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I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be patient, because I had the advantage of talking to member state Ministers and the Commissioner last week, and I shall explain precisely what could have happened. Farmers may conclude, including those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, that anything would be better than the continuation of the silly war games that were causing such difficulty and distracting attention from the real crisis at home. I would not blame them for that.
However, the 650,000 people whose livelihoods have been put at risk by the Government's mishandling of the crisis are surely justified in being sceptical about the piece of paper that the Prime Minister flourished aloft after the Florence summit.
In briefing hon. Members today, the National Farmers Union has reiterated its position, which I believe is broadly supported by the National Farmers Union for Scotland, the farmers unions in Wales and other parts of the industry. I apologise for quoting at length, but it is important. It states:
From the first time that the Government announced it was considering a selective slaughter scheme, in addition to the over 30 month cattle disposal scheme, the NFU has expressed deep concern on behalf of the farming community. The scientific basis for a selective cull is unconvincing as such a scheme would be ineffective in hastening the eradication of BSE in the British herd—though it is anticipated that there would be some reduction in the number of cases of BSE coming forward over the next year or two.
The Florence Agreement confirms that the Government are now committed to an accelerated cull of those cattle considered to be at most risk from incubating BSE. When originally proposed the scheme was aimed at a nominal 40,000 cattle; the Government then doubled this to 80,000, and by taking in those cows born in 1989/90 into the Florence Agreement (albeit on a voluntary basis), the scheme could embrace up to a nominal 150,000 cattle. These animals are not the 'clapped out milkers' that have been referred to in some quarters, but many cases are high quality dairy cows in their prime milk producing years. The impact on some farmers of the cull is likely to be devastating with some individuals facing the loss of as much as 60 per cent. of their whole herds.