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Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 7:29 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Paul Marland Mr Paul Marland , Gloucestershire West 7:29 pm, 25th June 1996

What I find incredible about this debate is that our opponents seek to turn hindsight into a virtue. They regard it as an intellectual asset, when we know that it is the cheapest commodity on earth. Having listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), I wonder whether he has been in the Chamber during the debate.

We are discussing the biggest operation that has ever been undertaken in the United Kingdom food industry. As others have said, it involves farmers, feed manufacturers, markets and those who work in them, hauliers, slaughterers, vets, renderers, restaurants, exporters, food processors, eight Government Departments, billions of pounds and tens of thousands of people. It takes time to mobilise and communicate with all those enterprises and interests.

We are dealing with a new disease which takes a long time to develop. No one is sure how it is going to develop. Of course there has been frustration between the farmers and the Government and between the Government and our European partners. One of the frustrating things for the Government was that they could not get any clear statements, ideas or suggestions out of our European partners when the disaster first occurred. The EU would not give us any positive guidance on what it wanted to see us do. It introduced the ban, and was unhelpful in telling us what we should do to get it lifted.

What should have been the Government's main priority—sorting out the farmers and communicating with the interested parties in Britain, or sorting out the ban? It seems to me that there is no question but that the first thing we had to do was find the right way forward with our European partners, and persuade them to co-operate. Europe had to be our main priority. Despite what Opposition Members have said this evening, our partners refused to co-operate, and would not discuss the matter with us. I had discussions, as others did, with Ministers at an early stage, and that was their frustration.

We had to introduce a system of non-co-operation to persuade the Europeans to come to the negotiating table. That has shown the nation that the Conservative Government are not frightened to stand alone when the need arises. It is not for us to work towards a federal Europe. [Interruption.] The wriggling on the Opposition Benches suggests that Opposition Members are happy to be swamped by European legislation, and would not stand up for the interests of the people of this country.

Of course we have faced delay and frustration over this matter. We all know from dealing with problems brought to us by our constituents how long things can take to sort out, and how frustrating it is when we cannot sort them out immediately. So what have the Government done at home to ease the way and improve communications between interested parties? It is excellent that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been appointed to spearhead the eight Government Departments in their efforts. It is first-class that advance payments are being made to farmers holding cows over 30 months which are due to be slaughtered. It is right that the Government should consult interested parties on the next move.

I was riveted by the suggestion by the Opposition that the Northern Ireland scheme is the right way forward. It is no wonder the Labour party is not being consulted on the matter. In Northern Ireland, every cow that is moved has to have a licence. There are more than 12 million such movements in the United Kingdom every year. Such an operation would be a bureaucratic nightmare for those trying to oversee it. However, I am not surprised that, even now, Labour Members express their support for such a scheme. We know that Labour Members like bureaucrats. They like a bureaucratic nightmare which no one can find a way through.

We now have a framework agreement and a way forward. When we have completed the selective cull, the European Union will fulfil its part of the agreement. Progress now depends on our industry. The speed at which the cull moves forward depends on the British farmers and others involved ensuring that it works. It is in their interests to make sure that the cull happens as speedily as possible. That is why we cannot give a hard and fast timetable.

The selective cull is based on the thinnest scientific evidence. I agree with other hon. Members who have said that it is a most disagreeable thing to have to do, but what alternatives are there? This is a Liberal-inspired debate, and we have not heard a single suggestion from Liberal Members of what we should do. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"] To be fair, the former president of the Liberal Democrats is in his place.

The Government are consulting the industry on the selective cull, how much compensation should be paid for different beasts, compensation for loss of earnings, how beasts can be identified, and how farmers should be notified which cows are to be culled and when. To speed matters up, the Government have commissioned extra cold storage. I congratulate them on that. They have not only commissioned regular cold stores, but have taken over large buildings formerly used as grain stores and installed chilling equipment in them so that the slaughter can be accelerated. Extra incinerators will be used so that no rendering needs to take place.

I know that six applications have been made by private sector companies to build incinerators at the point of slaughter. That will enormously speed up the removal of the backlog. Of course it is sad that there are stories of exploitation by some renderers and slaughterers of those who find themselves in a disagreeable situation, but I suppose that that is just the way of the world. That is how things work out. However, farmers can see that things are moving and that the Government have made a substantial effort.

As the European Union is constituted, it is supposed to be a partnership. I cannot help wondering why our European partners did not co-operate more in lifting the ban and eradicating the difficulties in Britain. I wondered whether they had another agenda; whether they were trying to cover something up. So I went to my local market in Gloucester and asked the market managers whether in their experience something was going on in France that we did not know about. They told me there was. They said that a lot of covering up of BSE went on in France.

I tried to interest the media in what I was told, but they were not interested in what was going on in France. They just wanted to denigrate the Government. However, thanks to a front-page story in Monday's edition of The Daily Telegraph, the truth may soon emerge. I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the House will have seen the headline: "EU farmers are not reporting BSE cases." The article started: Beef from many EU countries is now more likely to be contaminated with BSE than British beef. European vets have concluded from evidence that thousands of cases in Europe have not been reported.The Federation of Veterinarians in Europe will call on the Agricultural Commissioner this week to impose a British style ban on specified beef offals throughout the EU.This follows evidence from Swiss experts of gross under reporting of BSE by many EU countries.