HL Deb 24 June 1996 vol 573 cc607-20

3.50 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on the meeting of the European Council in Florence on 21st and 22nd June. The Statement is as follows:

"I shall deal first with beef, then with the other issues discussed. In my Statement on 21st May I shared with the House the Government's frustration that, two months after the unjustified ban on our beef exports had been imposed, some member states were still unwilling to address on a rational, scientific basis a clear path to lift the ban. I accordingly announced a policy of non-co-operation by the British Government until two specific objectives had been achieved: the lifting of the ban on beef derivatives, and agreement on a clear framework leading to lifting of the wider ban. In accordance with this policy we subsequently blocked 74 decisions which required the unanimous approval of member states.

"The first objective was achieved on 10th June when the ban on beef derivatives was lifted. This was followed on 19th June by unanimous approval of our BSE eradication plan by the Standing Veterinary Committee. In Florence on 21st June, the second objective was achieved when the European Council accepted unanimously the framework and procedures put forward by the Commission for lifting of the wider ban. These were based closely on our proposals.

"Both objectives were secured in exactly one month. I have no doubt that the policy we reluctantly adopted was the decisive factor in ensuring this result in such a short space of time. The framework sets out steps for lifting the ban in stages. The Florence conclusions make clear that decisions on each stage will be taken 'only and exclusively on the basis of public health and objective scientific criteria and of the judgment of the Commission.' That is what we insisted upon above all. I was therefore able to lift our non-co-operation policy once the framework had been agreed.

"It is now up to us to meet the conditions for lifting the ban set out in the framework. There are five stages for this.

"We aim to be in a position to tell the Commission by October that we have met the necessary conditions for decisions to lift the ban on two of the five stages; namely, certified herds and animals born after a specified date and their meat. This is subject in particular to clearance of the backlog of animals awaiting slaughter in the 30 month plus scheme, and a start to the accelerated slaughter of cattle particularly at risk of developing BSE.

"Removal of the ban in these two areas would re-open to our industry an export market worth initially around £100 million per year increasing rapidly thereafter, as the certified herds' scheme gains momentum. Also by October, I expect a Commission proposal on a third stage, embryos, subject to the scientists giving them a clean bill of health. And I believe we should have met the conditions necessary for a decision to lift the ban on the fourth stage, meat from all animals under 30 months, by November.

"Securing agreement on these steps would restore the position on beef exports to what it was before 27th March except in those areas where sale has been prohibited in the UK itself. In other words, we would be in a position of being able to sell for export to the EU young animals and all the beef which could by then be sold in the UK. This would open the way for exports worth some £530 million per year.

"The only remaining category is meat from animals over 30 months except, of course, for that from certified herds which should be lifted in October. As the House knows, this category is still banned in the UK because of the greater incidence of BSE in older animals.

"The targets we have set are ambitious. It is now up to us, and to the farming and ancillary industries, to ensure we meet them. The point is that this timetable is essentially in our hands. When we have met the conditions, the normal procedures for decisions of this kind, involving the Standing Veterinary Committee in particular, will apply. But we have the firm commitment from all heads of government in Florence that these decisions will only be taken on the basis of scientific and objective criteria.

"One aspect not adequately covered in the framework is the early export of British beef to third countries. This was complicated in the minds of our partners by their concerns about the possibility of re-export to the EU, and by our European Court of Justice case against the Commission. We believe our case against the ban on exports to third countries is particularly strong, and our Court application for interim relief should be decided in the next few days.

"We nevertheless secured a presidency statement, accepted it must be said reluctantly by the other member states and the Commission, that the Commission will consider individual requests from third countries to buy British beef exclusively for their domestic markets. If such requests come forward soon, I hope that, either through Commission procedures or the European Court of Justice case, exports from Britain to third countries will begin to flow.

"We have a lot to do in a short time to meet the conditions necessary to enable the EU and world markets to be fully open again. But I believe we have taken a great step forward in the past few days. We will go on doing everything possible to protect public health, restore consumer confidence and secure the interests of the beef industry. Our overriding aim remains, as it has been from the start, the eradication of BSE from Britain.

"Let me now turn briefly to the other main issues discussed in Florence: the Inter-governmental Conference, employment, economic and monetary union and the Europol Convention.

"The European Council agreed that the Inter-governmental Conference should now turn from analysis to negotiation. We need to move from exchanging ideas to considering texts. I was therefore happy to lead the call for an outline treaty text to be prepared in time for the Dublin European Council in December.

"The Government's position on the substance remains as set out in the White Paper, A Partnership of Nations. In Florence I set out again our policies in key areas such as qualified majority voting and the need for flexibility as the EU enlarges further.

"We also discussed employment. At the Essen European Council in 1994 we agreed an approach which recognised the primacy of action by member states and recommended a number of lines of action reflecting this Government's approach. In Florence, the European Council confirmed the priority attached to tackling unemployment and agreed to carry forward the Essen approach, taking account of the initiative taken by the President of the Commission on confidence pact for employment. There are some good things in this document, but others which we cannot accept.

"Unemployment in this country is now the lowest of any major European competitor. We have created more jobs over the past three years than Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Indeed, we have created more than Germany, France, Italy and Spain added together. That is because we have followed policies that help job creation. That is why we will not sign the Maastricht social chapter or accept European Community measures that would damage competitiveness or inhibit our ability to pursue our own successful policies.

"Florence was not a decisive stage in discussions on economic and monetary union. The European Council considered a report from economic and finance Ministers on work done since Madrid. This included the relationship between those inside and those outside any future single currency. It covered the proposal to create a new ERM. Most of our partners favour creating such arrangements. Let me assure the House that it has been confirmed that any new scheme will be voluntary. We will certainly not join any new ERM.

"The European Council also reached agreement on the role of the European Court of Justice in the Europol Convention. I said after the Cannes European Council that the ECJ would not be the arbiter in any case relating to Europol which involved the United Kingdom Government or arose in the courts of the UK. Other member states saw a need for a role for the ECJ on questions of interpretation of the convention arising in their national courts.

"The outcome allows other member states the option of providing such a role for the ECJ for themselves. The UK Government and our courts will not be bound by this in any way. This is a satisfactory outcome and another example of the EU developing in flexible ways.

"Finally, the European Council confirmed that enlargement negotiations with central European countries should open at the same time as with Cyprus and Malta, six months after the IGC ends. It also agreed a number of statements on external issues, the most important of which were on the Middle East and Russia.

"The Florence European Council marked a decisive turning point in our efforts to protect the interests of those hundreds of thousands of people working in the British beef industry. The issue will now be dealt with on a proper, rational basis, with the timetable for the lifting of the ban dependent on our own efforts. This has enabled the restoration of normal business in the European Union.

"This has been a difficult episode in this country's relationship with Europe. We were right to stand up for our interests. But I now look forward to working with our partners on our positive vision of Europe as a strong partnership of nations."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am grateful, as always, to the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place. What a Statement we have just listened to! As I understand it, British foreign diplomatic policy over the past month or so has been reduced to blocking 74 decisions of the European Union. I wonder how many of those decisions we actually wanted. Perhaps the noble Viscount will tell the House how many of the decisions that we blocked were decisions of which Britain approved and thought were in our interests to advocate.

This hollow deal could have been achieved better by patient diplomacy and a bit of governmental humility and foresight right at the beginning. The European Union insisted on a coherent plan for the eradication of BSE from the British herd. Eventually that was achieved, but only after a period of confrontation which I think has seriously weakened our position with our European partners, the effects of which will be lasting.

I described the deal as hollow. The diplomatic editor of The Times described it as a fig leaf so small as to be positively indecent. Will the noble Viscount tell the House when the ban will be lifted? Today we have had a series of recommendations by the Government that in October we shall do X and Y and by November, we hope to be in a position to do A and B; and that if everything goes well, the body to which we have apparently handed over the decision on whether the ban should be lifted—namely, the committee of vets—will then have to decide whether Britain has taken sufficient steps.

It seems to me that British influence in Europe has been reduced to a state in which we do something and then the vets have to decide on it. That has reduced our position in the Community to a fairly parlous one.

Will the noble Viscount tell us exactly how many cattle will have to be slaughtered? As I understand it, the pre-30 month will amount to 0.75 million cattle. The extra cull originally started off at 40,000, increased to 80,000 and after that has become rather woolly. Perhaps that is too much of a sheep-like metaphor to apply to cows. Last week on television the Deputy Prime Minister said that the number amounted to only a handful. At No. 10 on Thursday, guidance was issued saying that it amounted to only a few clapped-out old milkers. On Sunday morning, Mr. Hogg, the Minister for Agriculture, said on television that it amounted to 67,000 animals. As I understand it, the present figure is put at about 40,000 cattle. The position is that 0.75 million of the old cattle will be slaughtered and 120,000 extra animals are to be culled.

I ask two questions. I understand that the scheme is to be voluntary. How is it to be voluntary? Are the farmers supposed to notify somebody that a cow in their herd looks as though it has BSE and therefore should be slaughtered? If so, how much compensation will be paid? How will that scheme be policed if it is supposed to be voluntary? Secondly, if all this goes through, what incidence of BSE do the Government expect to find in the British herd? Do they expect it to be zero, 10,000 or 5,000? I should like to have an indication of the Government's position.

This has been a sorry tale in the history of British relationships with the European Union. The end result seems to be tramelled cows, a bill estimated at about £2 billion and no guarantee whatever as regards when the ban will be lifted. Will the Leader of the House confirm that there is no automaticity in this deal whatever? It is hoped that the ban will be lifted but there is no guarantee of it.

As regards EMU and the IGC, it is perfectly clear that the other members of the Union are moving inexorably and quite quickly in two directions: first, in the direction of a radical revision of the treaties under the IGC; and secondly, towards EMU by the end of this decade. It is also perfectly clear from what the Prime Minister said that we shall be moving in the opposite direction. I merely warn the Government that in the long run, a two-tier Europe in which Britain is in a tier of one will be deeply damaging to this country both politically and economically. Nothing in this Statement gives me much encouragement for future relations between Britain and the European Union.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal for repeating this extremely low-key Statement. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister, with his phrase about the great step forward in the past few days—or was it a great leap forward?—has added another memorable phrase to the collection of aphorisms which have punctuated, with almost relentless regularity, the evolution of European policy: from a Britain at the heart of Europe in 1990; to game, set and match for us in 1991 after the Maastricht summit; to his description of M. Santer as the right man in the right place at the right time in 1994. It has been a remarkable series of phrases. We must all hope that the phrase, "a great step" or "a great leap forward" will not come back to mock him quite as soon as others have done.

The great beef war has been a most extraordinary saga. The Government's fundamental weakness is that throughout they have given the impression that they were more interested in picking and, it is to be hoped, winning a quarrel with Europe for internal party political reasons and perhaps in the hope, misplaced I think, of electoral salvation than in eradicating BSE. A month ago Mr. Major stamped his foot and ordered mobilisation. The trouble was that the nearer to the battlefield the forces got, so the faster martial ardour evaporated. Therefore, we had last Friday's anti-climax and the extremely vague agreement dripping with conditions of which anyone can make what they like. The result is certainly no better than could have been obtained by competent Ministers of foreign affairs and agriculture without all the huffing and puffing.

If one wants an example of what I mean, one only has to read the Statement. I am amazed that the Statement, at least by implication, almost directly claims that the removal of the ban on derivatives was a direct result of our refusal to co-operate. It was totally known at the time that we took the decision—and the Commission had already voted for this—that under the procedures of the Community (the Council of agricultural Ministers having failed to agree) the Commission could then take a decision by its own perquisites to implement the removal of the ban. That is a power which the Commission has under the Treaty of Rome but which, if it had not existed and the Commission had asked for it at the IGC, would, without question, have been vetoed by Her Majesty's Government. Further, the only result was that, whereas in the previous week the Commission had voted unanimously for removal of the ban, in the week after the ban was imposed it voted by about a two to one—a bare two to one—majority. So we can appraise exactly how effective it was in that particular field.

Although nothing has been achieved which could not have been obtained by proper competent diplomacy, it is clearly the case—and I put this most cautiously—that our long-term position in Europe has been somewhat damaged. I say "somewhat" because, first, I do not like exaggerating and, secondly, because, to be honest, there was not all that much there previously to damage.

In my view, in any negotiation one can hope to gain one's ends either by being liked or being feared; or sometimes by a judicious combination of the two. What we have just done is to undermine our strength in both those alternatives at one and the same time. We have obviously not made ourselves more liked, and we have certainly not struck awe into our partners.

Equally, your Lordships may recall that at the beginning of his Foreign Secretaryship, Mr. Rifkind tied himself, I thought, slightly into knots by trying to strike a new balance between pursuing Britain's interests and Britain's influence. He need not have worried about the distinction. Both he and the Prime Minister have shown how easy it is to damage both our interests and our influence at the same time.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am disappointed to find that both noble Lords, if I may say so with the greatest respect and indeed affection for them, have fallen into what I can only describe as the tabloid trap. There is a very unfortunate set of headlines in this morning's tabloid press which seems to be encouraging us in sporting terms to go to war with our friends the Germans. I deprecate such headlines, as I am sure do both noble Lords. Therefore, it is a little curious for both noble Lords to employ military metaphors when it comes to referring to our, fortunately temporary, disagreement with our European partners over beef.

I believe it fair to say that neither of my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary took the step with any martial ardour. In fact, I do not think that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. I do not believe that military metaphors are in the least bit appropriate for negotiating difficulties of the kind we have experienced. Indeed, I should point out to both noble Lords that I am astonished by the Government's moderation when one considers that after eight weeks of what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, described as "patient diplomacy", and despite what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, said about the Commission (to whose helpful attitude I am happy to be among the first in your Lordships' House to pay tribute), not one single step was taken in terms of actual concrete progress towards establishing a framework towards lifting the ban.

Given our extraordinary patience, I can only refer both noble Lords to the remarkable fact that we have a deal four weeks later which accords in every material respect with the objectives we set out very clearly at the beginning of our conversations with our European partners on the question of BSE. I leave it to the House to draw its own conclusions.

I also have to say that I do not believe it to be entirely right—although, as always, I defer to both noble Lords who have infinitely more experience of the Commission and of Brussels—to suggest that this is some sort of millennial apocalyptic event which will destroy our relations with Europe for ever and a day. After all, we are not unique in doing what we have done. I am sure that both noble Lords will remember that a number of our European partners took action when they felt the situation warranted it, beside which our steps seem moderate in the extreme. I merely suggest that they should look into recent history to see what, for example, the Italians and the French have done on occasion.

My message to both noble Lords is that although this House always enjoys listening to their higher flights of fancy—indeed, we enjoy their rhetoric, their vocabulary and the statesmanship with which they deliver their homilies—I believe that to erect the whole affair into a sort of re-run of the battle of Crécy, the Somme or Agincourt is hardly what it merits. What we want is very simple. We want to ensure that our beef industry is once again re-established, and re-established as quickly as possible.

In his splendidly rhetorical style, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, asked when the ban would be lifted. The answer is perfectly simple. The ban will be lifted when the steps that we have agreed have been taken. As noble Lords will be well aware, such steps are extremely complex to put into operation. If we were to say that we thought that the steps should be taken by such and such a date—let us say, 1st January—there is absolutely no guarantee that we would be able to do so or that we could go to the Commission and indeed to the SVC and say, "It is 1st January. You must assume on the basis of our having reached that date that we are able to take the particular step referred to in our agreement to lift the ban".

No, my Lords, how much more sensible to say that we will define the individual step that needs to be taken and do what my right honourable friend set out in the Statement; namely, give some broad indication of the time by which that step will, we hope, have been arranged mechanically at home. We will then work hard to ensure that we have done what we need to do in order to be able to go to the Commission and explain how we have fared.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, asked me how many extra cattle will be slaughtered. He knows that this is a highly emotive question. As a farmer myself, I am well aware of that. The extra number of the 89/90 cohort is nothing like the 67,000 which has been bandied around. That is the highest potential number. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, many of the cattle concerned will already have been slaughtered under the 30 month plus scheme when they reached the end of their working lives. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, the average age at which cattle are slaughtered is 6.8 years. The number could well be as low as 20,000, or perhaps as high as 40,000. However, I do not think that the theoretical figure of 67,000 is what we are talking about.

The noble Lord also asked when BSE would be eradicated. Again, the noble Lord may not be altogether happy with my reply, but I hope that he will see that it is reasonable under the circumstances. Our objective is, of course, to eradicate BSE as rapidly as we possibly can. That will take time. We have never made any secret about that. It may take a relatively small number of years. We believe that the measures we have taken will greatly accelerate the elimination of the incidence of BSE and we can get back to a reasonable basis for the continuation of our export trade, and indeed reassure all consumers of British beef whether in this country or abroad.

The noble Lord asked about European monetary union. I shall not go into the Government's position again. The noble Lord knows as well as I that we have quite sensibly kept our options open. Unlike some other parties we have made it clear that if by any chance a Conservative government were to decide that it was to our national advantage to join a single currency, we would give the voters an opportunity to give their verdict. Of course for us to say at the moment that we would not join at all would be foolish in the extreme because we have an interest in trying to make sure that the negotiations leading up to the establishment of a single currency—if it happens—should take proper account of vital matters which have to be decided. One vital matter to which my right honourable friend referred in his Statement is the relationship between "ins" and "outs". The noble Lord will be aware that "ins" and "outs" do not necessarily fall into those categories because they want to be in or out. Some of them—indeed perhaps even a number of them—will not meet the Maastricht criteria and therefore will put themselves out of contention for a single currency anyway.

4.23 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, over the past few weeks I have been approached by a number of farmers, notably in my area of north Wales and Anglesey. I have never known them to be so confused, worried and uncertain about the future. I should like the noble Viscount to tell the House—if he will—what consultation there has been with the farmers over the past month or so, and especially over the past few days when these conclusions have been arrived at. Are they satisfied? Were they properly consulted? By that, I refer to all the unions. What is the response of the farmers to the result of the talks in Florence? Can the noble Viscount say what compensation they can expect? They have lost a great deal of money. Their way of life has been interfered with in a substantial way. I can assure the noble Viscount from my personal contact with them that they are going through a difficult time. I feel sorry not only for the farmers but also for the families of the farmers and for those in the villages who depend on the farmers. The consequences are far greater than has been made clear by the Government to the country at the present time. I shall be grateful if the noble Viscount can enlighten us on those points.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I say straightaway that I fully agree with the noble Lord as regards the difficult time that farmers in all parts of the United Kingdom have had to endure as a result of the BSE crisis. I wish to be associated with the noble Lord's sympathy for the farmers, particularly those in his part of Wales. In my view, it has been extremely important for close contact to be maintained between farmers and the Government so that there should be a proper flow of information between the two, and to enable farmers' views to be taken into account and to enable them to feel that they have ready access to officials and to Ministers.

I believe that on the previous occasion I discussed the matter of BSE in this House I made it clear that it seemed to me there had been a rather slower response than we ideally would have liked to making sure that proper communication was established. Although arrangements can never be perfect, I am afraid that in my view the complexity and the suddenness of the crisis contributed to that. An enormous amount of work has been done to try to put that right, in particular under the leadership of my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who is particularly charged with making sure that farmers are aware of what is going on in England. The appropriate Ministers in the Northern Ireland, Scottish and Welsh Offices ensure that farmers are aware of what is going on in those countries. I hope that the noble Lord will not hesitate to get in touch with my colleagues if he feels that these arrangements are not working as to details. I wholly agree with him that this is one of the most important areas which the Government should address. I had hoped that that had improved enormously over the past six weeks in particular.

As regards compensation, I think the noble Lord is aware of the rates of compensation for cull cows over 30 months, and as regards the calf compensation scheme. We have yet to announce details of compensation for the cull scheme for the 89/90 cohort, but as this will be a voluntary matter—I think that is the way to describe it—the rate of compensation for that cohort has to be sufficiently high to be an inducement for farmers and to make it worth their while to take it up. Our objective—I am sure the noble Lord will agree with this—is to re-establish confidence in the beef industry, to eliminate BSE, and to continue to reassure the consumer because, after all, an even higher priority than the welfare of the farming industry is the importance of public health. Of course the two are intimately connected.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, first, will my noble friend desist from using the expression "single currency" as it is manifestly obvious that even if some member states enter a monetary union, there will be several different currencies circulating within the European Union and therefore none of them can conceivably be a single currency? Secondly, will he confirm that I heard him aright quoting the Prime Minister as saying that the original ban which was imposed by the European Union was unjustified? Will he confirm that he further said it would be removed in stages and that judgment on that removal will be reached only on objective criteria concerning public health? But if it was unjustified in the beginning, how can there be any concern today about public health? Surely that is a nonsense.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I stand corrected in regard to the single currency. My noble friend will agree with me that we slip quickly into the most convenient way of describing something. Convenience often takes precedence over absolute accuracy. It is known as the "single currency", and I suspect that, like the poll tax, my noble friend's efforts to get it called something else are doomed to failure.

As concerns the ban, I can confirm that my right honourable friend used the word "unjustified". My noble friend is right that my right honourable friend said that public health would be the first priority. Perhaps my noble friend also agrees with me that the measures we have taken are concerned with restoring public confidence. I hear my noble friend say "Ah!", but if he reads Hansard again he will find that public confidence also plays a part in what my right honourable friend said. It is no good basing ourselves entirely on public health because if no confidence is expressed by consumers, despite our satisfaction over public health, we can produce as much safe beef as we like but they will still not buy it.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I congratulate the Leader of the House on his Statement. First, I ask him to confirm that in 1988 the European Commission first raised the issue of the safety of animal feed. The view was then taken by a number of member governments, including our own and that of France, that it was not a matter suitable for the European Commission. No regulations were laid down until 1994.

Secondly, in view of the noble Viscount's welcome commitment to the cause of truth in the tabloids, will he confirm that the ban on beef exports from Britain was not first brought in, as the impression is given, by the European Union countries but that Canada, Japan, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and many other countries had banned British beef exports as long ago as five years previously? Will the noble Viscount confirm that the European Union ban was among the last of the series?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, probably my memory is more defective than that of the noble Baroness. On the first point, I can confirm what she said. Secondly, I did not hear her mention the United States of America. I believe that I am right in saying that it imposed its own ban as long ago as 1989. The noble Baroness will agree with me that the terms of the ban differed substantially from that imposed by the European Union. I am sure that the noble Baroness will also agree that it is important for us to try to get the European Union ban lifted. It will improve our chances of persuading other countries to do the same.

I remind the noble Baroness that my right honourable friend also pointed out that we were proceeding with an interim measures appeal in the European Court of Justice. We believe that the ban on exports to third countries for internal consumption was unjustified and we intend to pursue the claim. We are reasonably optimistic about the outcome. We hope that at least some of the steps that have been set out by my right honourable friend in regard to the third country ban will ensure that it is lifted earlier as a result of the successful interim measures action.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the noble Viscount further explain what is implied by his statement that during the period of non co-operation, which I believe lasted a month, no fewer than 70 decisions—74 decisions, according to my noble friend—were blocked? Has the noble Viscount any information as to the number of decisions and regulations that were passed by qualified majority during that time? We should bear in mind the Government's continued assertion that the flood of regulations from Europe was diminishing. The figures the noble Viscount has just given, which cover one month, indicate that the number of decisions has increased and that more and more regulations are coming from Brussels. I should be glad of an explanation.

Will the Minister say whether, to the best of his information, the individual transactions in imports and exports between ourselves and the various countries of Europe and our transactions over the exchanges and with invisibles have suffered during the month? Are not the people most likely to be inconvenienced the bureaucrats themselves in all countries rather than those involved in the ordinary normal intercourse between countries? Since only one-and-a-half hours ago we considered vital questions of public expenditure and taxpayers' money, will the Minister inform the House how much the settlement will cost the United Kingdom in the remainder of 1996–97 and the years 1997–98 and 1998–99? Will £2 billion or £3 billion have to be paid by the taxpayers of the United Kingdom? If so, what do the Government propose to do about it?

Finally, while the noble Viscount was in conference in Florence, or while the Government were in conference in Florence, was it pointed out to our partners that there were serious complaints about the spread of BSE in France, the Netherlands and Portugal? Did the Government mention that and ask whether those countries should have their exports of cattle banned?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, sadly, as someone who has nothing but the most vivid and affectionate memories of Florence, I was not privileged to be there last weekend. However, I was fortunate to be in South Wales, I am able to say to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and perhaps did better as a result.

I am aware that I failed to answer one of the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Richard, about the number of matters that we vetoed which were subject to unanimity. As both noble Lords are aware, they are the only ones that we vetoed because under QMV, the veto would probably not have had much effect.

I was asked how many we agreed with. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, will allow me to be somewhat imprecise. There were a number of matters. I am sure that he can think of some which we wanted agreed, but it is fortunate that we merely delayed our agreement to the ones with which we agreed for a relatively short time.

On whether or not trade has suffered, in view of the latest set of trade figures we cannot be precise but it does not look as though our trade has suffered enormously. One of the reasons can easily be found: unemployment in this country is decreasing whereas in other countries in the European Union it is increasing. That is because we have made what is proving to be an accurate analysis of what creates jobs. The sort of social market arrangements to which the noble Lord's party is so keen to sign up are just those that are ensuring very high and growing rates of unemployment in continental Europe. So long as our competitiveness continues to grow in comparison with that of our European partners, I think we can safely say that our trade with them is likely to increase rather than the reverse. There is no doubt that if we are more competitive than they are we shall find our goods rather more attractive in due course and over a period of time than theirs.

As to BSE in other countries, so far as I know, no specific reference was made to it by my right honourable friend in Florence. If I am wrong in saying that, I will write to the noble Lord. I know that a number of farmers in particular have expressed doubts about the accuracy of the reporting of the incidence of BSE among our partners. I do not think that I am qualified to comment on that. It would be very helpful from our point of view if the European Union as a whole could co-operate in order to try to eliminate this terrible disease.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, the Government have stated that they are to base their whole policy on science. In view of that fact, will they examine the whole issue again, considering that Dr. Robert Will, of SEAC, was quoted in The Times last week as saying that the clinical basis for the 10 new cases is now in grave doubt, so therefore there are almost certainly no further doubts about CJD? Secondly, SEAC also said that there was nothing wrong in eating beef over 30 months old provided it was on the bone. Thirdly, considering the grave doubt that is now put on the food chain theory as to the cause of BSE, will my noble friend please make sure that all the science is examined again with a far more rational mind and a much more open approach?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Looking at the science in a rational manner is precisely what we are doing. In fact, I repeat that there is probably a more concentrated and expensive programme of research into BSE being carried out in this country than in any other country in the world, for reasons that must be obvious to the House. It is far too early for us to come to certain conclusions about the origins of BSE, its cause and its transferability into humans. Also, so far as I know it is still not proven that transferability is a fact. The sooner the research can come to solid conclusions on that, the happier I shall be, as will my noble friend.