HC Deb 09 December 1999 vol 340 cc989-1000 12.31 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)


Hon. Members


Mr. Brown

The catcalls should come after the statement.

With permission, Madam Speaker, although there has been no change in this Government's policy on beef exports, in view of the statement made by the French Government last night I think it right to inform the House where matters now stand. Late last night, just after 11 pm in Paris, the French Prime Minister announced his Government's decision on how they intend to proceed in the light of the new advice from the French food safety agency, AFSSA, which they received on Monday 6 December.

The French statement said, in effect, that even though the risk is no more than hypothetical, the French Government are not ready to lift their ban now, but wish instead to press for further work on testing for BSE and on the labelling of British beef and beef products on the basis of European Union regulations, so that consumers can make an informed choice.

Her Majesty's Government are surprised and deeply disappointed that the French have chosen to take this position. It comes after many weeks of intensive talks, from which we received the impression that we had answered all the questions and met all the concerns from the French side. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister immediately spoke to the French Prime Minister, Mr. Jospin, last night, and said that he believed that the position that the French were taking up was totally wrong, flew in the face of science and was against the law. I wholly endorse that view.

I have spoken to the Commissioner, David Byrne, and called on him now to proceed immediately with the court action against the French. Mr. Byrne has confirmed that he will do so. He will ask next Tuesday's meeting of the full Commission to issue the legal opinion, which is the last step before the court case commences. Mr. Byrne has already stated publicly that he finds the French Government's refusal to lift the ban deeply disappointing. The Commission has worked as hard as we have to resolve this matter through rational discussion. Mr. Byrne sees no alternative now but court action.

Some are suggesting that we were wrong to think that we would make progress with the approach that we adopted when the problem first arose in October. I profoundly disagree. I have no doubt that we were right to engage in discussion, as we did. I believe, too, that through the clarification and assurances that we gave about how we are operating the date-based export scheme, we responded in full to the points that the French Government raised with us and gave them the basis they needed for lifting the ban.

I well understand the anger that British farmers feel at this impasse. It is a poor reward for the massive efforts that British beef farmers and traders have been making to rebuild the industry and to rebuild public confidence in their product. British beef is as safe as beef from anywhere else in Europe. That is not just my view: it is the unanimous view of the Commission's senior scientific advisers. I can understand the frustration felt more widely around the country.

The French action is astonishing. They have delivered a blow to the credibility of European Union law, but the French are on their own in taking this defiant approach. I assure the House that the Government are working by all means possible to ensure that the French Government honour their Community obligations and lift the ban.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I thank the Minister for his statement, which he made available to me about 20 minutes ago. Does he accept that last night's news is bad for Britain's beef farmers, bad for the European single market and bad for this Labour Government, whose handling of the issue from start to finish has been weak and incompetent? Will he admit that he should have asked the European Commission to start legal action much sooner after France imposed its illegal ban? Does he now accept that our advice that the legal process should run alongside continued political pressure was right from the start?

Does the Minister realise that by not even raising the beef issue at the Anglo-French summit two weeks ago, the Prime Minister kicked Britain's farmers in the teeth and let the French Government completely off the hook? Was not beef far and away the most important issue at that time between Britain and France? Does the Minister understand that each time the Government allow France to reopen issues that have been settled by the scientists, they are letting down British farmers and encouraging French intransigence? Will the Prime Minister now ensure that beef is at the top of the agenda at tomorrow's summit meeting in Helsinki? Does he realise that the very working of the single market could be damaged if the Heads of Government fail to address this urgent issue?

What help will the Government give British farmers who wish to seek compensation from France through the courts? Given that on 8 November the Prime Minister said that an official end to the ban could be delivered within days, will the Minister now tell us how many more days, weeks or months Britain will have to wait? Is it not the truth that after four months of conceding every French demand, however unreasonable, and of raising false hopes among British farmers time and again, the Government have made no progress towards solving this problem? How much longer must Britain tolerate the humiliating spectacle of our Prime Minister dancing like a puppet to Mr. Jospin's tune?

Does the Minister agree with the Prime Minister's statement in this House on 14 July, when he said that it is another example of new Labour working"?—[Official Report, 14 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 402.] The time has come for the Minister to stop making excuses, to stop blaming other people for his Government's failures and to start standing up for Britain and Britain's farmers.

Mr. Brown

As the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) knows, I profoundly disagree with the approach that the Conservative party are adopting to this issue. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I would accept his advice, and my answer to that is, "Not likely." I am very careful about where I take advice from, and I shall not take it from the party which formed the Government who presided over the BSE crisis in the first place, who recommend that we start a trade war with the French, and who suggest that we should adapt the science—on the basis of no scientific evidence—so that we can ban French produce from entering this country. That is not the right way forward for our country.

The right way forward is to try to resolve the issue by dialogue if we can, and to protect our rights through the courts if we cannot. That is why we now look to the courts and to the Commission to stand our corner. Under a Labour Government, it is France which is isolated in Europe on this argument. It was not that long ago, under a Conservative Government, when it was the United Kingdom which was isolated in Europe.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Was not the intervention of the Opposition spokesman cheap, glib and disgraceful?

May I ask a factual question? I think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that the French attitude flew in the face of science. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister say whether we have seen in detail what the French scientists have said? Is it understood that many other industries are deeply worried about their trade with France? Sliding into a trade war with that country would hit the Scottish whisky industry terribly badly, to give just one example. That industry sells as much whisky in France as it does in Britain.

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: France is the largest single market in the European Union for Scotch whisky. In fact, this country's exports of food and drink world wide are worth £10 billion every year. To embark on a trade war that would put some of that at risk would be absolute madness. This Government will not do that.

My hon. Friend is also absolutely right about the attitude of the official Opposition. They jeer from the sidelines but, if one listens carefully, one notices that they do not have a constructive alternative to offer.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Does not this outrageous decision by the French Government defy law, science and practical politics? Is it not a massive slap in the face for the Minister and the Government? Will the right hon. Gentleman pursue swift legal action in this matter, and does he agree that it would be extraordinary if France were to assume the EU presidency after it had been arraigned for blatantly ignoring European law?

The Prime Minister goes to Helsinki later today. Although it is not in Britain's interest to disrupt the business of the 13 countries that support Britain's position, and despite the synthetic smiles on display at the Anglo-French summit two weeks ago, will the Prime Minister make it clear that France can expect no diplomatic or political co-operation from Britain until this decision is reversed?

Finally, a full-scale trade war is in the interests of no one, least of all other British agricultural sectors. However, does the Minister agree that many British consumers will make their own decisions between now and Christmas, and that they will choose cheese from Somerset, not from France?

Mr. Brown

There is an excellent Somerset brie that I freely recommend to the House. All consumers can choose how to spend their money. That is perfectly reasonable in a free society. As to whether the French decision is a rebuff to me, I do not think that the entire French Cabinet have focused on me personally in this matter.

More generally, it is a mistake to personalise issues in that way. This is a difficult problem, which I have sought to resolve through mature dialogue with the Commission and with the French. We are going to keep on talking. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Of course we are going to keep talking. There are many issues on which we and the French share common cause and interests. It would be incredibly immature if we were to cut off all dialogue across a range of topics because we could not resolve this issue. As I have said over and over again, we should resolve the matter through dialogue if we can, and through the courts if we cannot. We have the law, science and the Commission on our side. We will win in court.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

We did not hear one word from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) about testing, which is a new issue for the French. The reason is that, time and time again between 1991 and 1995, the Tory Government blocked requests for money to be given to British scientific institutions to test for BSE. We all know why those requests were blocked: no doubt the reason will emerge in the BSE inquiry next year.

In an article published on 13 October, Le Figaro exposed a trade in animals in the south-west of England that was supported by falsified documents. The trade was conducted not by farmers, but by agricultural traders, and was only uncovered thanks to the intervention of our police authorities. The report was read and circulated throughout France, and was also considered in the French Parliament. If people in the United Kingdom are breaking the law, is it not clear that major problems will be encountered in resolving this crisis?

Mr. Brown

On the second point, my Department has been unable to substantiate reports that any of those animals have been smuggled into France. However, people have been caught trying, and those breaking the law are prosecuted with the full rigour of the law.

My hon. Friend's point about testing is absolutely right. It behoves everybody with an interest in the matter to realise that this country has an enormous vested interest in testing.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

How does the Minister reconcile the French actions—and, incidentally, those of the German Lander, which are not importing British beef—with the Prime Minister's own words? The right hon. Gentleman has said: Unlike the previous Government, we are working with our European partners who now listen to what we have to say.

Mr. Brown

The distinction is very clear, and I drew it to the attention of the House a few moments ago. Under the previous Government, the United Kingdom was isolated within Europe. In this dispute, the French are isolated. We have the European Commission on our side. Thirteen member states have lifted the ban and the German Health Minister confirmed this morning that the German Government are proceeding to lift the ban.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Is it not the height of hypocrisy for politicians who created the circumstances for BSE to crow about the awful consequences of that disease? Most of us believe that free and fair trade in the European Union is in the interests of all citizens of Europe. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the European Commission and, indeed, the whole European Council, will do everything possible to restore that principle for all commodities?

Mr. Brown

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend's comments. Perhaps I could treat hon. Members to this quote: Faced with the temptation of unilateral action it is more than ever necessary to base our actions on multilateral rules that everyone abides by. That was said by Lionel Jospin at the United Nations on 22 September 1999. I agree with him.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

We have a great deal of sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman, but the kindest thing that one could say about his performance today is that it was pathetic. How can he possibly justify being prepared to concede that British beef should be labelled as having been raised in Britain, while not thinking it appropriate that French meat, which has been raised on excrement, should be similarly labelled? How many scientists does the right hon. Gentleman need to tell him that such food might be unsafe?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is wrong—the European Union is currently considering beef labelling rules. The French have a labelling regime for domestic products. I notice that when the Leader of the Opposition called on a number of agricultural spokesmen to resign, the hon. Gentleman was the only one to do so.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

My right hon. Friend has reminded the House of the circumstances of the BSE crisis and its consequences. Could he also tell us whether the gunboat diplomacy that the Conservative party now seems to favour helped to resolve that issue? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the last thing the farmers in my constituency want is the sort of trade war proposed by the Conservative party?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is right. Farmers and farm leaders have made it absolutely clear to the Government that they do not want a trade war, least of all a trade war in agricultural products.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

No one is talking about a trade war, and it is absurd of the Government to pretend that we are. Will the Minister listen to Phillipe Roy, a restaurateur in my constituency, who has banned British beef and British products from his restaurant— [HON. MEMBERS: "British beef?"] I am sorry; I mean French beef and products. He has said publicly that he knows the French Government well—he used to work for them—and the only language that they understand is direct action. The Minister's cuddling up to the French plainly has not worked. Will he advocate some direct action?

Mr. Brown

No. Let me treat the House to a quote instead: Is that not common sense? Is it not time to introduce under article 36 a precautionary ban on French imports?"—[Official Report, 27 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 1010.] Of course, that would be illegal, but it is what the Leader of the Opposition said.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the French Government's decision will be regarded with astonishment throughout Europe because it is wholly unjustified? Will he seek to ensure that legal procedures are expedited as quickly as possible, because the integrity of European Union decisions would otherwise be called into question? Will he confirm that had we followed the advice of the Conservative party and launched a trade war by banning French imports, we would have been acting illegally, would have lost the support of 13 of the other 14 European union nations and would have undermined the legal recourse that we may now pursue?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not a bilateral dispute between the UK and France, but a dispute between the French and the rest of the EU. Legal action is being spearheaded by the Commission. I spoke this morning to Commissioner Byrne and urged him to move the action on as speedily as possible.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Since 8 November, when the Prime Minister said that the ban would be lifted within days, how many meetings has the Minister had with his French counterpart, and how many telephone conversations have they held?

Mr. Brown

I cannot treat the hon. Gentleman to the statistics that he asks for, but a substantial number of meetings has been held with the French and the Commission as we have tried to resolve the issue. The British Government have worked very hard to make dialogue work. Dialogue involving the French and the Commission resulted in a protocol that the French thought good enough to take back to their food standards agency. That agency then produced a further report for the French Government that could have provided a method by which the ban could be lifted. It is regrettable that that did not happen, but it was a political decision for the French Cabinet.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a trade war with France would not help my farmers? Confidence in British beef is the key factor if our overseas market is to be restored, and playing politics with British beef will not help.

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Farmers have said over and over that they do not want a damaging trade war of the kind advocated by the Leader of the Opposition. The domestic beef market is enormously important to beef farmers in the UK, and it speaks volumes for public confidence in our thorough public protection measures that beef sales are now higher than they were when the BSE crisis first broke.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Does the Minister recognise that we seek not a trade war, but the rule of law? Does he realise that although we now have no option but to have recourse to law, and although the French action is both a crime and a mistake, what farmers want is a livelihood, not a court drama? Will the Minister ensure that he keeps talking to arrive at a settlement?

Mr. Brown

I shall keep talking to the French, although the right hon. Gentleman's parliamentary colleagues jeered at me when I said so earlier. I accept that he is sincere in what he says, but he must acknowledge that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow agriculture spokesman advocate a trade war. They want the United Kingdom Government to break the law by illegally invoking article 36.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

May I invite my right hon. Friend to recall the situation that he inherited when he took office, which was exemplified by the case of an eight-year-old boy in my constituency who lost his mother to new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease? May I encourage him to continue to press the scientific case— through legal means if necessary—with his European colleagues? Will he also continue to ignore the bombastic Barbour jacket diplomacy of the Conservatives?

Mr. Brown

Bombast and pompous rhetoric will not get us through this problem. BSE has been a national tragedy for our country. The cost to the Exchequer is enormous—£4.6 billion is the latest calculation. It has also been a tragedy for the victims of new variant CJD. My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of our powerful public protection measures, which are the foundation of the case for the date-based export scheme.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Will the right hon. Gentleman not realise that his softly, softly negotiating approach on the matter has been a disaster? Will he realise that when the French want a position they adopt the stance of de Gaulle and stand out and fight, irrespective of what the rest of Europe thinks about it? Hon. Members on both sides of the House are, hopefully, concerned for the farming community. What help will he and his Department give to farmers who are losing considerable sums of money because of the illegal continuation of the ban? How can they, rather like the Spanish fishermen, attempt to get some of the money back so that they can sustain a livelihood on the farm? What help will he and the Government give to assist farmers in that way?

Mr. Brown

Of course, we give a substantial amount of support and assistance to the beef sector, as the right hon. Gentleman knows—some domestically and some under the common agricultural policy. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that if, instead of negotiating reasonably, we behaved differently in the European Union, we would get a different outcome. I think that he is right. The previous Conservative Government behaved differently in Europe—they offended all our partners and launched a foolish beef war against the European Union and comprehensively lost it. Our partners view what we are doing in the European Union as different from the way in which the previous Government proceeded. That is why, in this dispute, they are all on our side.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Would my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to succeed in law, we must come with clean hands, we must remain on the high ground where we are now and we must avoid irresponsible and counterproductive populist gestures of the type suggested by the Opposition?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why I am rejecting the approach recommended by the official Opposition—of taking illegal measures against other countries, in particular the French. That is not the right way forward. It would turn this into a bilateral dispute between us and the French, instead of a dispute between them and the Commission, which is where we are at the moment.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

How right the Minister was to say that the catcalls should come after his statement. Does not this woeful saga in fact mark the collapse of the Government's entire European policy? Does it not demonstrate that, despite all the concessions that the Prime Minister has made on qualified majority voting and on joining new defence initiatives with the French, the fact remains that other European Union member states will pursue what they see as their national interests even if that is in breach of European law? When will the Government start to stand up for Britain's interests in Europe?

Mr. Brown

We are standing up for Britain's interests in Europe. The distinction between us and the previous Government is that we are doing it intelligently. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was a prominent member of the previous Government, who presided over the BSE crisis. I notice that in his contribution to the debate there was not a word of apology or regret from him.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Is not some of the Opposition's sham anger today intended to obscure the fact that my right hon. Friend has tried to bring the problem to a speedy conclusion and has tried to use the procedures with vigour and firmness to get the earliest conclusion and to avoid resorting to law? Is that sham anger perhaps intended to hide the cost to this nation and to the farming and meat industries of the Opposition's failure? Should we not remind people of what that cost was?

Mr. Brown

The cost is a substantial £4.6 billion and 47 lives tragically lost so far, with potentially more to come. We have had not a word of sorrow or regret, or even an admission of blameworthiness, from the Opposition, who presided over all of this; yet they jeer from the sidelines as the Government try to clean up the mess that they left us.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

The Minister goes on about having proper dialogue with the French. Does he not realise that to have a proper face-to-face dialogue, he must change the position of the British Government, because it is difficult to have dialogue if they are lying supine on the mat at the feet of the French Government? He must adopt a tougher negotiating position, having already given away all the aces and cards with which he had to play. Will the Minister answer this simple question? When did he last personally meet his French opposite number?

Mr. Brown

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

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

I am appalled by the decision of the French Cabinet, but I salute my right hon. Friend on the statesmanship he has shown during the past months and on the way he has conducted himself, on behalf of the Government. Time and again, he has fought for British farmers. Does he agree that it is shameful of the Tory Opposition to criticise the Government? They would be unable to act differently. On 16 November, the shadow Minister of Agriculture appeared on GMTV. He said: We've always said that the right way to do this was to use the European Commission machinery. He was right then; he is wrong now.

Mr. Brown

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

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

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

Mr. Brown

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

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

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

Mr. Brown

The route through the courts is open to us because we are members of the EU. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that farmers' organisations and farm employees' organisations support the approach adopted by the Government; not one of them has endorsed the approach of the parliamentary Opposition.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

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

Mr. Brown

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

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

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

Mr. Brown

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

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

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

Mr. Brown

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

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

May I point out to my right hon. Friend that a trade war would inflict serious damage on the Scottish fishing industry? I remind him that when the Spanish trawler owners complained to the European Commission about the Tory Government's Merchant Shipping Act 1984, the Commission quickly hauled the Tory Government before the Court in Luxembourg. Those fishing interests in Spain are to receive substantial financial compensation. I hope that the same will hold for farmers throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Brown

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

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

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

Mr. Brown

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

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

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

Mr. Brown

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

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

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

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

Mr. Brown

I am not sure that it is open to my Department to underpin private legal actions, although I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. No one could have done more than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to try to get this matter resolved by conducting dialogue with the French. Everyone in the Government has been working very hard on this. However—as I have repeatedly told the House—following the decision of the French Cabinet, although of course the dialogue between me, Jean Glavany and our respective Departments remains open, we now look to the courts for a resolution of the matter.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Did we not inherit a poisonous legacy from the Conservative party— salmonella, listeria, E.coli and, worst of all, the horrors of BSE—which led this Government to introduce a new Food Standards Agency? Because of the latest setback, is there not a powerful case for having Europe-wide legislation to establish a food standards agency that can police such matters across all 15 countries?

Mr. Brown

The Government are putting the interests of the consumer at the heart of food policy. We are setting up the independent Food Standards Agency, which will come into being on 1 April. The preliminary work between my Department and the Department of Health is already under way; the two Departments are working co-operatively. There are proposals in the European Union to try to draw the different threads together within the Union, including proposals for a European-wide agency. We shall of course examine such proposals with considerable interest.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

As Smithfield's Member of Parliament, I would like to know whether, in the light of where we have now got to, the Minister regrets any of the decisions that he has taken or methods that he has used in recent months?

Mr. Brown

We were absolutely right to embark upon the dialogue and the exchange of views with the Commission and with the French while ensuring that we did not allow any amendment to the date-based export scheme. We did not put any new imposts on United Kingdom farmers and we always preserved our rights in law.

Mr. Yeo

Will the Minister confirm that neither I nor any Opposition spokesman has advocated a general trade war? Does he not understand the difference between that, which would be the wrong response, and a perfectly legal ban—to protect the health of British consumers—on the import of contaminated French meat fed on human sewage and illegal material? Will the Prime Minister raise this issue at Helsinki tomorrow?

Mr. Brown

I have answered the question about Helsinki on a number of occasions. May I treat the hon. Gentleman to the following quote? This scandal demands a proportionate and targeted response—a precautionary ban on the import of potentially contaminated French meat until the French Government explain what they are doing to end those illegal practices".—[Official Report, 28 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 1136.] Such action would be illegal, and I have put the evidence on that in the Library in case anyone wants to dispute it. However, those remarks were made by the hon. Member for South Suffolk. He cannot even remember what he has said.