HC Deb 21 October 1999 vol 336 cc570-6
10. Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)

What progress is being made on the resumption of British beef exports. [93395]

14. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

What estimate his Department has made of the amount of beef exported since 1 August. [93399]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

As well as being a clear breach of European Union law, the French import ban has hindered the resumption of our beef exports. I and other Ministers have been in regular contact with our French counterparts and the Commission to let them know how seriously we take the matter. I spoke again to Commissioner Byrne only this morning.

The European Union scientific experts meet on 28 October to consider France's evidence for its continued import ban. In the interests of transparency, I am content that the Commission should ask its experts whether any of the points raised by the French scientists casts doubt on the EU decision on the date-based export scheme. I have looked at all the evidence submitted by France, and it contains nothing that was not already known. I therefore expect the Commission scientists to dismiss the French evidence.

If the scientists find no new concerns that cast doubt on the date-based export scheme decision, the Government have made it known that we expect the French to lift their ban immediately. The Prime Minister made that clear to the French Prime Minister when they met last week. If the French do not lift their ban, Commission President Prodi has assured the Government that the Commission will take swift legal action.

The situation in Germany is different. The German Government are waiting to see what the Commission scientists conclude, and have said that if no problems are raised they intend to lift their ban. The French have given no such undertaking.

The first consignment of date-based export scheme beef was exported on 24 August. Since then, and despite the continued French and German import bans, several consignments have been exported from St. Merryn Meats Group's Probus slaughterhouse and, since 27 September, from Bryson Meats Plant at Strathaven, Lanarkshire. In view of the limited number of companies authorised to produce British beef for export so far, I cannot divulge the amount as that is commercially confidential information.

Mr. Jones

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on their success in getting the worldwide ban on British beef lifted—which has, I am sure, delighted my farmers. Does he agree, however, that the best way forward with the French problem is to get the Commission to use all the powers of law against the French so that they follow the law? Would not that be far more effective than taking an unannounced stroll down the Champs Elysées with some bizarrely worded banners?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am being very careful about where I take advice from. The decision to lift the worldwide ban on the export of British beef has been taken by the European Union. It is for the Commission to ensure that all members of the European Union implement that decision.

Mr. Pike

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that both France and Germany are agreeing to the transit of British beef through their countries, but that that, of course, is not an acceptable situation? Does he expect the Commission's scientists to take the decision on 28 October? Will he also make it absolutely clear that the Government are taking all necessary action—by using the Commission's procedures and, if necessary, the law—to ensure that British beef, which is safe, may be exported to and consumed in France?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right on the transport point. However, the position differs between the French Government and the German Government—the latter willingly lifted their prohibition on the transportation of British beef through Germany as soon as they could. Because of their co-decision arrangements, there has been a delay in reshaping their domestic legislation enforcing the ban, and they want to see the outcome of the Scientific Committee on 28 October. I have no quarrel with that. The position in France is different, and I have a considerable quarrel with that position.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does the Minister understand that if our relationship with our European partners is as close, comfortable, harmonious and co-operative as the Prime Minister regularly claims from the Dispatch Box, the Government should have seen the French legal ban coming months ago and should have taken steps to prepare for it, particularly by lifting the ban on beef on the bone in this country? Although that excuse that we have handed the French is scientifically unjustifiable, it is politically gold-plated, and realpolitik determines that we must lift our ban on beef on the bone before we can realistically expect the French to lift theirs.

Mr. Brown

The date-based export scheme is for deboned beef. The beef on the bone ban in this country, which is at the extreme end of the precautionary measures that we have in place, has nothing to do with the date-based export scheme for deboned beef. As for the suggestion that we should somehow have foreseen the French actions, it genuinely did not occur to me that, having made an international agreement in the European Union, the French would not implement it. Hindsight is a marvellous thing, but not a single Conservative Member of Parliament on the Front Bench or the Back Benches or anyone from the industry or anywhere else in the United Kingdom warned the Government that this might happen. It is all very well to say that it should have been foreseen, but, if it was that easy to foresee, why did the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who speaks for the Opposition, not constantly raise the possibility of the French not implementing an agreement that they had made?

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Budgen supermarket chain today took action to remove certain items of French produce from its shelves as a way of showing support for public concern about the issue and the fact that no practical action has been taken to support farmers desperate for the resumption of exports of beef. Will the Ministry be doing anything to encourage others in the commercial sector to give similar consideration to gestures of support and solidarity to farmers at this difficult time?

Mr. Brown

I understand the strength of feeling that underpins the decision that Budgen has made on, I believe, apples and pears. It is selling British produce and not purchasing any more from France. There is a great deal of strong feeling in this country about the French behaviour, and some people take the view that while the French are imposing a ban on our beef we should not buy their products.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is only because of the European Union that we can force France to reopen its markets to our beef, that non-EU countries banned British beef first and continue to do so, and that if we had the kind of pick-and-mix Europe now advocated by the Tories we would be powerless to force anybody to accept our beef?

Mr. Brown

The Commission and the European Union are standing in our corner on the issue, as are 14 of the 15 member states. That is an important point, because we were not in that position under the previous Government.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Is there not a suspicion that the purpose of the French action was never to impose a sustainable ban, but to create an unfavourable commercial climate in France—an invitation that was readily accepted by the French media? Does that not reinforce the need for a lifting of the beef on the bone ban and a strong marketing campaign for British beef? It is never acceptable for France to abuse its position as the first landfall for British produce on continental Europe by preventing the passage of British produce to third countries. Will the Minister ask for assurances from the French Government that that will never happen again?

Mr. Brown

I have done more than that. I have met the French Agriculture Minister and said that it should not have happened in the first place. I asked him to lift the ban on the transportation of our produce through France well before the French parliamentary procedures would have been completed on lifting their domestic ban on offering the product for sale. The French have been reluctant to do what they have now done. The situation is unacceptable, and their action is in breach of the treaty because it is a constraint on the free movement of goods and services in the European Union. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to relate the beef on the bone ban in this country to the date-based export scheme because that scheme is for deboned meat.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I tell my right hon. Friend what sticks in my throat? It is to witness Tory Members of Parliament attacking a Labour Government for our attempts to resolve the crisis in beef which resulted from BSE—something that the Tories themselves created, through their negligence in the 1980s and 1990s. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on behalf of the British farming industry on his valiant attempt to resolve the crisis?

Mr. Brown

Under the Conservative Government's stewardship of this issue, Britain was isolated within Europe. Under our stewardship, France is isolated within Europe. That is the difference.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

As beef farmers in these islands went to such lengths following the BSE constraints from Europe, does it not now behove France to obey the rules? Will my right hon. Friend press for the European Commission to take the case to the European courts as soon as possible? The European Court of Justice should determine this matter so that there is a ruling preventing other countries from being tempted to act in such a way in future.

Mr. Brown

This is an important matter for the EU and the Commission, and Commissioner Prodi has given our Prime Minister the assurance that the right hon. Gentleman is seeking. The French behaviour is indefensible, and its implications go far wider than the narrow question of implementing the date-based export scheme. The right hon. Gentleman is right to make that point.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I do not think that the French will listen to my words, but we buy a lot of electricity from France, and there is a line that brings it across. We could provide electricity in this country in many ways, including by not shutting coal mines. Why not tell the French that today? Will my right hon. Friend tell his colleagues that the swiftest way of dealing with this matter is to tell the French that we will not buy any more of their nuclear-produced electricity?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is drawing me slightly wide of my ministerial responsibilities, but he is right to assert that there is a great deal of anger in this country about what the French have done in breaking an agreement that was made in good faith at an international level within the EU. People are looking at ways of expressing their displeasure, and I for one am not surprised at that.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

On 14 July, when the Minister announced to the House, for the fourth time, the lifting of the export ban, it did not occur to me, or to anyone on this side of the House, that he had not taken the trouble to check with the French, who he should have been aware—because they abstained at the November 1998 Agriculture Council when the matter was discussed—had some doubts. It did not occur to me to think that the Minister had not picked up the phone to check with his opposite number before making a statement—on the record, in this House and for the fourth time—that the beef export ban was being lifted. That was an act of gross incompetence, which was compounded this morning by his attempt to blame us for not asking him to do what any remotely competent Minister—even a Minister in this Government—would have done without any reminder from the Opposition.

Does not the Minister recognise that every day that Labour maintains the absurd and unjustified ban on beef on the bone—in defiance of the advice that Labour has received from the chief medical officer that it is safe for consumers—makes it harder for the process of rebuilding confidence in British beef to begin? Does he believe that leaving all this to some legal action by the European Commission—a process that may take months, if not years—is in any way an adequate response to the crisis now overwhelming the British beef sector?

Mr. Brown

I note that no practical alternative remedy is being offered by the hon. Gentleman—unless, of course, he is implying that we should return to the policies pursued by the previous Conservative Government, which left our country isolated in Europe and everyone else ganging up against us. The position now is that the Commission is on our side, 13 of the 15 countries have implemented the decision and the 14th is implementing it. It is the French who are isolated within Europe.

It is simply untrue that we did not check the French position. There were comprehensive discussions with the French before the decision was made at the November Council of Ministers, and the French stated that their position was one of acquiescence and abstention. I—and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman—had no reason to believe that that would not endure. I should have thought that the whole House could make common cause on this issue, yet I get no support from those on the Conservative Front Bench at a time when British farmers are looking to us to unite and to act.