Dr. John Cunningham:
The Prime Minister and I have held discussions with the President of the European Commission and Commissioners Fischler and Bonino on how to have the export ban lifted as quickly as possible. They have been constructive and helpful. We are also considering, in consultation with the Commission, what other options the Florence agreement has to offer for resuming exports.
Does the Minister understand that the position is now desperate? Yesterday, prices in Oswestry and Market Drayton hit a 16-year low, bumping around the 90p mark. He cannot keep hiding behind the actions of the previous Government—[Interruption.] Can I ask on behalf of my constituents that the Minister takes responsibility and gives us a clear date by which that iniquitous ban will be lifted?
If the hon. Gentleman does not learn quickly that that type of nonsense is of no help to his constituents, he probably will not be an hon. Member after the next general election. Does he really expect that, in seven weeks, the Government could have undone the untold damage inflicted by previous Conservative Ministers on the British beef industry? If he believes that, he is living in cloud cuckoo land. We have attempted quickly to re-establish sensible working relationships with the Commission and the European Parliament, and we are pressing ahead as quickly as possible on the issue. Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent beef farmers, and I do not need any lessons from him about the damage that has been inflicted on them because of 18 years of Conservative government.
The Minister could be forgiven—although this is only his second outing at the Dispatch Box; yesterday he dealt with the quota hopping issue, and today he dealt with the question from the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson)—for thinking that he has already heard it all about his departmental administration. Given the on-going and inherited crisis in the beef industry, however, may I press him on one constructive point, which has found favour within the National Farmers Union—the position of calves born after 1 August 1996 and that are a minimum of six months old? Is there some mechanism for proceeding in at least that sector, so that we can establish some practical and political momentum and find a way in which to achieve an eventual overall lifting of the ban?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his much more rational contribution to a serious problem. He and the NFU are correct on that point, about which I have had discussions with Sir David Naish. I have had discussions on the same point with Commissioner Fischler—with whom, only today, I once again discussed the issues on the telephone. We are pressing ahead with talks about a born-after scheme, as we are pressing ahead with the selective cull—which the previous Administration neglected to do. Moreover, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is expediting a cattle traceability scheme. All those actions must be taken to satisfy European Union legislation before there is any hope of having the ban lifted. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on his principal point, and we are working on it.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that, during the past 18 months, I was much criticised for not securing a timetable. Will he confirm that he has had many discussions with the Commissioners and with his fellow Ministers in Europe? Will he also confirm that he himself has achieved no timetable, no bankable assurances and—if he is absolutely honest with the House—no progress of any kind?
Yes, I can confirm that—literally from the Government's first days—I have had a whole series of meetings. Moreover, I have not sought a timetable, because too many problems have been left outstanding by the right hon. and learned Gentleman—including his failure to fulfil effectively the terms and conditions of the Florence agreement, which the former Prime Minister and former Foreign Secretary signed up to; his failure properly to implement the selective cull; and his failure to develop an effective cattle traceability scheme. All those problems are a result of his stewardship. They were unresolved when we took office, and it is absurd to think that we could immediately go to Brussels and demand a date for lifting the ban.