Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:41 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh , Gainsborough and Horncastle 8:41 pm, 25th June 1996

It appears that three charges have been brought today by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), against my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Government and Euro-sceptic Members. It does not seem to me that those charges have been proven at all, certainly not beyond reasonable doubt.

What is the charge against my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister? Is it that he made the wrong decisions in the 1980s? That charge does not stand up because he was not the Minister responsible. Is it that he has been dishonest? The truth is that he is palpably honest. He is one of the most honest Ministers that we have ever seen at the Dispatch Box. He is honest to a fault. He has constantly made it his business to come first to the House of Commons. Should he have gone first to the Commission or to television studios? He came to the Dispatch Box. Is it that he does not have the intellectual capacity to do the job? Nobody suggests that. Is it because he has apparently said the wrong things on television? My hon. Friend the Minister of State dealt with that point very well. Most of his pronouncements have been proved to be entirely true and have been vindicated by events.

The worst that can be said of my right hon. and learned Friend is that, apparently, some unnamed officials in Brussels have said that he was not prepared to bring a framework to the discussions. I have been listening to numerous statements over the past month or so and I have constantly heard Ministers bringing forward numerous proposals for various ways of dealing with the problem.

The charges against my right hon. and learned Friend are nonsense. They have not held up in the debate. This is, clearly, a politically inspired attack. That is okay, but it has diverted the attention of the House from what we should be discussing, which is how to eradicate this disease.

The second charge against the Government is not proven in any way. The disease is a mystery. It is an enigma in the riddle of the most complex of tissues, whether in animals or in man. Nobody yet knows what caused BSE and what is the link between BSE and CJD. There is the vague charge that the deregulatory nature of the Conservative Government has, in some way, caused the problem, but that has never been proven in any way.

The third charge that has been brought against my colleagues is that, somehow, those of us who are opposed to a federal Europe have caused this problem because we encouraged the Prime Minister in some unaccounted way to launch his policy of non-co-operation with Europe. It is all our fault and we would have got a much better deal weeks before had it not been for the policy of non-co-operation. The only evidence to support that theory is what the Commission says. Do we really expect the Commission to say, "Oh yes, your policy of non-co-operation has really worked"? Of course it would not say that. Does anybody think that we would have got the deal this weekend if there had not been a policy of non-co-operation? The Commission was offering nothing. I do not blame the Germans. There is a crisis of confidence in beef eating in Germany. There would have been no question of the German Government allowing anything to go through but for the robust policy carried through by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

The various charges do not add up. The Liberal Democrats have done the House a service today by allowing us to deal with all the charges one by one and show that they are not the kernel of the problem. In fact, the kernel of the problem consists of some serious questions to which my farmers—I represent one of the most agricultural areas in the country—would like some answers. The Liberal Democrat spokesman could have asked those questions when he opened the debate. He did not tell us how he would have got an agreement or how many cows he would have offered up for slaughter. He does not know. This was not a perfect agreement, but it was the best that we could get. The hon. Member for North Cornwall knows that and that is why he spent most of his speech making rather nasty personal attacks on my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister. He wanted to disguise, as do some other hon. Members, the fact that his party does not have a better solution.

What are the serious issues about which we could be talking, leaving aside politics for a moment? First, I am worried about the nature of the vets' committee. At the end of the day, the vets report to their national Governments. Apparently, we have received reassurances that, if the vets are not acting in a scientific manner, the Commission can step in. Of course, the vets will never admit that they are acting in an unscientific manner. They never have done and they never will. We want to have further and better particulars on the problem of the vets.

Secondly, there is the worldwide ban about which I feel strongly. It is outrageous and is an unparalleled and grotesque infringement of national sovereignty. We are being told that we cannot export beef to South Africa, with which we enjoy friendly relations. It is almost a developed nation, with a long history of careful management of its food and animal sector. I believe that we should continue the battle and insist that progress is made. The Commission says that it cannot allow beef to be exported to third-world countries when it is not considered safe in Europe. We are eating British beef and we are the best judges. Consumers worldwide are the best judges of the safety of beef, not the Commission and not the Governments. We must do much more about that ban.