Between October 1999 and September 2000, the period for which we have the most recent figures, about 1.4 million tonnes of meat were imported into the United Kingdom from third countries and other European Union member states.
I thank the Minister for that brief statement. Does she recognise that, according to recent press reports, some imports from the continent have been from countries with a history of BSE and that some of the imported cattle are over 30 months old? If that is the case, what discussions does she intend to have with EU Ministers on that matter?
First, it is important to realise that important decisions have been taken at recent Agriculture Council meetings about strengthening the controls throughout EU countries for meat that goes into the food chain. I welcome that for two reasons: first, because it shows the importance that other EU countries attach to strict controls, and secondly, because it evens the playing field for our producers who have borne BSE-related costs for some time.
However, on food safety I remind the hon. Gentleman—I must stress this—that that is a matter for the Food Standards Agency and we will take its advice on such issues. The hon. Gentleman will know that agency staff recently visited France, for example, and the agency has issued several public statements on these issues. I am keen that its responsibilities for food safety are widely recognised, particularly since the House voted for the agency to undertake those responsibilities.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a problem with processed meats in particular, and we can deal with that only if we bolster the number of consumer protection officers in county councils and unitary authorities? She is right to say that the Food Standards Agency has responsibility for these issues, which simply draw attention to the reason why we need an independent agency, particularly when we consider the earlier lamentable performance over BSE. We should consider the yo-yoing of the Conservative party rather than the ho-hoing to which Conservative Members keep referring.
My hon. Friend is right to remind us of the agency's role, but the rules on processed products were drawn up by the previous Government. The agency is considering the issue. In European forums, the agency and the Government have been active on labelling so that we can give consumers more information.
Is the Minister aware of the problems experienced by many hygiene inspectors in trying to ensure that meat entering the country meets our high standards? They are unable to do so because of the lack of proper labelling, of a traceability scheme, and even of any real Government guidance. What discussions has the Minister had with her ministerial colleagues here and in Europe to try to plug that gap?
I am certainly not saying that the legislation that we inherited was perfect in that respect—it was not. However, I exonerate this Government from the charge of failing to issue guidelines or to work with the Food Standards Agency in its issuing of guidelines. There has been a lot of contact with local authority officials who have responsibility on the matter, and we have been backing up their efforts at a local level by the action that we have been taking with our colleagues at a European level.
Should not our single objective be to ensure easy and unrestricted access for our beef products to every country in the European Union? Under no circumstances should we follow the hysterical advice given by the Conservative party, which, for anti-European reasons, simply wants to block the import into the United Kingdom of products from France and elsewhere.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. We export a lot of meat, such as lamb to France, and farmers throughout the country are keen for us to safeguard that trade by our co-operative approach and action within the European Union. However, there is now much wider recognition of this country's strict controls, and it is good to see that recent decisions made at a European level follow the example of some of those controls.
Does the Minister recall the answer given in the House five weeks ago by the Agriculture Minister? He said:
This country's public protection measures, which are very powerful, include a ban on selling any beef product derived from animals that are over 30 months.—[Official Report, 16 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 1053.]
Does she recall an answer given by the right hon. Gentleman on 13 April? He said:
The fact is that we do not allow meat products over 30 months to be imported into this country.—[Official Report, 13 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 485.]
A week after he gave that answer, the right hon. Gentleman wrote to me saying:
The sale of meat and meat products from cattle over 30 months in this country is banned.
Will the Minister now confirm that none of those statements was true?
Indeed I will not. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that my right hon. Friend has explained the position regarding the rules that we inherited from the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a member. Nothing that my right hon. Friend has said has contradicted that legal position.
However, let me in turn congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the inconsistent record of the Opposition Front-Bench team: he managed to contradict himself within 24 hours on this very issue. He was quoted in the Financial Times of 24 November as saying:
If consumers are to have any confidence, the Food Standards Agency must not be seen to be a creature of ministers. Politics is once again intruding on issues of food safety.
Yet the same day he said:
Far from cosmetic checks by the Food Standards Agency, what the British consumer wants is an immediate ban on French beef.
As it happens, that is exactly what the British consumer wants. The public are entitled to believe that statements that are repeated time and again by Ministers in Parliament are accurate. Will the right hon. Lady now admit that food products made from potentially BSE-infected imported over-30-months-old cattle may have been and may still be sold to British consumers? Is not the only reason that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has claimed otherwise in Parliament that the Labour Government are so craven in their attitude toward France and other European countries that they prefer to put British consumers at risk, rather than tell the truth about the dangers of French, Irish or German meat?
If we followed the hon. Gentleman's example, we would end up isolated in Europe on the issue, instead of having the rest of the European Union on our side. I note that the hon. Gentleman did not deny the quotes attributed to him. He has to be consistent—he cannot have it both ways. He must either approve of the Food Standards Agency, which I understand to be the overwhelming will of the House, or be in favour of party political meddling in food safety issues. We know where we stand: on the side of the independent Food Standards Agency.
The point is that my constituents are wondering to whom they should turn for advice. To whom should they listen? Should they listen to the advice of the Conservative agriculture spokesman, who has already contradicted himself, or to the advice of Sir John Krebs, chairman of the independent Food Standards Agency, which produces fully informed scientific analysis, rather than the sort of bigotry we hear from the Conservatives?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Food Standards Agency was set up with those specific responsibilities. Having entrusted it with those responsibilities, we should let it get on with the job that I believe it is already doing most effectively.