French Ban on British Beef

– in the House of Lords at 4:41 pm on 9th December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 4:41 pm, 9th December 1999

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture. The Statement is as follows:

"Although there has been no change in this Government's policy on beef exports, in view of the statement made by the French Government last night, I think it right to inform the House where matters now stand.

"Late last night, just after 11 o'clock in Paris, the French Prime Minister announced his Government's decision on how they intend to proceed in the light of the new advice from the French food safety agency, AFSSA, which they received on Monday, 6th December.

"The French statement said in effect that, even though the risk is no more than hypothetical, the French Government are not ready to lift their ban now, but wish instead to press for further work on testing for BSE, and on labelling of British beef and beef products, on the basis of EU regulations, so that consumers can make an informed choice.

"Her Majesty's Government are surprised and deeply disappointed that the French have chosen to take this position. It comes after many weeks of intensive talks from which we received the impression that we had answered all questions and met all the concerns from the French side.

"My right honourable friend the Prime Minister immediately spoke to M. Jospin last night and said that he believed the position the French were taking up was totally wrong, that it flew in the face of science, and was against the law. I wholly endorse that view.

"I have spoken to the Commissioner, David Byrne, and called on him now to proceed immediately with the court action against the French. Mr Byrne has confirmed that he will do so. He will ask next Tuesday's meeting of the full Commission to issue the legal opinion which is the last step before the court case commences. Mr Byrne has already stated publicly that he, too, finds the French Government's refusal to lift the ban deeply disappointing. The Commission have worked as hard as we have to resolve this matter through rational discussion. Mr Byrne sees no alternative now but court action.

"Some people are suggesting we were wrong to think we would make progress with the approach we adopted when this problem first arose in October. I profoundly disagree. I have no doubt we were right to engage in discussion as we did. I believe too that, through the clarification and assurances we gave about how we are operating the date-based export scheme, we responded in full to the points which the French Government raised with us, and gave them the basis they needed for lifting the ban.

"I well understand the anger which British farmers feel at this impasse. It is a poor reward for the massive efforts which British beef farmers and traders have been making to rebuild their industry and rebuild public confidence in their product. British beef is as safe as beef from anywhere else in Europe. That is not just my view. It is the unanimous view of the Commission's senior scientific advisers.

"I can understand the frustration felt more widely around the country. The French action is astonishing. They have delivered a blow to the credibility of European law. But the French are on their own in taking this defiant approach. I assure the House that this Government are working by all means possible to ensure that the French Government honour their Community obligations and lift the ban".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Luke Lord Luke Conservative 4:45 pm, 9th December 1999

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. If I were a farmer, I should be absolutely amazed at the total failure of the Government to persuade the French to obey European law. I should also be extremely unhappy at the way in which this whole matter has been handled by the Government. What comfort is it to a British farmer to hear the Minister say that France is isolated in Europe when he cannot sell his produce there?

The Statement says that the Minister telephoned Commissioner Byrne and asked him to proceed immediately with legal action against France. Why was that not done in parallel with the discussions and concessions made in the past few months? Legal action will take months, or even years. Then there is the strong likelihood of an appeal. It looks as though the French farmers will have a free run for quite a long time to come.

In another place, speaker after speaker said that the Opposition had no policy except to advocate a trade war with France. What absolute nonsense! A call to ban imports of French beef to this country on the grounds of the contamination caused by feeding animals human sewage is both legal in European law and is by no stretch of the imagination the commencement of a trade war.

Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness some further questions concerning this matter. In parallel with agreeing to the commencement of legal proceedings by the EU, will the Prime Minister raise this whole matter at the summit at Helsinki? When did the Minister, Mr Nick Brown, last meet his opposite number in France, Mr Glavany? We know that he spoke with him on the telephone this morning. How could the Government be surprised, as described in the Statement, by this morning's French action when it was clearly flagged up by the French food safety agency's refusal on Monday to ratify the protocol of understanding between the French and British governments? Will the Minister consider how well the French Government look after, by fair means or foul, the interests of French farmers compared with the uncomprehending attitude of our own Government towards our beleaguered farmers?

Will the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food advise farmers on how to seek financial compensation from the European Court for the damage that French lawbreaking has caused them? Is France fit to take over the presidency of the European Union in July 2000 when it is likely to be under arraignment at that time for breaking EU law? I echo what my right honourable friend Michael Howard said in another place this morning. When will the Government start standing up for Britain in Europe?

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 4:48 pm, 9th December 1999

My Lords, we on these Benches are appalled by the French decision, which is clearly political and not based at all on science or on any legal position. It must be based on making sure that French farmers receive a present from their government for Christmas in a quite inappropriate way.

I agree with the noble Lord on the Conservative Front Bench that we must demand quick legal redress from the European Union. In this case, it is extremely fortunate that we have the EU on our side--as indeed it should be--to take such action on our behalf.

As to compensation, can the Minister inform the House what advice the Government will give farmers and whether they will address this matter on their behalf in a collective way? We believe that a trade war would be a disaster for the sheep and lamb industry and other sectors. As many farmers are involved in sheep, lamb and beef, we do not believe that it would be in their best interests to widen this dispute into a trade war. Although that might appear to be a nice knee-jerk reaction, it would not be in the best interest of our farmers in the long term.

It is clear that the French have no support for their action among other European countries. I echo the noble Lord's question: how can the French assume the presidency of the European Union in the second half of next year given their illegal stand in this case? Given today's dreadful news for farmers, can the Minister inform the House of the outcome of the beef summit hosted by the Prime Minister last week? What news is there about other countries which still do not take our beef but should be persuaded to do so?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, the decision taken by the French Government is surprising because the science has been gone into, and studied in enormous detail again, at Community level. The concerns raised by the French food agency have been looked at by the scientific committee of the EU in great depth. The AFSSA judgment on the memorandum of understanding was in no way a clear-cut basis for this decision. The length of time taken by the French Government in debating it reflects that they had not received clear advice from their food standards agency. I also say to the noble Lord--it is important that he understands it--that no concessions have been made in this area. With the support of the Commission, we have tried to deal with the doubts raised about the date-based export scheme by explaining its provisions in great detail to the French.

A question was raised as to whether the Government had delayed in this area. The Commission has been extremely supportive. It is not a matter of initiating legal action now; it was initiated by the Commission on 17th November and has been proceeding in parallel with the discussions that have taken place. As I said in repeating the Statement, Commissioner Byrne asked on Tuesday that the last step be taken by the full Commission in terms of issuing the legal opinion. Some news has come in since my right honourable friend spoke in another place this morning. I understand that Commissioner Byrne has asked that the French be given only five days to respond before the case goes to court. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, that is a very short timeframe in this context.

I was asked whether this matter will be on the agenda at Helsinki. Certainly, it is not on the agenda in any formal sense. We are not now in a negotiating situation. Sadly, we are in a position where the law must take its course. This is not a bilateral dispute between us and the French but a matter where the French are isolated in Europe, and it is for Europe to take the appropriate action to ensure that the French obey the law.

The noble Lord asked me exactly when my right honourable friend had last seen, rather than spoken to, Mr Glavany, which was only a matter of hours ago. I believe that it was at the meeting of EU agricultural Ministers in the third week of November. A good deal of peripheral comment has been made to suggest that there has not been communication between Her Majesty's Government and the French Government over the past weeks in trying to resolve the situation. Throughout there has been a great deal of communication at all levels by my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture and officials.

We understand the deep disappointment that will be felt by farmers in this country. The question of compensation has been raised. It is possible for court action to be pursued, and those concerned must do that on an individual legal basis. But we are working from a position where we must rebuild the market for British beef abroad on a base that has not existed while the export ban has been in place. That task will take some time. There are 13 countries within Europe which accept our beef, and the Germans have today reiterated that they are putting in place the legislative process to do so.

The noble Baroness asked specifically about the Prime Minister's beef breakfast. At that meeting it was agreed that we would take several measures. One of them is to ease the cost of regulation on the meat industry by pegging charges by the Meat Hygiene Service this year and ensuring that they do not rise next year by more than the rate of inflation. We shall have a new drive through embassies abroad in all target countries. A senior member of the British embassy will co-ordinate the effort to get the ban lifted or to open up the market to British beef. My ministerial colleague Joyce Quin will lead a new team of MAFF veterinary experts and industry representatives to every country we regard as a priority for lifting the ban. We shall work with the Meat and Livestock Commission in this area. It is through that painstaking work, not by initiating a trade war within Europe, that we shall rebuild the market.

I was fascinated to hear the noble Lord's exposition of policy. He appeared to suggest that we should put ourselves in exactly the same position as the French: isolated in Europe and introducing a ban on French beef under Article 36 in a way that is completely illegal. As the president of the National Farmers' Union said when referring to the idea put forward by the Leader of the Opposition in another place, that idea is illegal. We export a good deal of food into Europe and to adopt tit-for-tat measures is not the answer.

This is a very unhappy situation and one against which we must work. Luckily, we have the full support of the Commission and our partners in Europe in so doing.

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative 4:58 pm, 9th December 1999

My Lords, first I declare an interest as a dairy farmer. I express some sympathy for the noble Baroness for having to repeat such a Statement. Surely, no one can have been surprised that the French should decide to do this. Equally, is it not astonishing that even now the Minister says that he profoundly disagrees with the suggestion made by some that the Government were wrong to believe that they could make progress with the approach that they adopted? It was quite obvious that they would not do so. Is it not time to face the basic fact of political life that the French Government have no more intention of allowing British beef into France than Sinn Fein/IRA has of handing over its stock of Semtex?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord's last comment is singularly inappropriate in the circumstances. All of us hope and believe that the progress which has been made in Northern Ireland will continue and come to fruition. On the bona fides of the French Government, I believe that we have taken the appropriate and correct course in trying to rebuild confidence in the safety of British beef. Considering how much support we have had within Europe, both scientifically and in terms of the legal basis of the French action, it is surprising that they have not behaved as they should behave as members of the Community and obeyed Community law. Just because we have not been successful at this point in persuading them to act legally does not mean that it was not correct to try to do so.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench

My Lords, I was glad to hear the Minister refer to the urgency of rebuilding British beef exports. I declare my interest in farming matters. Does the noble Baroness agree that three things are now necessary? The first is to increase the number of slaughterhouses in this country which are licensed to export beef and other meat products. I believe that there are only two at present.

Secondly, will she facilitate the export of whole carcasses and of calves for rearing in other countries? Will the noble Baroness also do everything possible to encourage the export of British stock for breeding both in the European Union and the rest of the world?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, the underlying tenor of the noble Lord's remarks is correct: that we have a narrow range of products available for export under the date-based export scheme. We want to make a start with those products, and then expand the scheme. There is a set process for going into a wider range of products which could be exported. I believe that we would all like to see progress along those lines.

The noble Lord is correct in saying that there are only two slaughterhouses licensed at present under the date-based export scheme. We would wish to see the number increased, but in response to an increasing market demand because of the success of marketing British beef abroad. That is why the initiative, since the meeting of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister with industry leaders, to seek to persuade other countries to lift their ban or, when they do not have a ban, to facilitate the export of goods is tremendously important.

Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Labour

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Luke, and Lord Marlesford, seem to be criticising the Government for entering into negotiations rather than banning immediately the sale of French goods in this country. That is ridiculous. If the Government had not entered into negotiations, noble Lords would be criticising the Government--in my view rightly--for not entering into negotiations. The Government are right to enter into those negotiations.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I am grateful for those comments. My noble friend is right. I do not believe that it would have reassured potential export markets throughout the world if we had not been willing to put forward for scrutiny and examination the safety of our beef and the strength of the date-based export scheme. To have that scheme open and transparent, and examined again and endorsed at a European level by scientific experts, can only be of advantage as regards the long term export market.

Photo of Lord Biffen Lord Biffen Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister accept that a situation as fraught as this inevitably leads to recrimination? However, there comes a point when one seeks some solace from this miserable affair. Is the noble Baroness encouraged by the growing significance now given to the idea of origin marking in beef, and on a wider extension into other agricultural products generally? Are the French requests on origin marking significantly different from those which the British Government have in mind? Does she look forward to the day when there will be sufficiently widespread origin marking to enable people in this country to choose British goods on the basis of their judgment?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, the noble Lord asks an interesting question. We have never wanted to export British beef by stealth. There is nothing that the British beef industry has to hide. We have no concerns about consumers anywhere in the world knowing what they are buying. We believe that such transparency is to everyone's benefit.

Interesting trade issues come into the labelling of country of origin. That has been discussed at an international and European level. Progress is being made within Europe in terms of a beef labelling regime which I believe would be in everyone's interest. Great concern has been expressed widely, and in your Lordships' House, about misleading labelling. It can sometimes mean British consumers buying pig meat products marked as produced in the United Kingdom which come from imported Danish or Dutch pigmeat. We are tightening up on that aspect of labelling. I agree with the noble Lord that, for a range of reasons, including the very enhanced animal welfare standards and the very high safety standards for meat we have in this country, many consumers want to know exactly what they are buying and where it is from.

Photo of Lord Walton of Detchant Lord Walton of Detchant Crossbench

My Lords, in sharing the concern expressed by many noble Lords, I first declare an interest. My son is a farmer and president of the Berwickshire branch of the National Farmers' Union; and I served on the Southwood working party on bovine spongiform encephalopathy which reported to government in 1989.

I make three scientific points. First, beef cattle from which beef for export is being derived are no more than three years old. There has not been a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle under three years of age reported in the past few years.

Secondly, since the regulations were introduced many years ago to ban human consumption of what are called the Southwood offals and, more recently, since regulations were introduced, to remove brain, spinal cord and other nervous tissue from beef, the chances of any transmission of an agent are negligible. In fact, transmission experiments carried out have demonstrated that there is no way in which muscle can transmit the agent of scrapie or of bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Is this not a case where the French Government have been very badly advised by their scientists and food standards agency? One can only confirm that on all scientific grounds British beef is the safest in the world.

Perhaps I may follow that up by referring to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Will the Government take steps to increase the number of abattoirs capable of removing the spinal cord, brain and other nervous tissues from beef? Finally, is beef now being exported to many other countries across the world which originally banned British beef, other than those in Europe?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, the Government are keen for more abattoirs to participate in the date-based export scheme. It is not for us to set up the abattoirs but to license them if they meet the conditions. We shall be happy to deal speedily with applications from a growing number of abattoirs.

Again, that leads to the issue of taking the argument forward--it is often best made by scientists and veterinarians--to third country potential importers. We have nothing to hide in terms of the safety of our beef and its origins.

On the noble Lord's exposition on the scientific situation, he is right. The noble Lord is always listened to with great respect in your Lordships' House. I would hope that perhaps the French Government might listen to him as well.

Photo of Lord Borrie Lord Borrie Labour

My Lords, can the Minister say more about the legal proceedings now beginning? For example, will it be possible for the Commission--it is taking the proceedings on our behalf--through interim measures to force the French Government to lift their ban and ensure some amelioration of the present position, or to negotiate further towards a settlement of the legal proceedings? Awaiting a final decision and possible appeal will involve a much longer period of uncertainty for our farmers.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, the fact that the proceedings could be drawn out for a long time has made us anxious to try and reassure the French, not by giving concessions and not by negotiations, but by explaining in detail exactly the provisions of the date-based export scheme. We want to resolve the problem without recourse to the courts.

We have been assured by the Commission that it is speedily proceeding through the different stages necessary in referring the case to the court. We are discussing the possibility of interim relief with the Commission, which is actively considering it. We are all looking at how the proceedings can be expedited, and the Commission is in no doubt of the need to obtain a speedy resolution.

Photo of Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Conservative

My Lords, everyone must be disappointed about the news from the French Government, especially when all our efforts to control BSE and deal with the difficult problem have been open to detailed scrutiny for many months. I understand that the French Government made their decision on scientific grounds. Can the Minister identify the specific grounds and make them public? Where do the problems lie between the French scientists and ours who, together with others in the European Union, have judged our meat and its production to be entirely safe?

There must be an issue about why the French Government disagree with scientific opinion. I should like to know what is the hitch. What will they not accept that everyone else accepts? It may be that by examining that issue closely we can move towards agreement.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, the communique which the French Government issued last night stated that they were not in a position to lift the embargo due to the lack of sufficient guarantees on the definition and implementation of the test programmes, which must be improved and enlarged. They state that to that end it appears necessary for the Commission to organise working meetings between scientific experts, notably British and French. Secondly, they mention the adoption of a Community legislative base ensuring traceability and compulsory labelling in Europe for British beef and British meat products. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, will consider those to be the scientific bases for which he asked, but those points were raised in the communique issued by the French Government.

Photo of Lord Monson Lord Monson Crossbench

My Lords, I want to put two questions to the Minister. First, are the French continuing to prevent British lorries carrying British beef travelling across France to export markets in, say, Italy, Switzerland or Spain, as was the case earlier this year?

My second question has nothing to do with the noble Baroness's department. Would she, as a Member of this House, agree that the Refreshment Department--and I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, in his place--ought forthwith to cease buying French wine, French cheese and anything else French until this illegal ban is lifted? After all, plenty of excellent alternatives are available.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I am equally delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, is in his place because he will have heard what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and will have taken cognizance of it. However, individual consumers will do as they will. We should not believe that this is a matter of supporting the exports of one country or another. It is much more important and wide-ranging; it is an issue of whether one member of the European Community obeys Community law. I do not believe that we should take the matter down to another level.

Secondly, I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that the ban on transit through France was lifted some time ago.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative

My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Marlesford in expressing regret that it is the noble Baroness the Minister who has had the unpleasant duty of reading out the Statement. I have one difficult question to ask her. We have heard so much about the Government's much vaunted charm offensive in the European Union, but does she agree that this episode proves that that charm offensive--at least with the French--has failed?

Furthermore, there are wider aspects to this unfortunate question in the background, in respect of which the Government's charm offensive is also failing. We have the saga of the withholding tax, which the Government have clearly failed to defuse. We also have the take-over directive, the droit de suite and the Corpus Juris all working their subtle way through the European system. Therefore, my second question to the Minister is: does not all that make the Government even more determined to stand up for legitimate British interests in the European Union when the time comes, continuing to use the veto on tax harmonisation, for instance, and invoking the Luxembourg compromise, which is at least legal, on the droit de suite, on the take-over directive and, if necessary, on Corpus Juris and on any other measures which are so damaging to the British national interest?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, the Government will stand up for the British national interest and for legitimate British interests within Europe. As regards a charm offensive, I must say that the anti-charm offensive of the previous government left Britain isolated in Europe. Today, France is isolated and on this issue we have the support of all our fellow members and of the Commission.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Chair of Labour Peers

My Lords, will the Minister always bear in mind that the genesis of the problem lies in the failure of the previous government to take adequate action when BSE was discovered? The failure of the previous government has all along the line led to these difficulties. Will she take it from me that, speaking on behalf of no one in particular, I believe that the British people fully understand not only the frustration of the farmers and of the Government but also why we are in this mess? It is not the fault of this Government; it is the fault of the French Government. Ultimately, the genesis of the problem lies with the previous administration of the party opposite.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, a previous speaker suggested that this was not the time for recrimination and, in general, that is my view. BSE has been a national tragedy. It has been a tragedy for our farming community and for 47 families and we still do not know how many others may have been affected. In those circumstances, and seeing the many ways in which the tragedy has manifested itself--and this is only one aspect of it--it behoves all of us to have a little humility in asserting that people are to blame for one particular episode.