European Council (Stockholm)

– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 26 March 2001.

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Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister 3:30, 26 March 2001

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Special European Council held in Stockholm from 22 to 24 March.

At Stockholm, there was from all our partners sympathy over the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain and support for the measures that we are taking to contain and eradicate the disease. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, tomorrow, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make a statement to the House on the latest developments.

The purpose of the Council was to take forward the process of economic reform that was launched last year at Lisbon. That involved setting performance targets for the first time; benchmarking both between the nations of the European Union and in relation to our main competitors outside Europe; and a massive programme of liberalisation in opening up our markets.

As American growth slows, that policy is even more vital for growth and jobs in the future. Since March 2000, 2.5 million new jobs have been created in the European Union. In the United Kingdom we have created more than 1 million new jobs since 1997. Those figures will be welcomed in the House, in the country and across the European Union.

European Union spending on information and communications technology as a proportion of gross domestic product has, for the first time, outstripped that of the United States. In Europe, the proportion of homes with access to the internet has doubled to 28 per cent. For the United Kingdom, however, the figure is now 41 per cent. We must, however, go further.

Prior to the summit, we had already agreed rules for electronic commerce, so that a company registered in its home state can operate on the basis of those rules anywhere in the European Union; rules allowing businesses to operate as a European company; a programme for liberalisation of rail freight; and the final steps in telecommunications liberalisation, in a manner which will bring cheaper bills and cheaper internet access. That is good news for consumers across Europe.

At Stockholm, we agreed, first, to liberalise financial services, in a comprehensive plan that includes a single European company prospectus, common accounting standards, a far quicker procedure for changing financial services rules, and completing the single market in wholesale and retail financial services. The City and the Confederation of British Industry have rightly welcomed that breakthrough as good for jobs in the UK and the rest of the EU.

Secondly, we have made a commitment to open up the electricity and gas markets across the European Union. Most member states support the Commission's proposed timetable of full energy liberalisation by 2005, with intermediate targets for commercial liberalisation of 2003 for electricity and 2004 for gas. That proposal goes forward. There is widespread support for it in the Council and, crucially, it can be agreed by qualified majority vote. While I regret that we could not go further at Stockholm, the prospects for agreement at European level remain good. Our aim is for the Council of Ministers to reach agreement before the end of the year.

Thirdly, we agreed to reform competition policy and eliminate unfair state aids. We expect that, in 18 months, British consumers will benefit from, for example, changes to the so-called car block exemption in which our aim will be to secure a decrease in UK car prices.

Fourthly, we agreed to finalise plans this year to deliver a Europe-wide patent. Currently, it can take almost four years for a patent to be agreed right across the European Union. That is twice the time that it takes in the United States, and at five times the cost.

We also hope to agree, in June, the single European sky policy, which will improve air traffic management in Europe, enhancing safety and reducing delays. A 25 per cent. reduction in delays, for example, would save Europe's air transport industry and the public 2 billion euros a year.

Additionally, the Council took further steps on employment, especially for women and over-50s; on vocational skills; and on new technologies, including third- generation mobile communications and biotechnology.

On trade, we renewed our commitment to work towards a new WTO round later this year--an issue that we shall pursue when President Bush meets EU Heads of Government in Sweden in June. Taken together, these changes are further steps along the way to an efficient and competitive European economy.

President Putin met members of the European Council in Stockholm, and I had a good separate bilateral meeting with him. Discussion focused on economic issues. We expressed our support for continued Russian economic reform and for Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organisation. We also underlined the importance of further steps by Russia to improve the investment climate.

There were other conversations on the margins of the summit: some private, some public, some supposed to be private that ended up public--our own special contribution to the transparency of the Council process.

President Trajkovski of Macedonia joined us in Stockholm at a critical moment for his country. We offered him our support and condemned the activity of the armed Albanian extremists. Macedonia has started to build a multi-ethnic society and it is in all our interests that the country succeeds and does not polarise into separate Slav and Albanian communities. The United Kingdom has acted quickly to help shore up democracy and peace in Macedonia.

In Kosovo, NATO has diverted an extra 500 KFOR personnel to the Kosovo-Macedonia border, and I can announce today two further new steps. First, we are creating a new UK-Scandinavian battle group of some 400 troops from within our existing contingents for deployment by the KFOR commander to help secure part of the Kosovo-Macedonian border. Secondly, to reinforce KFOR's capacity to control Kosovo's borders, we are sending out a unit of Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicles with a 120-strong support team to provide extra aerial reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering assets to KFOR. The unit will be operational next month.

The European Union also reaffirmed strongly at Stockholm our joint commitment to the Nice treaty and its ratification. Failure to ratify would put at risk the entire enlargement process. While we must, of course, go further in pursuing the policies of economic reform, the fact that this is now the clear economic focus of the EU is in itself a huge advance. The agenda for it is being led by the UK, and once again it shows the advantages of constructive engagement and the folly of a policy of isolation.

That is the approach that we took at Stockholm. It is a policy that is delivering economic reform in Europe and jobs for this country. It is the policy that I propose to pursue with the support of this House and of the country.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

First and foremost, I join the Prime Minister in acknowledging the concern expressed by EU leaders about the severity of the situation facing the countryside in Britain and tens of thousands of businesses--a subject to which I shall return shortly.

There are several conclusions of the Council that I would like to welcome. We welcome the clear statement of support for Macedonia and the integrity of its borders. With Lord Robertson and Mr. Solana now visiting the area, does the Prime Minister recognise the need not only to express support for Macedonia and to take the measures that he has outlined, but for a co-ordinated approach to the Balkans region as a whole?

I also welcome those aspects of the summit conclusions that further open up the single market, including the progress made on financial services liberalisation, but will the Prime Minister acknowledge that the high hopes of many in the Government following Lisbon a year ago have largely been dashed, and that the Government made several mistakes in the run-up to Stockholm? The first was to spin things that could not be delivered--not an unfamiliar problem with this Government. Does he recall promising the House a year ago

"a sea change in European economic thinking . . . away from heavy-handed intervention and regulation, towards a new approach based on enterprise, innovation and competition"?--[Hansard, 27 March 2000; Vol. 347, c. 21.]

Does not such rhetoric make the reality since then all the more disappointing? Why has there been so little progress on the liberalisation of energy markets--an issue vital to British businesses--with all mention of clear deadlines blocked and removed from the communique? Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he told Mr. Jospin at the weekend that he would find the outcome very difficult to sell to his constituents back in Britain?

The Prime Minister's second mistake was to agree to yet more red tape, including the so-called tax package. It is intended to lead to tax harmonisation, as confirmed by the Belgian Finance Minister this morning. On the works council directive, to which the Government say that they are opposed, and on which the Prime Minister signed away our veto, did he place it on the agenda and make the position of the United Kingdom clear? Last week, the Minister for the Cabinet Office assured the House that the Prime Minister intended to secure agreement on introducing a rigorous business impact assessment system and the setting of an 18-month deadline, but that has not appeared in the conclusions of the summit. Did the right hon. Gentleman put that on the agenda and did he make the United Kingdom's position clear?

Was not the Prime Minister's third mistake the decision to take with him Mr. Vaz? The Minister for Europe travelled with the Prime Minister but then kept a low profile and, according to officials, had nothing in his diary. The one thing he did, we learn, was to host a lunch for European Ministers. As a senior Government official said:

"We really hope he did not try to charge them for attending."

We also know that the Prime Minister confided to Commissioner Prodi that he had 10 days in which to decide about something. We know that he could not possibly have been talking about a general election. We know that because his press secretary was at the same time telling journalists that the Prime Minister was not remotely focused on a general election, and that the only people who were talking about general elections were those in the media.

Let us take the Prime Minister's word for it that Mr. Prodi's query was about the timing of the county council elections--a big issue of concern in the European Commission, as we know. That being so, the Prime Minister has set himself a deadline of next Monday by which to make a decision about the local elections. Can we presume that this week he will bring forward the legislation that we called for last week to enable any decision about county council elections in areas affected by foot and mouth to be taken this week?

The severity of the foot and mouth crisis was widely acknowledged at Stockholm. I know that both sides of the House welcome the assistance of vets from other European countries. Given that there is still a massive shortage of vets, what further discussions did the Prime Minister have with his European counterparts over the weekend so that we can bring more desperately needed vets into Britain from the rest of the European Union?

The foot and mouth crisis is clearly not yet under control. What contingency plans have been drawn up for a vaccination and slaughter programme, such as the one floated on Friday by the Minister of Agriculture for use as a last resort? As such a programme may, one day, have to be used as a last resort, did the Prime Minister discuss with other countries the availability of the right kind of vaccine in the rest of Europe, given the limited supply in Europe as a whole? What did he do in Stockholm to obtain those supplies from other European countries as a precaution?

European countries know that the most important thing is to deal with this crisis domestically. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Government will be in a stronger position to give them that assurance if they implement vigorously the measures that they have announced and others have been calling for in recent weeks? I know that we will have the statement of the Minister of Agriculture tomorrow. However, in persuading other European countries of our determination in this respect, will the Prime Minister comment on the fact that we are seeing today in Cumbria what a valuable contribution the Army can make? Now that they are at last deployed, will he assure us that he will allow the Army commanders to draw on whatever resources they need to do the job, and to do so in other parts of the United Kingdom as well?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also assure other European countries that, although delays in slaughter are still a major problem--since last Thursday, the backlog has risen by more than 40 per cent. to 227,000--he agrees with the Government's chief scientist that slaughtering should take place within 24 hours of the disease being identified?

Eleven days ago, the Government announced a precautionary cull in Cumbria. When will that cull start, and will it be extended to other areas of the outbreak, as the chief scientist recommended? [Interruption.] Hon. Members may not want me to ask the Prime Minister about the crisis, but it is affecting the whole country and was discussed at Stockholm. We are entitled to ask about it.

As the Government's effort requires urgency and co-ordination, will the Prime Minister form a crisis Cabinet? Would that not be the best way to resolve the interdepartmental turf wars that have obviously arisen? The Government say that they will do all those things, but their efforts have lacked urgency and co-ordination. The message to the Government from across the country about the use of the Army, the speed of slaughter and carrying out the cull is, "Stop dithering, and get on with it." In doing all that, would the Government not signal, at last, that their absolute and overriding priority is to get on top of the situation and get a grip on eradicating the disease?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me deal with the serious points made about the European Council; that will require a fairly limited amount of time.

On Macedonia, we do, of course, want a co-ordinated approach to the Balkans. That is precisely what we have through NATO and KFOR, and in the stability pact in that part of the Balkans.

On reform, Mr. Hague said that nothing had happened at the Council. That simply is not correct. Extremely substantial reform has been agreed in the financial services sector. A Europe-wide patent is obviously important. The position of Britain and Spain over Gibraltar remains subject to negotiation over how the policy will affect Gibraltar. There should therefore be agreement on the single sky policy in Europe, which is immensely important.

The right hon. Gentleman said that regulation was no part of the Council's deliberations. In fact, paragraph 23 of the conclusions makes it clear that it was. He said that we had conceded on tax harmonisation, but we have made no such concession.

On gas and electricity, I think that the right hon. Gentleman did not listen to the point that I made. Because the Council requires unanimity, it is correct that the position on timetables for gas and electricity liberalisation was blocked at Stockholm. The point is, however, that the Commission proposal cannot be blocked in the same way. There is an interesting reason for that, and the right hon. Gentleman may wish to reflect on that reason: the Commission proposal will be decided by qualified majority voting. If it were not to be decided by QMV, there would be no guarantee of our ever achieving gas and electricity liberalisation. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should reflect on that point.

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman did not repeat his policy to refuse to ratify the treaty of Nice and call for a referendum on it. There was unanimous support for ratifying the treaty of Nice, and I discerned no support whatever for his policy of renegotiating the terms of our treaty of Rome engagement with the European Union. With the greatest of respect, I think that in handling those negotiations, the right hon. Gentleman would find it difficult to secure agreement on any item in front of the European Council.

Let me turn to the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised on foot and mouth. First, it is important to state exactly what has happened so far. In respect of the number of vets, there are now well over 1,200. We are bringing in vets all the time from different parts of the country. In addition, we are removing some burdens of administration from the vets themselves.

The right hon. Gentleman said that we had belatedly employed the Army. In fact, we have employed Army logistics teams throughout the country. I cannot give an exact number, but around 1,000 people are employed in the various Army logistics schemes. I have been to Cumbria and Devon over the past few days, and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman clearly that the Army are not concerned about, for example, the number of slaughtermen available. They are concerned about co-ordination and the logistical, practical effort of administering the cull that needs to be carried out.

On the policy of slaughter within 24 hours, the right hon. Gentleman will know that that is already our policy. The latest figures from Devon--[Interruption.] Perhaps hon. Members would wait for a moment. The latest figures from Devon show that all cases slaughtered in the county over the past three days were slaughtered within 24 hours of confirmation. I am pleased to say that the number of animals awaiting disposal has fallen, too.

I stress to the right hon. Gentleman, however--he seems to imply that it is easy to carry out these tasks--that it is a huge, practical, logistical effort. It is like tracking the common cold in the human population; it is very difficult to do, which is why the whole energy and resources of Government have been put at the disposal of those who have to do it. With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, the idea that what that requires is another committee is beside the point. What it actually requires is to make sure that the work that is supposed to happen on the ground is happening; we are doing everything that we possibly can in order to expedite that. It does not help when he seizes the opportunity of any particular problem that occurs in the country to get out his bandwagon and travel around the country--[Interruption.]

On vaccination, I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman now proposes that we do that, but of course, as the Minister of Agriculture has made clear, we have to keep all options under review. I emphasise again that one of the things that we have tried to do throughout is to keep farming opinion with us as to the right course to take in respect of this epidemic. Farming opinion--at least up until now--has been hugely hostile to the idea of vaccination, but the right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that we must make sure that all contingencies are planned for. However, vaccination is not an easy solution to the problem either.

Most people recognise that the policy of containment by culling is the right one--at any rate at present, as we track the development of the disease. The absolute essence now is to make sure that we take down the time from confirmation to slaughter. That is being done in every part of the country. The other priority is to make sure that all the resources of Government are put at the disposal of the people carrying out that policy. That has been done. Of course it is difficult, but we shall carry on working with those people within their communities, with the veterinary service, with the armed forces and with every part of Government to do our best to get this disease under control and eradicate it. That is what the entire country wishes us to do and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and Opposition Members will give us their support in carrying out that policy.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

In what proved to be--for all concerned--a rather modest European Union summit, will the Prime Minister confirm that, for Macedonia in particular and the Balkans in general, the right stance has to be condemnation of the rebel forces, support of the Government of the day and, especially, a continuing emphasis, on the part of his Administration as well as the EU as a whole, on human rights and the respect of human rights in that troubled area?

I have two specific questions arising from the summit. First, did the Prime Minister have an opportunity to discuss with any of his opposite numbers the suspicion of many of our farmers and an increasing number of our consumers that importations of food produce to our country are not subject to the stringent standards that we impose on ourselves? That is a legitimate concern.

My second question relates to a broader legitimate concern. Are the Prime Minister and the EU concerned that President Bush now says that he does not support the Kyoto protocol on climate change? For wider environmental reasons, should not the EU and the Government be pressurising Washington as a matter of considerable priority?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, in respect of the Balkans, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for support of the policy that we have declared on the position in Macedonia.

In respect of importations of food produce, that is a common concern raised by farmers and people in farming communities. We have stringent standards and we must ensure that they are applied properly. I hope that in the statement that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will make tomorrow, he will be able to say a little more about the origins of the epidemic and the likely prognosis on how it was spread.

On climate change, we made it clear in the European Union declaration that we stand fully behind the Kyoto targets. This country will probably meet those targets ahead of time. I am proud of our role in negotiating the Kyoto treaty. It is an issue on which our views differ from those of the United States, but it is important that we maintain our position.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Having listened to the sub-Churchillian pseudo rhetoric of the leader of the Conservative party--although Churchill never promised to fight them in the Committee Rooms--does my right hon. Friend agree that the only thing more ridiculous than a cynical opportunist is an incompetent cynical opportunist? Does he further agree that the Tory leader's synthetic compassion for farmers, who are undoubtedly suffering from severe difficulties, comes ill from a member of a former Government who deliberately created hundreds of thousands of unemployed in the coal mining, steel and shipbuilding industries without providing any compensation for families, businesses or communities? Does he also agree that the only cull that the Tories are afraid of is the cull of Tory Members when the election is held?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. It would be otiose for me to add to it.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

In considering the presidency conclusions, will the Prime Minister note that pensions is the first issue raised? He did not mention that in his statement. How will public service pensions throughout Europe be funded? Will it not be by a mass policy of taxation?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The answer to that is no.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

Will the Prime Minister put into the Library the rules of engagement under which KFOR and British troops can open fire on Albanian extremists, many of whom are, doubtless, bandits?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not know whether it is practice to put copies of the rules of engagement in the Library. We are attempting to ensure that we target the extremists who are carrying out violent actions against parts of the Macedonian population. We went to war in Kosovo to protect the principle of racial tolerance and because we were against genocide. We must ensure that that applies equally, whether it is Serbs attacking Albanians or Albanians attacking Serbs.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

In the conversation to which the Prime Minister referred--of which we had a tantalising glimpse on television--did he explain to Mr. Prodi that he has 14 months of his mandate to run? Did he give Mr. Prodi an assurance that he had no intention of fighting the great national crisis that faces this country by dispensing with Parliament and governing without it for four weeks?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I gave no such assurances. Indeed, we did not discuss the issue.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

After Stockholm, does the Prime Minister still hope that it will be possible for Britain to join the euro in the next Parliament?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have a very clear position on that. In principle, we are in favour of it; in practice, the economic conditions have to be met. That position has not changed.

Photo of Peter Tapsell Peter Tapsell Conservative, Louth and Horncastle

As a result of the discussions at Stockholm about the increasingly grave situation in Macedonia, has the folly of driving the Serbs out of control of Kosovo finally been brought home to the Prime Minister? That has led inevitably to the destabilisation of Macedonia, which poses a far greater threat to the whole of the Balkans than Kosovo ever did. Will he grasp that the key to stability in the Balkans is to control Albania and the Albanians?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am afraid that I disagree totally. Had we failed to take action in Kosovo, quite apart from the fact that there would have been about 1 million additional refugees going around Europe looking for a place of refuge, we would have allowed a brutal piece of racial genocide to succeed. The future for the Balkans is to eliminate that type of ethnic conflict. The situation in Serbia today is that Milosevic has gone. I should have thought that even the hon. Gentleman would have welcomed that as a step forward in the Balkans.

On the situation in Macedonia, surely our position has got to be consistent with the principles that we set out during the Kosovo conflict. We support the territorial integrity of Macedonia and we do not believe that boundaries should be changed by force. Whether it is Albanian extremists or other extremists, we should use whatever power we have to prevent them from gaining the upper hand and pushing their views on the vast majority of people who want to live in peace, if only they were allowed to do so.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Labour, Edinburgh East and Musselburgh

At my right hon. Friend's bilateral meetings, did any of his counterparts discuss the hazards of feeding swill to pigs? Will he confirm that, as the international marketplace expands, the dangers of foot and mouth disease and swine fever getting in to pigswill are increasing? No matter how hard we try to ensure that licence holders treat their swill effectively, no enforcement regime is watertight. Does he agree that the hazards of feeding swill to pigs are increasing and that we should consider bringing the practice to an end?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think that the points made by my right hon. Friend are valid. Indeed, there is an increasing understanding across Europe and in this country that we must look at some of those practices and analyse them against the background of a changing market. For example, there is no doubt that one of the most difficult aspects of tracking and eliminating the disease concerns the two weeks prior to it being reported. In the modern world there is such a large number of movements, particularly of sheep, around the country, that it becomes very difficult to track the disease afterwards.

On my right hon. Friend's point about pig swill, I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will have more to say about that in due course. However, I know that that point is felt strongly by many farmers in this country and others.

Photo of Mr Martin Bell Mr Martin Bell Independent, Tatton

In my constituency, which has just had its first outbreak of foot and mouth confirmed, the situation facing farmers and tourism- related businesses ranges from desperate to catastrophic. Does the Prime Minister accept that, whatever he may have said at Stockholm, the time has come to set aside, for the time being, all thoughts of a general election?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have said that I will listen to representations, including that of the hon. Gentleman, and I will.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

When my right hon. Friend went across to Stockholm, did he mention in formal or informal talks the fact that setting aside paying back £34 billion would not only help our economy in the event of an American recession, but be very good in the event of us deciding to stay outside the euro? If he did not, he has my permission to use that line--it is a good one.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

In that case, it is like all my hon. Friend's lines.

Photo of Michael Spicer Michael Spicer Conservative, West Worcestershire

Did the Prime Minister discuss in Stockholm why effective measures against foot and mouth are being introduced two weeks late?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is simply wrong. As soon as cases were reported, we took action. May I tell Opposition Members who are now criticising us that, only a few days ago, the Leader of the Opposition was saying that he broadly agreed with the policy that we were pursuing?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Will the Prime Minister confirm that, when he came to Exeter on Saturday, he was told that the problems were not, as suggested by the Leader of the Opposition, problems of resources and personnel? Instead, the two main problems were the lack of places in which to dispose of carcases and the need for vets on the ground always to refer decisions to slaughter to MAFF. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that those problems are now being sorted out?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, and in respect of vets, we have eliminated the normal requirement that they check centrally with the Ministry of Agriculture before ordering the slaughter of animals. As I said, in most parts of the country, we should get from report to slaughter within 24 hours very quickly indeed. I understand that has already been the case in Devon for the last three days.

In respect of disposal, burial sites have been a big problem. Perhaps I should explain again to the House that normally, outside the foot and mouth epidemic, we kill about 600,000 animals a week for the food chain. That is about 30 million animals a year, normally. In the present situation, we are still killing animals for the food chain. In respect of beef and the pig market, about 70 per cent. of normal sales continue. For lamb, it is far less--just under 40 per cent. We need a certain amount of abattoir capacity to carry on normal business, so far as we are able to do so.

There is a limit to the available rendering capacity, which is one method of disposal of the animals being slaughtered as a result of foot and mouth disease. We therefore have an additional requirement for disposal by burial, and we need sites large enough for us to dispose of large numbers of animals quickly. We now have the site in Cumbria, and I know that officials are looking urgently for the right sites in Devon. However, those are difficult decisions. There are local people living near some of the sites, and there are also issues related to the Environment Agency, water tables and so on.

All these things must be done quickly. Meetings are convened and take place round the clock between the Environment Agency, those in the Ministry of Agriculture who are putting together the various aspects of the policy, and those from the Ministry of Defence who are carrying out the logistics on the ground. We are sorting out each of the problems. My hon. Friend is right to say that the two biggest inhibitions that we have faced are the shortage of vets and an inability to find the right burial sites. Those issues are being dealt with. Thanks to the intervention of the Army, the logistics exercise is well under way.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

Did the Prime Minister take the opportunity to raise with President Chirac the refusal of SNCF, the French nationalised railway, to allow cross-channel freight trains to be searched at Frethun before they enter the channel tunnel, thus exposing EWS--English, Welsh and Scottish Railways--which is a British company, to huge fines imposed by the British Government for circumstances over which it has no control, and putting in peril the future of rail freight traffic through the channel tunnel?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

At the Anglo-French summit at Cahors, we raised precisely those points. As a result, the French Government have agreed to legislate to change the position. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues will change their position of opposing fines on carriers bringing people illegally into the country. That is an irresponsible position for the Opposition to take, and I hope that he will use his influence and his experience as a former Home Secretary to get his colleagues to change it.

Photo of Mr Martin O'Neill Mr Martin O'Neill Chair, Trade & Industry Committee, Chair, Trade & Industry Committee

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress that he made in the liberalisation of the energy market. We now have a timetable, and under the qualified majority voting procedures, the French will no longer have anywhere to hide. They will have to come out and account for their obstructive policies.

Secondly, on financial services, is my right hon. Friend aware that outside Frankfurt and London, the corridor between Edinburgh and Glasgow in central Scotland has the greatest concentration of financial services employment in Europe? It would be helpful if we could ensure that the imaginative training and investment arrangements available elsewhere in Europe were made available to that area, in preparation for the great advance that is to take place in financial services.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right on both points. As a result of the Commission proposal, it will be possible to make significant progress in energy liberalisation. Virtually every other member state whose representative spoke at the Council was in favour of such liberalisation. In respect of financial services, my hon. Friend is right about the Edinburgh-Glasgow corridor. That part of Scotland is one of the fastest growing areas in Europe for financial services. I shall certainly take on board the point that he made.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

If everything to do with the foot and mouth crisis was done when it was necessary, according to the Prime Minister, why was it necessary to remove the senior official in charge of Cumbria?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have not removed that official. All the way through, we have been trying to make sure--in part as a result of representations made by people such as the hon. Gentleman--that for such a huge operation, senior people were involved, together with Army logistics teams, so that we can organise in each control centre everything that is needed. It is not the case that we are removing local officials. Surely it is important that in such a situation, we bring in the very best people from every part of government, to upgrade the ability to tackle the disease. With the greatest respect, the Opposition cannot have it both ways--on one hand telling us that we are not doing enough, and on the other complaining when we bring people in to get the job done.

Photo of Mrs Helen Jackson Mrs Helen Jackson Labour, Sheffield, Hillsborough

I was pleased to see at Stockholm the determination to hold a further round of world trade discussions by the end of this year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an example of this Labour Government using one of their most positive policies in conjunction with their European allies for the good of the world? Will he urge the United States to follow Europe's example and offer free tariff access to the poorest countries in the world?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have no doubt that some of these issues will be part of the EU-US summit. Obviously, the free tariff opportunities that we have afforded the poorer countries are very important. We have done an immense amount as a Government, led as brilliantly as ever by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, on debt, aid and development. Those are very important moves, but the single most important thing alongside that that we can do to help the poorest countries in the world is to open up our markets to their goods. It is hypocritical and wrong for those in the developed world to say that the developing world must put its house in order when we are not prepared to make the moves to open up our markets to their goods and let them trade with us properly.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

On 19 March, the Minister of Agriculture said that the foot and mouth crisis was under control. On what date did the Prime Minister order the reconvening of Cobra?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I said to one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues a moment or two ago, it is of course important that we do everything possible to ensure, as the disease is seen to spread, that we have in place the right resources to deal with that. It is--I repeat--absurd for Opposition Members on one hand to try to make points about why there is not greater co-ordination in government, and on the other to complain when we take the very measures for which they have been calling.

Photo of Mr Giles Radice Mr Giles Radice Chair, Treasury Committee, Chair, Treasury Committee

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Stockholm shows once again that a constructive attitude in Europe pays dividends for the United Kingdom? However, will he take it from me that our leadership opportunities may be restricted unless we join the single currency in the next Parliament?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have nothing to add to the policy that I have already outlined on the single currency, but my right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the dangers of the policy of renegotiating our membership of the European Union. I notice that just a few days ago, the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary once again talked about the flexibility clause that they would negotiate in the EU. I have still not discovered a single member state anywhere in the EU that is in favour of that, and I am still waiting--they have been very good at shouting things out this afternoon--for Opposition Members to name any member state that is in favour of the policy. Let us remember, they would have to have the agreement of all member states in order to renegotiate. So perhaps there will be a period of silence, and then we can hear them shout out.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

The Council's declaration on Macedonia states:

"We support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of FYROM and the inviolability of borders".

Does the Prime Minister agree that the break-up of Macedonia would have serious consequences not only for Kosovo but possibly for Bosnia? In view of NATO's role in Kosovo, does he think that we have an obligation to use military force to ensure that Macedonia does not break up and that its borders are not violated?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We are stepping up the involvement of not just the UK but KFOR itself precisely to ensure that that does not happen. Yes, I agree that it is absolutely essential that we preserve the territorial integrity of Macedonia. The single greatest danger is that what we prevented in Kosovo happens elsewhere: an attempt to change the territorial boundaries of countries in the region by force.

The role played by NATO and KFOR over the past couple of years has been immensely positive. No one can now seriously argue that we would ever have seen the back of Milosevic--certainly not on any reasonable time scale--if we had not taken the action that we did. That in itself has unlocked the possibility of reconstruction of the Balkans. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in respect of Macedonia, which is why we took the opportunity to say publicly at the European Council that we supported the territorial integrity of Macedonia and will back that up.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

First, did my right hon. Friend have the opportunity to talk to President Putin about the deteriorating situation in Chechnya? It is a dire situation and Mr. Putin should be urged to bring about a peaceful solution. Secondly, will he resist all offers from the Leader of the Opposition to join any sort of Cabinet, even temporarily, as there is no point in bringing in a boy to do a man's job?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think I shall just deal with the first bit, if I may. Concern was expressed by the European Council as a whole over Chechnya, and we reaffirmed once again our desire to ensure that there was a political solution to the problem of Chechnya. We understand the problems and issues that are confronted by the Russian Government, but we have made it clear that the matter should be resolved on the basis of a political framework and respect for human rights on all sides.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

In the Prime Minister's talks at Stockholm on foot and mouth, did he have any discussions with his counterparts about changing the EU policy of a blanket prohibition on vaccination? Is he aware that following the tragic outbreak of foot and mouth in the heart of the Lake district, many farmers in Cumbria believe that the badly botched policy of mass culling has now definitively failed and that it could eliminate foot and mouth in the county only at the cost of every animal, farm and tourist business, as well as that of just about every job? Many believe that it would result also in the elimination for ever of specialist breed sheep, which contribute so much to the appearance of the Lake district. May I beg the Prime Minister--and I mean beg--to look urgently at the case for vaccination, before my county is wiped out?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let me put this point to the hon. Gentleman. We have pursued the policy of containing the disease by slaughter because that was the advice given to us by the chief veterinary officer and also by the Government's chief scientific adviser. It was also the policy agreed to by the National Farmers Union. Indeed, it was the policy agreed to by the hon. Gentleman's own political party. When he says that it has been a botched policy, I simply point out that 10 days ago, people were opposed to intensifying that slaughter policy in Cumbria. Today, they wish it to be carried out even more urgently. I understand that, because it is a fast-moving situation and is extremely difficult to track, for all the reasons that we have given.

As for vaccination, I repeat what I said to the Leader of the Opposition a moment or two ago. We do keep that under review and we are urgently looking at every single option we can have. Until now, vaccination has been strongly opposed by those in the farming community, but again, I understand that as the situation moves, what looked as if it was completely unpalatable a short time ago has to be put on the agenda. We are doing that, but I really think that it would be helpful if there was understanding on all sides about the need to move forward with the consent of the farming community, which is why we chose the slaughter policy. We could have gone immediately for a policy of vaccination, but we did not do so precisely because of the opposition to it and, frankly, the worries about how effective it would be. The very point that I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that as the disease develops, these policy decisions must be taken, and that it is easier to take them if there is some understanding that we are tracking a very fast-moving situation in which policy decisions that are taken on one basis may have to change as a result of that situation changing. That is precisely what we are doing, and I can assure him that every single sinew and thought of Government is bent to that task.

Photo of Mr Win Griffiths Mr Win Griffiths Labour, Bridgend

May I thank my right hon. Friend for the very positive note that was struck at Stockholm about the need to put new life into the World Trade Organisation and the round of trade talks? Will he confirm that as part of that desire to get the talks back on the agenda, the European Union will put on the table a much stronger set of proposals than was available at Seattle? Will he also confirm that, on top of that, there will be strong negotiations with the United States to bring it on board so that we get much better trade terms?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must secure that objective. We urgently need the WTO round to start; we support that strongly. The points that he makes about its nature and the help that it can give to other countries are right; I endorse them completely.

Photo of David Tredinnick David Tredinnick Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee)

When the Prime Minister was discussing foot and mouth with his European counterparts, had he been briefed by the Minister of Agriculture about the impact of borax 30, a simple homeopathic medicine that 7,000 farmers in Britain are using? In the 1967 outbreak, it provided considerable relief. Will he undertake to ask the Minister to answer the question that I have tabled and try to get proper trials carried out to ascertain how much more can be done to use that simple remedy to protect our herds?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. We must consider all the possible solutions, but his question emphasises that there are no easy answers.

Photo of John McFall John McFall Labour/Co-operative, Dumbarton

Is the Prime Minister aware of the documentary evidence that Sky television provided to MAFF today? It detailed the illegal trade in contaminated pigswill and the misselling of products to supermarkets. Will he clamp down immediately on such illegal activities while simultaneously pushing for reform of the common agricultural policy?

Does my right hon. Friend take encouragement from Stockholm since France and Germany are considering ways in which to move from industrial agriculture to organic products?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have no doubt that it is right to address long-term agricultural strategies; we will tackle them with the community here and throughout Europe.

The anxiety about contaminated pigswill has been expressed on many occasions. We believe that only a small minority of people are engaged in that illegal trade. It is deeply irresponsible and greatly resented by the vast bulk of the farming community. It is one of the reasons why we have to consider the legality of pigswill; it is also a reason for taking every possible measure to make sure not only that the disease is brought under control but that we consider the causes of it.

As I said a moment ago, during the last outbreak in 1967, there were fewer trading movements, especially of sheep, than today. Gaps between the disease originating and its discovery mean that huge numbers of movements take place before the disease is discovered.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

How far and how fast does foot and mouth have to spread before the Prime Minister believes that his policy of kill and cull does not work? Will he assure hon. Members that, when the Minister of Agriculture comes to the House tomorrow--if he can--he will clear up the uncertainty about vaccination, which many believe to be a better option? The Prime Minister is understandably hesitant about it today, but if uncertainty continues for too long, it will be even more damaging for agriculture.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I gather from the mood of Conservative Members that they are now casting doubt on the policy of containment. They fully supported it until today, when they raised the question of vaccination. They know perfectly well, because the Minister of Agriculture has already said so, that we are examining all the options. Vaccination is not an easy option. I repeat that I know from my discussions in the past few days that a lot of hostility to it remains in parts of the farming community.

However, it is remiss of Opposition Members to pretend suddenly that vaccination is a policy that they have been developing for weeks, that they have been urging it upon us and we have blindly refused to examine it. We were advised to adopt the policy of containment by slaughter; it was supported by the Opposition, at least until today. It is important to carry it out while ensuring that we are analysing every possible alternative.

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Labour, Harlow

Does the Prime Minister agree that the progress on energy market liberalisation demonstrates more effectively than ever that extended qualified majority voting can be in the British national interest? Did he read the comments of the deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry in the run-up to Stockholm? He said that it was not in our commercial interests to have a Eurosceptic Government. Does my right hon. Friend ever recall such a senior figure in the CBI so effectively repudiating Conservative party policy in the run-up to a general election?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

What my hon. Friend says about qualified majority voting is true. That is precisely the reason why it would be foolish for this country to take the position that it was against qualified majority voting in any circumstances. That is also precisely why the previous Conservative Government agreed to massive extensions of qualified majority voting--for example, in the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty, which was strongly supported by some of them at the time. Qualified majority voting can, in certain circumstances, be in the country's interests, and that is why Conservative Members supported it.

I shall not comment on what the gentleman from the CBI said, but I want to point out the dangers of Conservative policy on the treaty of Nice. I hope that the Conservatives will reconsider their position on the treaty. They say that they would refuse to ratify it, and then have a referendum--were they to be elected--presumably to ask people to vote against it, as there would not be much point in having a referendum to ask people to vote in favour of it. I have already said that not a single Government elsewhere in the European Union support renegotiating the treaty of Rome. No European Government support renegotiating the treaty of Nice either, not only because of what we went through to achieve it but because it would be patently foolish to re-open all those issues.

Again I ask Opposition Members to name one country that would agree to renegotiate the treaty of Nice. If there were no such country, that would mean that the UK Government would be standing against the enlargement of the European Union--which we have championed elsewhere in Europe--and the damage to Britain and British business would be incalculable.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood

What did the European Commission's communication on Kaliningrad--which the European Council welcomed--say?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, that is a long-standing issue. We agreed to carry on the process of discussion about it, of course. However, the issue of Kaliningrad is surely one that is best resolved in the most quiet and diplomatic way possible. It is a hugely difficult issue for the surrounding countries and for Russia. For those reasons, what the European Council said on the matter represents the wise course.