confidence in the beef market.

Does the Prime Minister realise that one reason why our European partners have so little confidence in the operation of the BSE eradication scheme is that it has sunk into disorder, confusion, chaos, farce and fiasco? Abattoirs across the country have been ringing me and my hon. Friends this morning to say that they are withdrawing from it.

As a specific example, St. Merryn Meat in Cornwall last week killed one fifth of the national cull under the BSE eradication scheme. Its operational viability has been on the basis of 1,750 head of cattle every week. Yesterday, that was reduced to 800, without compensation, notice or consultation. In consequence, the abattoir is liable to become economically non-viable and close down, which would make 400 people redundant— and perhaps another 200 in two or three weeks' time. That is the direct result of the chaos that the Government have inflicted on agriculture, and it is one of the reasons why Europe has no confidence in them.

The Prime Minister

I can only say, after listening to his question, that, if abattoirs are ringing the right hon. Gentleman, I dare say they were soliciting for custom.

The right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the European Court show vividly how little he understands about either the policy we have set out or the European Court. We support the European Court and its proper responsibility in applying the single market; it is essential. What we oppose is the reinterpretation of laws by the European Court and its extension of laws, as in the Advocate-General's recent opinion on the working time directive. It is those matters that we are seeking to change.

The right hon. Gentleman may wish for a progressive determination of law by the European Court outside this country, but it is our wish for it to interpret laws that this House has agreed, not to determine laws by the extension of previous case law, which is what it has been doing. If he does not understand that, it explains why he is in favour of a federal Europe, which very few people in this country would wish to see.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement merits strong support throughout the House? Is he confident that his fellow Heads of State and Heads of Government, especially Chancellor Kohl, understand fully the tremendous political damage that has been done by their intemperate actions over the past eight weeks?

The Prime Minister

I very much hope that that point will be clear. I am seeking a proper dialogue and agreement: I am not seeking confrontation. I wish to find a way through that enables the British beef industry to return to what it was—one of the healthiest and best beef industries in the world. To ensure that there is proper negotiation, it is necessary to tell our partners that we no longer believe that the way in which the negotiations have been proceeding is satisfactory. That is the purpose of this statement. I shall certainly emphasise my hon. Friend's points to my fellow Heads of Government, although I think that it will be apparent to them from the statement.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

In disregard of the cackling of the chappies behind him on this serious issue, and, of course, with requisite respect, does the Prime Minister not realise that his handling of this matter is not going to achieve the aims that he thinks? Does he realise that the tactic of the empty chair, in his person, will not achieve the stature of the action that a de Gaulle might have achieved?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood. I have not said that we will leave an empty chair and not be there; I have said that we will not agree matters that need to be determined by unanimity. We will be there, to ensure that this issue is raised on each and every occasion, so that people are aware of what is necessary. An empty chair would achieve nothing—the hon. Gentleman may be right about that. We will be there to argue the case of the British beef industry on every occasion.

That is the point that is really at issue. Forget all the extraneous matters that are sometimes raised; what is of concern to me is getting a proper agreement with our partners that can remove this ban and restore the health to the British beef industry that science says it should have. Science is on our side. Science is being rejected by our European Union partners, and we must make it clear to them that that is not acceptable.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although his statement is very welcome in tone, in order for us to be able to bring substantial pressure to bear in the run-up to Florence, it would be helpful to have another look at whether the suspension of payments would be illegal? Does he accept, moreover, that all that that would result in is a modest increase in interest that we might have to pay; whereas, if we did impose such a suspension of payments, it would bring the other members firmly to the negotiating table, as my right hon. Friend wants?

The Prime Minister

I have to tell my hon. Friend that it would involve breaking the law, and it would not be a question of having to face the European Court of Justice; it would, within a matter of days, be a question of having to face the courts in this country. For that reason and others, I am not attracted to measures that are illegal.

First, as we believe that the British beef industry is being unfairly treated, I do not think that we would help its case by an illegal act that would entrench opposition abroad. Secondly, I do not believe that it would be appropriate, because in any event the law is against us, and it would not be effective. That is why I have chosen the measures that I have announced this afternoon.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

The lifting of the ban depends on the confidence of the European Commission, the standing veterinary committee and others that the BSE eradication programme is right and proper. How can that confidence be enhanced when the Minister of Agriculture behaves like a demented gambler in the last chance saloon, offering to double the number of cattle that might be culled, directly contrary to the scientific evidence he cites, which suggests that only the right number of cattle should be culled?

In those circumstances, why does not the Prime Minister do as he offered to do some days ago, personally take charge of this, and hold a European summit with other colleagues in Europe—or is he afraid to lose there as well?

The Prime Minister

We shall be having a European summit in Florence, and, as I have told the House, this will be the main issue on its agenda if it is not solved before then. A great deal of negotiation and discussion on science and other matters needs to be undertaken. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture has been discussing those matters in Europe and, daily, domestically, not only with the agricultural industry but with all the allied interests that have a direct interest in the beef industry as a whole.

There are two elements. The first and most important element is that it is in the interests of the British beef industry for us to determine a way to eradicate BSE. Forget any pressure that may be put on us by other people or the ban by other people. If we forget that and put it entirely to one side, it is in the long-term interests of the British beef industry to eradicate BSE, so that there is world confidence in British beef. That is what we are doing, and we are not being subjected to undue pressure from other people about that. We are looking ourselves at what needs to be done and how best it shall be done.

In terms of slaughtering those animals that need slaughtering, about 38,000 have been slaughtered, and the slaughterhouses are moving towards capacity. I will, of course, look into the particular case that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) mentioned, but they are moving towards capacity. We have to look at that in our own interests and in the interests of our own industry.

So this is not just a matter of a disagreement with our European partners, important though that is, because they have imposed the ban. Quite separately from that, we need to look domestically at how we get rid of BSE, and that is what we are doing.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the statement he has made today will be greatly welcomed and strongly supported by the British people right across the nation, and that they will have noted with distaste the fact that, at a moment of national crisis, the leaders of the two Opposition parties have shown themselves incapable of speaking for Britain?

The Prime Minister

I think that what my hon. Friend has had to say will find a echo in every part of the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dun woody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Exactly what is the Prime Minister proposing? He is wiping out the beef industry, including the veterinary section and the slaughterhouses, in my constituency, so it is bizarre to hear him seriously say that he intends to implement sanctions, without making it clear what they are. It is even stranger to hear him say that he intends to go to a court which he himself has labelled wholly political, unacceptable and irresponsible. If that is his solution to the problem, I am not surprised that the whole farming community in my constituency is in despair.

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Lady understands so little that she tells the people in her constituency what she has just told this House, I am not surprised that they are in despair—it is probably with her. I have already answered each of her three questions at least once.

My purpose is to save the British beef industry. I just wish that some Opposition Members would stand up for it for once.

Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset)

My right hon. Friend will know only too well how much the president of the National Farmers Union and all farmers in this country welcome the strong links that he has established with them over the past eight weeks. Can he assure me that the link will be directly maintained with the president of the NFU? Can he further assure me that we will not up the ante in the slaughter policy week by week in the vain hope of attracting support in Europe? Finally, will my right hon. Friend give the lead in a "buy British" campaign in this country?

The Prime Minister

From what I have seen, I think that many people have already followed that last piece of advice. I have nothing but praise for the way Sir David Naish, Mr. Ben Gill and the leaders of the farmers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have behaved throughout. The whole agriculture industry has behaved with great restraint and maturity. I am grateful for the advice that it has given us. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend's door is open to representatives of the industry at any time; so is mine, whenever that should prove necessary.

No one is proposing a wholesale slaughter of herds just to satisfy the wishes of people overseas. That proposition is not under consideration. The science does not support such a proposition, as my right hon. and learned Friend has repeatedly stated in Europe and the United Kingdom.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that he sees a verification scheme as a clear path towards the complete lifting of the ban? Given that such a scheme has existed for a good number of years in Northern Ireland, will he consider asking our European partners to lift the ban in respect of that region of the United Kingdom, if only as a test of good faith?

The Prime Minister

There is indeed a good verification scheme in Northern Ireland. We seek to ensure a proper verification scheme across the United Kingdom—that is one component in the progressive lifting of the ban to which I referred earlier. I shall certainly take note of what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Will my right hon. Friend dismiss the brazen effrontery of the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats today? Will he accept that this country owes a great debt to our farming industry, which has served us well in times of crisis? We should stand by it now.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that, when dealing with the European Union, we are dealing not with our partners but with our competitors, and that that should always be borne in mind? This afternoon, my right hon. Friend has spoken for Britain.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with him about the agriculture industry. I can certainly confirm that we stand by the British beef industry, and will continue to do so.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys MÔn)

Does the Prime Minister recognise that the past few days' negotiations have shown that simply asking Europe to accept an increase in the culling programme will not be enough and that we really need the over-30-months slaughter scheme to be fully operational throughout Britain? In Wales, for example, only 700 cattle were slaughtered last week and this week the figure should increase to at least 2,000 to 2,500. Does he recognise that, when our European partners can see that the scheme is fully operational, it will be far easier to persuade them to lift the partial ban?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman sets out precisely the matters that we have been discussing with officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Cabinet Office in Brussels in the past week or so and at the innumerable meetings that my right hon. and learned Friend has attended. Each and every matter that the hon. Gentleman has just raised has been among those that were discussed with the Commission and our European partners. It is precisely because we have discussed all those matters, yet we are still unable to determine what further is sought by the European Union from the United Kingdom before it will lift the ban, that there is such frustration over those negotiations.

I did not lightly come to the House this afternoon. I brought the measures to the House because there is deep frustration over the nature of the discussions and the fact that, when we make proposals, there is no clear indication whether they are acceptable or, if not, in which areas they are unacceptable. It is no good our partners making demands of us and not sitting down and discussing with us precisely what those demands should be.

For those reasons of frustration, we have felt it necessary to illustrate the importance that we attach to these matters and say that, until our European partners are prepared to sit down and discuss them in detail with us as they affect Wales, Northern Ireland and England, and the Aberdeen Angus industry in Scotland, we shall be unable to sit down and discuss with them other matters that are dear to them. That is why we shall block matters that require unanimity.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

Over the last eight weeks, Ministers—in particular, my right hon. and learned Friend—have shown extraordinary patience with our European partners, and we have seen hopes raised time after time only to be dashed again 24 hours later. Therefore, is it not clear that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has come to the House this afternoon to make this most welcome statement as a result of the fact that on these Benches, I hope elsewhere in the House, and also in the countryside, that patience with our European partners has now rapidly evaporated?

Is it not also clear that the response of the Leader of the Opposition shows not only that he is confused, because that I think we are familiar with, but that he is, on this subject, frankly rattled?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's generous words about my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

That will not save him.

The Prime Minister

A non-farmer speaks. In many cases, my right hon. and learned Friend has been the whipping boy for frustration, but I know the efforts that he has made to determine a way through a particularly difficult problem and to represent the interests of the fanning industry. When he reports to the House in a few moments, they will see again his efforts on behalf of Britain.

Mr. Skinner

Does the Prime Minister recall that, when he was asked precisely what the sanctions were, he said that Ministers would raise the matter at every meeting? Does that imply that they have not been doing that already during the past eight weeks?

The Prime Minister also said that he would get in touch with all the various leaders. They have been trotting across here to Britain in the past few weeks. The Prime Minister has invited President Chirac over here and filled him full of beef. He also had Helmut Kohl over here. It says something about the Prime Minister's influence with those leaders that he invited them over here, he wined and dined them, and then they voted against him—or they got somebody else to do their dirty work.

The Prime Minister should realise that the Common Market is now moving from social issues to economic and political issues. It is now dealing with issues on a political level. Why does he not have the guts to do the only thing he can do? When I used to negotiate with the pit manager, I would threaten to stop the wheels. If he had any guts, he would tell the people in the Common Market that we will stop the flow of money. That is the only real sanction he has.

The Prime Minister

It is always good to hear from new Labour.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

That is insulting.

The Prime Minister

I could not comment about that. However, I hope that it is duly noted that Opposition Members below the Gangway consider it an insult to be referred to as "new Labour".

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) says that European leaders have been over here, I have wined and dined them and then they have gone home and voted against us. But President Chirac voted for us. The hon. Gentleman makes one assertion, and he gets it wrong. It is good to see that old Labour is alive and kicking, if not thinking. [Interruption.] I must say, it is very instructive to watch the body language above and below the Gangway. I hope that the cameras are pointed in that direction.

I must refer to some of the hon. Gentleman's omissions. He forgot to mention that we said that we would block all measures requiring unanimity—a number of which will come up in the next few weeks. He forgot that we said that we would block progress in the intergovernmental conference. The IGC cannot reach a conclusion without unanimity, so it cannot reach a conclusion unless this matter is completely determined. Neither will the present agenda at the foreign summit proceed unless it deals with the beef question.

Apparently none of those facts reached the hon. Gentleman. He clearly was not listening earlier, so I hope that he is listening now. [Interruption.] He may listen, but I fear that he does not understand.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

In his words today, my right hon. Friend clearly identifies with the frustrations felt by many of my constituents who work in the agriculture and food processing industries. They recognise the need for dialogue in Europe. Their frustrations have grown in the past two months, and their lives have been totally disrupted. It is now time to make a stand, and they will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement today.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That statement presages a renewed attempt to reach agreement by negotiation. As my hon. Friend says, we are acting in the interests of the beef and allied industries, and we want to solve the problem as speedily as we can.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), has the Prime Minister noticed that Farming Ministers in three of the countries that voted against Britain yesterday—Germany, the Netherlands and Spain—have expressed an interest in the position of specialist beef herds, particularly those in Scotland and in Northern Ireland? The Prime Minister mentioned that in his statement.

I ask that the argument about specialist beef herds be put at the forefront of the United Kingdom strategy because it seems to offer a practical way forward. Eight weeks into the crisis, will the right hon. Gentleman instruct the Scottish Office to accelerate work on the verification schemes, which would allow us to trade on the reputation of Scottish beef and lead all beef back into European markets?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is quite right: the verification schemes are very important. We are accelerating progress on those schemes, not only in Scotland but elsewhere in the United Kingdom where there are no proper schemes in place. The point he raises is at the forefront of the negotiations.

I repeat that we are prepared to sit down and reach an agreement that will lead to a proper framework for lifting the ban comprehensively. However, other people must sit down with us. If they are not prepared to accept our offer to sit down and engage in constructive dialogue in order to bridge the difference between us, and if they simply say—as they have done—"We do not think what you are proposing is sufficient," but will not then engage in proper dialogue about what is sufficient, it is not a two-way dialogue.

I wish to obtain that two-way dialogue. It is largely frustration over that matter that has led to our decision to elevate the political imperative of reaching agreement on the issue for the farming industry.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

My right hon. Friend's robust response today will get a wide welcome in the country, not least in the agricultural community. Is he aware, however, that, if the United Kingdom were to offer an increased cull of cattle beyond what is absolutely necessary, it would cause grave damage not only to the acceptability in the country of what we are doing but to our future milk and beef supplies? Those aspects must be considered, too.

The Prime Minister

I should like to deal with that point, because I know that it is a matter of concern to some of my hon. Friends.

I say emphatically that our proposals do not envisage culling whole herds in which BSE cases have occurred; that would not be justified on the science. The original proposal for a selective cull was based on identifying cases of BSE in cattle born between 1990 and 1993 and to cull cattle born on the same farms at the same time— which therefore might reasonably have been expected to be exposed to the same infected feed. That was broadly estimated to lead to the culling of about 40,000 cattle. Further proposals would extend that to cover only cases of BSE that are confirmed in the future. In the interests of eradication, we would need to deal with those cases of BSE as well.

Those are the matters to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture referred last week, and not to a general slaughter of healthy cattle. I should like to make that point clear to the House, because it is a matter that has caused some concern among some of my hon. Friends and among the farming industry. I hope that the position is now clear. The proposals cover only cases of BSE that are confirmed in future.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Before the Prime Minister launches a war of bull semen against Europe, will he answer one simple question? Given the market signals from the United States, which banned British beef in 1987, from Westminster council, which stopped serving it in its schools a couple of years ago, and from Hong Kong, which banned British beef about two years ago, what retaliation does he propose to take against them?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman should not sneer at an important industry.

Mr. MacShane

I was not sneering.

The Prime Minister

At the beginning of his question, he was sneering at an important industry. There is no doubt that he was sneering. People will have noticed that he was doing so, and they will have noticed many Labour Members' attitude on this issue.

We are seeking to have the ban lifted everywhere. We will be in discussion with Hong Kong, America, New Zealand, Australia and other countries that have previously banned British beef or beef derivative products. That is the reason why we are trying to deal comprehensively domestically with cases of BSE—so that there can be no credible shred of justification anywhere in the world for the ban on British beef.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his measured but forceful statement, and assure him that it will be welcomed by butchers, farmers and meat traders across my constituency. May I ask him to acknowledge that he is starting down a road of forceful but restrained escalation, and that, until there is a happy resolution to this matter, there can be no turning back?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is quite right. I did not lightly embark upon this course, and I am perfectly aware that we must proceed with this course until we have a satisfactory outcome.