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BSE

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:51 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian 8:51 pm, 25th June 1996

It is a pleasure to hear a Euro-sceptic on the defensive at last. The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) has given the game away—he is more interested in the illusion of sovereignty for this "fortress little England" that he dreams of than he is in the interests of the British economy. Does the hon. Gentleman seriously think that consumers in Germany, France and Italy would be more likely to want to buy and eat beef from Scotland or from other parts of the United Kingdom if Britain was outside the European Union? What a load of nonsense.

I should preface my remarks by declaring an interest, as a farmer. I also apologise for the fact that I was not in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate, because I have just returned from a visit with colleagues on the Anglo-Irish parliamentary body to the Republic of Ireland. I spent this morning at a slaughterhouse in Ireland, where our Committee was examining the effect of the BSE crisis on both parts of the island of Ireland, as well as in Great Britain.

It is worth mentioning that the export market of the Republic of Ireland has suffered grievously—despite the fact that it has had only 127 cases of BSE and every animal in herds in which BSE has been identified has been slaughtered, at considerable expense, in addition to other measures. Obviously the Irish beef export trade has not suffered as much as ours, however, as ours has been banned. All beef-producing countries have suffered because of the collapse of confidence in beef. It is in their interests, as much as in ours, that we get our act together and solve this problem, to restore consumer confidence in export markets.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the support that British interests have had from some Governments in the European Union, particularly the Government of the Republic of Ireland, in helping us to resolve the situation. We have made it very difficult for them.

It is nonsense for the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) and other hon. Members to claim that the settlement reached last week was a result of the British Tory Government's policy of serial vetoing of dozens of measures—which included drug controls, police co-operation and overseas aid. How on earth can we expect to make friends among our partner Governments or among partner populations by conducting ourselves in that manner? It is ludicrous.

Speaking as a farmer, and having spoken to many farmers in Scotland in recent weeks, I must say that the farming community is dismayed by the Government's counter-productive conduct. There is no doubt that this idiotic conduct of vetoing everything and seeking to make enemies among our partners has set back our interests. We need to make friends and to rebuild our markets rather than going out of our way to make enemies, as has happened.

Serial vetoing is infantile. The Government have been behaving rather like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum. It is not only ridiculous but counter-productive. We need friends among the other European Governments and among the consumers in our export markets.

I share the misgivings expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the nature of the package which has been negotiated, because I do not think that it is based on science. I am not sure about merely plucking a number out of the air and saying that a given number of cattle will be slaughtered. It might be necessary from a marketing point of view to take surplus cattle off the market, but whether it reduces the risk of BSE or CJD is far from proven.

I strongly support the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about the need for clearer science and better resources for science so that we can get a better understanding of what we are dealing with. Where did this condition come from? What is the extent of the real risk to humans, and how will we eradicate it? Those are the fundamental questions that are probably being grappled with now, but it is a great pity that those areas of science have hitherto been so under-resourced.

I conclude this brief speech by reminding the House that the objective of this whole sorry affair must be not to try to aggravate the German Government, the German population and other partners but to make friends. If we want to export again, as is essential certainly for the Scottish beef farming industry, we must persuade people on mainland Europe that our beef is high quality and safe.

Conservative Members prattle on about sovereignty. The hon. Member for Gainsborough spoke about South Africa. My understanding is that South Africa—like Singapore, Australia, the United States and so many other countries outside the European Union—itself decided to ban imports of British beef. The European Union wants to help to ensure that we have a safe product that can be marketed safely without tainting the image of European produce in other countries. What type of sovereignty was the hon. Gentleman talking about? Those countries are entitled to ban imports if they feel that they are unsafe. We must persuade them that there is no need to do so. He was turning the concept of sovereignty on its head.

It is in the interests of our farmers and of the nation to restore confidence in this product. I am afraid that the conduct of the British Government has set back that objective—certainly by months, but I fear by years. We must start now to put the situation right.