The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

John Major’s Commons Statement on the 1996 European Council in Florence – 24 June 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the 1996 European Council held in Florence, made on 24th June 1996.


The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the meeting of the European Council in Florence on 21 and 22 June, which I attended with my right hon. and learned Friends the Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis). I have placed the conclusions of the Council in the Library. I shall deal first with beef, then with the other issues discussed.

In my statement on 21 May, I shared with the House the Government’s frustration that, two months after an unjustified ban on our beef exports had been imposed, some member states were still unwilling to address on a rational, scientific basis a clear path to lift the ban. I accordingly announced a policy of non-co-operation until two specific objectives had been achieved: the lifting of the ban on beef derivatives and agreement on a clear framework leading to lifting of the wider ban. In accordance with that policy, we subsequently blocked 74 decisions that required the unanimous approval of member states.

The first objective was achieved on 10 June, when the ban on beef derivatives was lifted. That was followed on 19 June by unanimous approval of our bovine spongiform encephalopathy eradication plan by the Standing Veterinary Committee. In Florence on 21 June, the second objective was achieved when the European Council unanimously accepted the framework and procedures put forward by the Commission for lifting of the wider ban, which were based closely on our proposals. Both objectives were secured in precisely one month. I have no doubt that the policy that we reluctantly adopted was the decisive factor in ensuring that result in such a short space of time.

The framework sets out steps for lifting the ban in stages. The Florence conclusions make it clear that decisions on each stage will be taken

“only and exclusively on the basis of public health and objective scientific criteria and of the judgement of the Commission”.

That is what we insisted upon above all. I was therefore able to lift our non-co-operation policy once the framework had been agreed. It is now up to us to meet the conditions for lifting the ban set out in the framework. There are five stages for that.

We aim to be in a position to tell the Commission by October that we have met the necessary conditions for decisions to lift the ban on two of the five stages–that is, certified herds and animals born after a specified date and their meat. That is subject in particular to clearance of the backlog of animals awaiting slaughter in the 30-month-plus scheme, and a start to the accelerated slaughter of cattle particularly at risk of developing BSE.

Removal of the ban in those two areas would reopen to our industry an export market worth initially about £100 million a year, increasing rapidly thereafter as the certified herds scheme gains momentum. Also by October, I expect a Commission proposal on a third stage–embryos–subject to the scientists giving them a clean bill of health. I believe that we should have met the conditions necessary for a decision to lift the ban on the fourth stage–meat from all animals under 30 months–by November.

Securing agreement on those steps would restore the position on beef exports to what it was before 27 March, except in the areas where we have prohibited sale in the UK. In other words, we would be in a position of being able to sell for export to the EU young animals and all the beef that could then be sold in the UK. That would open the way for exports worth some £530 million per year. The only remaining category is meat from animals over 30 months except, of course–as I indicated to the House a moment ago–for that from certified herds, which should be lifted in October. Meat from animals over 30 months is still banned in the UK because of the greater incidence of BSE in older animals.

The targets that we have set are ambitious. It is now up to us in this country–the farming and ancillary industries and the Government–to ensure that we meet them. The point is that this timetable is essentially in our hands. When we have met the conditions, the normal procedures for such decisions, involving the Standing Veterinary Committee in particular, will apply. But we have the firm commitment from all Heads of Government in Florence that those decisions will be taken only on the basis of scientific and objective criteria.

One aspect not adequately covered in the Commission framework is the early export of British beef to third countries. That was complicated in the minds of our partners by their concerns about the possibility of re-export to the EU, and by the European Court of Justice case against the Commission. We believe that our case against the ban on exports to third countries is particularly strong, and our court application for interim relief should be decided in the next few days.

We none the less secured a presidency statement–accepted, it has to be said, reluctantly by the other member states and the Commission–that the Commission will consider individual requests from third countries to buy British beef exclusively for their domestic markets. If such requests come forward soon, I hope that, either through Commission procedures or the European Court case, exports from Britain to third countries will begin to flow.

We have a lot to do in a short time to meet the conditions necessary to enable the EU and world markets to be fully open again. But I believe that we have taken a great step forward in the past few days. We shall go on doing everything possible to protect public health, restore consumer confidence and secure the interests of the British beef industry. Our overriding aim remains, as it has been from the start, the eradication of BSE from Britain.

Let me now refer briefly to the other main issues discussed in Florence–the intergovernmental conference, employment, economic and monetary union and the Europol convention.

The European Council agreed that the intergovernmental conference should now turn from analysis to negotiation. We need to move from exchanging ideas to considering texts. I was therefore happy to lead the call for an outline treaty text to be prepared in time for the Dublin European Council in December. The Government’s position on the substance remains as set out in the White Paper, “A Partnership of Nations”. In Florence, I set out once again our policies in key areas such as qualified majority voting, and the need for flexibility as the EU further enlarges.

We also discussed employment. At the Essen European Council in 1994, we agreed an approach that recognised the primacy of action by member states and recommended a number of lines of action reflecting this Government’s approach. In Florence, the European Council confirmed the priority attached to tackling unemployment and agreed to carry forward the Essen approach, taking account of the initiative taken by the President of the Commission on a confidence pact for employment. There are some good things in this document, but others that we cannot accept.

Unemployment in this country is now the lowest of any major European competitor. We have created more jobs over the past three years than Germany, France, Italy and Spain–indeed, we have created more than Germany, France, Italy and Spain added together. That is because we have followed policies that help job creation. That is why we will not sign the Maastricht social chapter or accept European Union measures that would damage competitiveness or inhibit our ability to pursue our own successful policies.

Florence was not a decisive stage in discussions on economic and monetary union. The European Council considered a report from Economic and Finance Ministers on work done since Madrid. That included the relationship between those inside and those outside any potential future single currency. It covered the proposal to create a new exchange rate mechanism. Most of our partners favour creating such arrangements. Let me assure the House that it has been confirmed that any new scheme of that sort will be voluntary, and I reaffirm that this country will not rejoin any new ERM.

The European Council also reached agreement on the role of the European Court of Justice in the Europol convention. I said at the Cannes European Council that the ECJ would not be the arbiter in any case relating to Europol which involved the United Kingdom Government or arose in the courts of the UK. Other member states saw a need for a role for the ECJ on questions of interpretation of the convention arising in their national courts.

The outcome allows other member states the option of providing such a role for the ECJ for themselves. The United Kingdom and our courts will not be bound by that in any way. That is a satisfactory outcome and a further example of the EU developing in flexible ways.

Finally, the European Council confirmed that enlargement negotiations with central European countries should open at the same time as with Cyprus and Malta–that is, six months after the intergovernmental conference ends. It also agreed a number of statements on external issues, the most important of which were on the middle east and Russia.

The Florence European Council marked a decisive turning point in our efforts to protect the interests of the hundreds of thousands of people working in the British beef industry. The issue will now be dealt with on a proper, rational basis, with the timetable for the lifting of the ban dependent on our own efforts. That has enabled the restoration of normal business in the European Union.

This has been a difficult episode in this country’s relationship with Europe and not one that I was seeking. We were right to stand up for our interests, but I now look forward to working with our partners on our positive vision of Europe as a strong partnership of nations.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield): I shall confine my remarks mainly to beef. First, on dates, the Prime Minister chose his words with elaborate care. Can we be clear as to what he is saying? Is he saying that he can give dates and that the ban will finally go in total in November?

Some Conservative Members are now shaking their heads, but that was the clear impression–they are now all shaking their heads, but if one was listening to the Prime Minister, that was the impression–[Hon. Members: “The right hon. Gentleman was not listening.”] I was listening.

If the Prime Minister is now saying that those are definite dates, why were they not in the European Union agreement? I suspect–perhaps he will confirm this–that all that he is really saying is that he will table proposals by October and November, but the decision will be taken through the process of the veterinary committee, inspection, verification and so on.

So, can we return to the question that we have consistently asked the right hon. Gentleman? When will the ban finally be lifted, so that people in Europe can eat British beef under the same conditions as people in Britain?

Secondly, will the Prime Minister confirm that–again, contrary to the impression that he sought to give–there is no automatic link under the agreement between the steps that Britain must take and steps towards lifting the ban? We are obliged to do certain things in Britain, but other member states are simply obliged to follow certain procedures. There is no binding agreement on them, merely an agreement to consider. As for stating that he has won an undertaking that they would refuse consent only on scientific grounds, is not the committee that we have to satisfy the very same veterinary committee with which we had the problems in the first place? It has always ostensibly said that it was acting on scientific grounds; it has never said that it was acting on political grounds. The Prime Minister is no further forward on that.

If the basis is supposed now to be science, why have we agreed to a massive additional slaughter policy when we say that it is not scientifically justified? I suspect that the principal changes that the Prime Minister got were made once the British Government had submitted a programme for eradicating BSE and taken it round the European capitals–which, frankly, is something that they should have done a couple of months before.

Thirdly, as for the much vaunted concession on the third country ban, I agree that the ban is completely unjustified, but will the Prime Minister confirm: that it is only an undertaking from the Italian presidency and not an undertaking from the European Union; that it has no legal force; and that within minutes of it being given, a Commission official said:

“it didn’t commit the Commission to anything”?

Foreign Ministers have said that the third country ban will remain. Is that right or not?

Fourthly, will the Prime Minister confirm that the extra compensation at Florence was for all European Union farmers and that British farmers will see only a small part of it? Will he confirm also that this country’s bill, net of European Union payments, for the BSE crisis will be well in excess of £2 billion in the years to come? Is that not the price that the British people will pay for the utter incompetence with which the matter has been handled from the very beginning: the failure to intervene in the way necessary when BSE began; the failure to compensate and inform farmers when the crisis was under way; the failure to announce the link with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, with proper consultation; and now the failure to secure the lifting of the ban once one was imposed?

The Whitehall farce even continued at Florence, where we had the spectacle of the Government trying to hang on to one Minister who was threatening to resign and hanging the poor Minister of Agriculture out to dry to try to get him to resign. [Hon. Members: “Where is he?”] There appears to be a notable absentee from our deliberations.

This has been an object lesson in the Government’s capacity to turn any crisis into a catastrophe. The truth is that whatever fig leaf the Prime Minister has today, the damage will be with this country for many years to come.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has just illustrated that he is not interested in what is right for this country. In this House, he claimed to support our policy of non-co-operation because he did not have the guts to criticise it. In Germany, he criticised British policy because he did not have the guts to defend it. He has spent half his time claiming that we have been too hard in our relations with Europe, and then jumped to the other side of the fence and claimed that we have been too soft. He has invented objectives that we did not set and then criticised us for not meeting them. It is my job to look after the interests of the British beef industry, and despite his obstruction and his determination to do anything or say anything, irrespective of the damage to the beef industry, in his own interests, that is precisely what I have done.

Let me reiterate the points that were clearly made in my statement, which the right hon. Gentleman then asked about again, having failed to understand them. First, there is no massive additional slaughter policy, as I have explained to him repeatedly on many occasions. I hope that he now fully understands that. On the mechanism for the future, the great new European is effectively saying that he distrusts the word given to Britain by the European Heads of Government and by the European Commission. He distrusts it, despite all that he has said. Let us be clear about what he is about.

Let me deal with some of the other points. As I explained repeatedly in my statement, we have set out what we sought at the outset: objective criteria that we can meet in order that the ban can be lifted. The dates for lifting therefore lie in the hands of the British agriculture industry and the British Government; I have set out the dates by which we think that they will be met on each and every part of the agreement over the past few minutes. It is a shame that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) failed to understand that. [Interruption.] I invite hon. Members to read the statement when it is printed in Hansard tomorrow; if they did not understand it when I made it, perhaps they will understand it when they read it.

We sought an agreement that that matter would be dealt with objectively, without politically blocking the correct scientific judgment. That is what has happened in the past; that is the political commitment that we have achieved; that is the commitment that we expect our partners to meet.

Mr. Douglas Hurd (Witney): Given that the Government adopted a legitimate, even familiar, tactic for a specific and limited objective that they have now obtained, will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister take no notice of the Leader of the Opposition’s confused mischief making? Does my right hon. Friend accept that the best service that the House, particularly we on the Conservative Benches, can do in the difficult times that lie ahead is to take what may be the last chance in this Parliament to give united and effective support for the policy which my right hon. Friend set out last week and which is also set out in the Foreign Secretary’s White Paper, published in the spring?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is certainly right about the Leader of the Opposition’s capacity for mischief against the national interest. It is equally true that we have set out in our White Paper what we believe is the right way for future developments in the European Union in this country’s interests. We have set out a clearer definition of that than any other country that will be negotiating in the intergovernmental conference. It is precisely so that we can get down to the details that I invited the Irish presidency to introduce detailed texts, so that we can begin to look at the details of what people specifically expect to be agreed at the intergovernmental conference rather than deal with the generalities, which have been the subject of the debate so far.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): I am glad that the puerile policy of posturing masquerading as war on Europe is now over. When the Prime Minister announced it, I told him that it would achieve nothing that could not be achieved by other means. The damage that has been done to Britain’s influence and respect will be great. The Prime Minister tells us that he had to take the action as Europe had been obstructive for eight weeks; is not the truth that the Government did nothing for eight weeks, which is why nothing happened? The Prime Minister tells us that we have set hurdles that were not originally set. Does he remember the statement made by his Downing street spokesman on 22 May, the day after he announced the policy in the House of Commons? Presumably speaking on the Prime Minister’s behalf, the spokesman from No. 10 Downing Street said:

“Nothing short of a full timetable for the phased lifting of the entire beef ban will be sufficient.”

Is it not true that no such thing has been achieved?

The Prime Minister said that he was looking for binding commitments from our partners in Europe. Is it not true that every one of the steps must be validated through the Commission, the Scientific Veterinary Committee, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee–“super-SEAC”–and the Standing Veterinary Committee–the very people who, the Prime Minister claims, obstructed the actions in the first place? Far from our achieving success in lifting the third country ban, is it not true that, within minutes of the Foreign Secretary announcing that success, a Commission spokesman,in whose hands the matter is supposed to be, said that any beef that we were not able to sell to Germany or France could not be sold to South Africa?

We shall judge the package, which is far heavier and more damaging to British industry than it would have been if the Government had acted earlier and postured later against three factors. The first factor is the Prime Minister’s timetable: if he wants to clear the 30-month-plus backlog by October, he will have to put a lot more effort and resources into doing so. The second factor involves the level of compensation. The third factor relates to whether the binding responses, which are necessary as we pass each of the thresholds, have been achieved.

It is perfectly clear that the Prime Minister–like a previous Prime Minister–has returned from Europe claiming a victory, the cost of which we shall feel increasingly over the months ahead. This has been a policy of folly abroad and chaos at home, which has left Britain damaged both abroad and at home.

The Prime Minister: I certainly do not intend to take any lectures on posturing from the right hon. Gentleman, who approaches every issue in Europe from a kneeling position–whether this country is right or wrong. He is accurate, in that he has said before all the things that he has repeated today. He was wrong then and he is wrong in most of what he has had to say today. The statement that he has quoted is wholly inaccurate. I have seen the right hon. Gentleman’s letter containing the assertion, and I have written back to him this morning telling him that he is wrong, and that no such statement was made. The right hon. Gentleman had better take that up with the Press Association.

If the right hon. Gentleman looks at what I said in the House of Commons, he will see what the policy of the Government was at the outset and what it has remained, right from the beginning of this affair through to the present time.

Both the right hon. Gentleman and the Labour leader, who says that the ban was unjustified, have failed to say what they would have done in the circumstances. They would have done absolutely nothing–except carp and criticise, the twin names by which we have come to know them.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I am glad that my right hon. Friend has had success in getting our EC partners to see the difficulties facing our beef industry. I trust that people in this House will think twice before jeopardising more livelihoods and businesses in the beef industry.

Does my right hon. Friend have equally persuasive ways of raising the issues of the powers of the European Court of Justice and the plight of our fishing industry, which are also on our minds?

The Prime Minister: As I have told the House, both matters will certainly be subject to negotiation during the intergovernmental conference. I mentioned quota hopping, which was certainly not what was envisaged when the common fisheries policy was agreed. As I said in my statement today and in our White Paper, we seek some changes in the European Court of Justice also.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney): This is not exactly an occasion for national rejoicing; but will the Prime Minister now answer the question put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)? Do we not, at every stage, have to obtain not just the consent of the European Commission for relieving the ban, but the consent of the Standing Veterinary Committee, a nationally appointed body? Is it not also true that the great cost of the mass slaughter–or 80 per cent. of it–will have to be borne by the British taxpayer and the Treasury? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an estimate of the actual sums involved?

The Prime Minister: I believe that I have given the estimates over a period of three years before–but the point that the right hon. Gentleman did not address and may care to deal with now is that the principal issue is getting the ban lifted. It has never been a question of extra resources from the EU, for two good reasons.

First, we have sought to keep all spending across the EU within the guidelines approved for expenditure. There are repeated claims from other nations wanting to break those guidelines; breaking them would result in substantial extra costs to this country. So if we sought to break the guidelines by asking for extra resources, the costs for this country would increase, not diminish, over the years ahead. I do not think that a prudent policy to follow, and I have no intention of following it.

Equally, I have no intention of letting anyone take the opportunity of extra help being sought to change the agreements that we would otherwise seek to reach in the intergovernmental conference. For both those reasons, we do not propose to seek extra resources beyond those that normally apply under arrangements agreed in the past for circumstances such as these. There is also the special question of the British rebate and the arrangements that inhibit it when an extra payment needs to be made. They are the credible reasons why it is not in this country’s interests to seek compensation over and above what is normally available under the usual arrangements. It is impossible to determine the cost, but we broadly anticipate that it will be approximately £2 billion over the next three years.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham): Is my right hon. Friend aware that we have lost prestige, that we have lost money and that we have lost umpteen thousand more cows? If we feel big after that, we must have been feeling rather small before. Is he also aware that the Labour party did not condemn his tactic outright because it was frightened by the atmosphere of petty chauvinism in the press, which helped to push him into his mistaken policy in the first place?

The Prime Minister: I cannot answer in relation to the judgments of the Labour party, but I can answer in relation to the Government’s position. We were not prepared to be in a position where objective criteria were ignored, where there was no way to seek a removal of the ban and where science was deliberately being subordinated to national prejudice in countries across Europe, rather than there being an objective judgment of what ought to be done to help a member state facing a particular difficulty.

I can recall no occasion in the past when a single nation state faced a difficulty of this sort and political criteria in the other member states prevented a solution that was unanimously proposed by the Commission and supported by scientific evidence. Before my hon. Friend criticises the Government or anyone else, he should bear that in mind.

Mr. Giles Radice (North Durham): Is it not the Prime Minister’s duty to remind the Euro-sceptics on his Back Benches, who have rubbished the European Union throughout the crisis, that it would not have been possible to reach an agreement without the help of the European Commission, the European Council of Ministers, the European Court of Justice and European money?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman looks at the many statements that I have made, he will see that I have made it clear that the Commission and the presidency have played a helpful role in seeking to find a way through these difficulties. However, that is not universally the case with the other member states. I have thanked the presidency and the Commission–most recently at my press conference in Florence–for the support that they have given us during this difficult period.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East): Is it not a clear sign of the Prime Minister’s success in negotiating that only this morning the senior spokesman for the German Chancellor stated that he would have preferred to deal with the Leader of the Opposition, because he would have been more accommodating to German interests?

The Prime Minister was quite right to tell his colleagues that Britain’s unemployment has been much lower than theirs since we left the ERM, but will he also make the point to them that the two European states that voted not to join the EC have even lower unemployment rates? Should they not think through the implications?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that they will make their own decisions on that and on other matters. My hon. Friend is quite right about the relative rates of unemployment. Unemployment has continued to fall in this country for almost three years, but it has remained constant or increased in other countries–all of which live in the same general economic climate. I do not think that the difference in policies is an accident in the sense that unemployment has been falling in this country. The House will have noted my hon. Friend’s comments about the Leader of the Opposition with interest.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North): Does the Prime Minister remember that on 21 May he said to us that he would be seeking a clear framework that would lead to the lifting of the European ban and the worldwide ban on British beef? However, he has returned with an agreement that gives us no timetable, no dates and no guarantees. He could have got that agreement without the policy of non-co-operation. He has soured relations with our European partners and he has left a bitter legacy for a long time to come. Even our closest friends, such as the Irish Taoiseach, said that the policy of non-co-operation was a mistake. Has not the Prime Minister–

Madam Speaker: Order. This is not a debate. Almost the entire House wishes to ask a question, so questions to the Prime Minister must be brisk and I am sure that he will oblige and give brisk answers. Will the hon. Gentleman now put a question?

Mr. Hoyle: Yes, I shall. The Prime Minister has got nothing for Britain. When will the ban be lifted by Europe and when will the worldwide ban be lifted?

The Prime Minister: On the last point, if the hon. Gentleman reads the statement, he will find out. If he thinks that I could have got that ban lifted without the non-co-operation policy, why was there no progress over an eight-week period and why was there great progress over the next four weeks? The reality is that we accelerated the agreement of a framework and ensured the lifting of the beef derivatives ban precisely because of the action we took.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Leader of the Opposition is nitpicking over the timetable and has overlooked the fundamental point, which is consumer confidence and its restoration? Having a timetable and an agreed procedure that relies entirely on scientific evidence gives us the means by which worldwide consumer confidence in British beef can be restored.

The Prime Minister: Of course, my hon. Friend is right. The Leader of the Opposition knows that as well as any Member of the House. He just has his fingers crossed behind his back in the hope that he can score a few political points, irrespective of the reality of the situation.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray): Some of us have listened carefully to the Prime Minister’s statement. Does he realise that his use of language in his statement gives no hope at all to the agriculture community in areas such as mine, where thousands of jobs are dependent on that industry? The use of words such as “aim”, “expect”, “believe” and “hope” shows pious optimism by the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman specifically referred to certified herds. How will those certified herds be identified, and does he envisage a region-by-region lifting of the ban, which would be of substantial benefit to Northern Ireland and Scotland, because we have had quality assurance schemes?

The Prime Minister: It is not specifically region by region, but herd by herd. In Scotland, it is likely that many herds will be certified because of the way in which cattle are reared. It was precisely to provide such help for Scotland and probably other regions that we decided to seek, and obtained, a framework that will enable us to identify herds in collaboration with the agriculture industry and the European Union, so that the ban may be lifted at an earlier date than would otherwise have been possible. As I told the House earlier, I expect that we shall be able to tell the Commission by October when, on the basis of the agreement that we have reached, the objective criteria would be met and those certified herds would be removed from the ban.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale): Is the Prime Minister aware that the beef settlement is an important and welcome step towards the ultimate solution of the crisis? Is he further aware that he should not take notice of those who speak for the two Opposition parties, who seem to have turned being wise after the event into a minor science? With regard to the accelerated slaughter process and in the event of dairy cows being slaughtered before the end of their natural time, will my right hon. Friend also give an undertaking that if we end up under-producing on the British milk quota, it will not have any long-term adverse effect on our milk quota in years to come?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point about milk quotas, which we are examining at the moment. As to the accelerated slaughter, according to the fourth cohort, it must be voluntary as there is no other way in which it can be done. Farmers will of course receive compensation, the levels of which are being determined.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is the Prime Minister aware that, in industrial terms, he decided to take strike action without a ballot? He wanted to bang together the heads of all those in the Common Market, and it is the British people who have the headache. Will the Prime Minister now answer the questions: when will the ban be lifted and how much will his supreme folly and that of that gang over there cost every man, woman and child in Britain?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman manages to carry his own absurdity to further lengths this afternoon even than in the past. I thought that he would welcome a strike without a ballot, based on his reputation and his past–it is the way in which he seems to have operated for most of his life. As to his other questions, I refer him to the answers that I have already given to several of his hon. Friends, when I set out those points.

Sir Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government have not been diverted by the beef crisis from pursuing their general objectives in Europe as outlined in the White Paper: that is, preventing any further moves towards a federal state of Europe and, where possible, returning powers to this country and to Parliament?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly confirm that our policies remain as set out in the White Paper, and they were reiterated again in Florence at the weekend.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): The Prime Minister referred to the middle east in his original statement. Did the Greeks, the Italians or the Germans tell him that they would go ahead and trade with Libya and north Africa, despite the sanctions? Is not British industry the loser, as the recent Egyptian delegation to the House made clear, as a result of sanctions against Libya?

The Prime Minister: There was no such comment by the countries concerned during any discussions about the middle east. Those discussions tended to deal primarily with the middle east peace process.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries): May I welcome the achievements of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Florence, in securing the lifting of the ban in due course? I agree that it is important to get beef off the front pages of the newspapers and back into the high-quality food chain. To achieve that aim, will he ensure that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food makes fair payments to farmers involving the least possible bureaucracy?

The Prime Minister: I shall ensure that that is the case.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): The Commission’s position paper requires the introduction of an effective animal identification and movement recording system, with official registration. The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and I called for those measures 11 weeks ago. Have those 11 weeks been lost? Is the programme under way? Will the Prime Minister provide some details?

The Prime Minister: On the contrary, the 11 weeks certainly have not been lost. It is a massive undertaking to produce a proper identification programme for all cattle across the country, but that is our intention. A programme of that sort is available in Northern Ireland, but it does not extend across the rest of the United Kingdom. It involves a massive amount of computerisation and co-operation from the agriculture industry. A great deal of progress has been made in the past 11 weeks, and as a result of that progress I was able to set out the indicative dates for the House a few moments ago.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington): On the basis of what has happened with the beef issue in the past few months, is it not clear that the Government’s tactic of non-co-operation has proved both legitimate and effective? In order to put that in context, will my right hon. Friend tell the House how the 74 occasions on which we used our national veto during the period of non-co-operation relate to the occasions when was it not necessary to use our national veto, because matters were decided by qualified majority voting? That might show the House whether the European Union is as supra-national as some of my hon. Friends claim.

The Prime Minister: I shall certainly provide my hon. Friend with those figures. I do not carry in my head the number of occasions on which there were qualified majority voting agreements in the past month, during the period of the non-co-operation policy, but my hon. Friend makes a good point. He is also entirely right to point to the fact that the policy has been effective in securing the objectives that I set out at the Dispatch Box, and in securing them far more speedily than would have occurred in any other way.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr): Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to confirm that the other members of the European Union are our partners and friends, not our enemies? When he was explaining his proposals to them over the weekend, did he explain why, on 20 March, two of his Ministers came to the House to make statements on the same issue–one raising a health scare about the transfer of BSE to human beings, and the other saying that no cattle would have to be slaughtered as a result? Given the massive job losses in this country and in France and Germany, how did he explain to our partners and friends the fiasco that was started by two Ministers not being remotely aware of the consequences beyond the statements that they made?

The Prime Minister: I seem to recall that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health came to the House, the Opposition congratulated him on bringing the problem to the House as speedily as he had, because it was thought that that was the right way to deal with it. The hon. Gentleman will recall that there had been a leak in the morning papers, I think, that day. In the absence of a statement, undoubtedly there would have been demands from the Opposition for one. Undoubtedly there would have been a private notice question. My right hon. Friend received praise from the Opposition for coming to the House and setting out the position. The way in which the hon. Gentleman refers to it now is a total and utter travesty of what happened.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford): Can my right hon. Friend detect a strong whiff of sour grapes coming from the Opposition Benches this afternoon? Was it not quite simply a very positive deal, achieved as a result of a tough negotiating approach?

Moving away from beef, did my right hon. Friend notice at the Florence summit that, whereas previously all the pressure was supposed to be on this country to conform to EU social and labour market policies, it is now the other way round and the EU is seeking to follow our policies? Did he hear any comment on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development forecast that, over the next two years, Britain will be the fastest-growing economy in the whole of Europe?

The Prime Minister: There was some comment by me, for I certainly mentioned that, but I did not hear a great deal of comment from our friends and partners in the discussion at Florence over the weekend. My right hon. Friend is entirely right that the new position of the Opposition on these matters seems to be, on every occasion, that everybody is right except the United Kingdom. That seems to be the case, whatever the merits of the argument.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Will the Prime Minister say precisely when and how the scientific basis and information changed to justify the climbdown in the number of cattle to be slaughtered? Will he assure the House that the Minister of Agriculture will not be slaughtered before the last of these cattle are slaughtered?

The Prime Minister: There was no change in the scientific criteria. My right hon. and learned Friend is at the Agriculture Council in Luxembourg at the moment.

Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset): Does my right hon. Friend accept that we all want to consider other members of the European Union as our partners and friends, but after the weekend in Turin, when he was so badly let down by our partners, was it not inevitable that the ban would follow? All of us in the agriculture community very much welcome the support that he has given to the farming community over the past three months. Does he accept that the farming community will take on board the need for the accelerated slaughter, but only if the commonsense approach to it is coupled with fair compensation?

The Prime Minister: It is certainly true that we were promised co-operation in Turin. It is equally true that a few days later, in the Agriculture Council and elsewhere, that co-operation was noticeable only to the extent that it did not materialise. That is the background to the policy that we subsequently adopted.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): The Prime Minister said that employment matters were also discussed in Florence. As we know, to meet the convergence criteria for a single currency, cuts of £18,000 million in public expenditure and public services such as health and education are required. Would he care to anticipate the likely effects that those cuts will have on employment?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that applies to this country, he should have a look at what will be necessary in each and every country right across the European Union. I see that he does think that. He clearly does not envisage the sort of policy that is set out by his party’s Front Bench. There seems to be a certain disagreement between the Labour party’s Front and Back Benches. It is quite sad to see the splits in its European policy that open up daily.

Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy): I welcome the underpinning given at Florence to the policy of eradication, as well as progress towards the lifting of the ban. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, come the autumn, the British beef industry should be in a stronger position than it has been for some time, and that the grounds for increased consumer confidence–both here and elsewhere–should be stronger as well? Does it not appear that, if Opposition Members were ever to negotiate on our behalf in Europe, they would be dictators at home and appeasers over there?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is right about the impact of our policy over a period. We are seeking a complete eradication policy for BSE. As that is increasingly achieved, it will reopen not only the European markets that have recently fallen foul of the European Union ban, but the markets that were barred to British beef some years ago in the United States and elsewhere. That is why, given the scale of the present problem, it is right for us to seek a full-scale eradication policy. The incidence of BSE is falling dramatically at present, and will continue to do so as a result of the measures that we have adopted.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Is it true that the eradication plan that the Prime Minister has now accepted is three times larger than the original proposal? In the light of what he has just said, would it not have been better, cheaper and safer to go down that route earlier?

The Prime Minister: I simply do not recognise the statistic that the hon. Lady has just produced. I have not seen it, and I have no reason to believe that it is remotely accurate. As I just told my right hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts), what we are seeking is a comprehensive plan to eradicate BSE entirely from British herds. I think that that is right in itself. It is certainly right in terms of bringing confidence back to the consumer, and ensuring that British beef–which I consider an excellent product, and which has traditionally been seen as such by the world–can once more enter world markets without let or hindrance.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford): Did my right hon. Friend note that, in yesterday’s The Sunday Times poll, the British people approved his tough stance by a majority of two to one? Cannot a number of useful lessons be learnt, both by the Labour party and by those who drive for a federal political union in Europe? Those who drive for political union should recognise that we will not–and the British people will not–tolerate the abolition of the veto as expressed by Mr. Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister, who, after all, is now governing by decree. As for the Labour party, since our adoption of a tough stance, its rating in opinion polls has dropped by nearly 10 per cent.

The Prime Minister: I certainly believe that we have been following the right policy on its own merits. My hon. Friend is entirely right about the veto. Some of our European partners would wish all matters to be dealt with by qualified majority voting–which, of course, is what the Labour party signed up to in its European socialist manifesto. The impact of that would be that there would be no veto for this country. I assure the House that, if there had been no veto at the Edinburgh financing arrangements in 1991, we would have lost the British rebate. No other country in the European Union likes the British rebate; every other country would vote to get rid of that rebate, which saves this country millions of pounds a year. The little piece of paper that the Labour party signed in its European socialist manifesto is a little piece of paper that will cost the country billions of pounds and more every single year.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): Does the Prime Minister realise that there is considerable concern among Welsh farmers at the accelerated slaughter programme, because we are taking out of production some of the most productive animals in the dairy herd? Does he realise that farmers’ disappointment is coupled with the fact that there is no firm timetable for lifting the ban? Will he make it clear what type of compensation package will be introduced for farmers? Will it cover the replacement costs of productive animals and the consequential loss of income? Does he realise that his policy of non-co-operation did not affect the timing or the outcome of the Florence deal, but that it might have affected relations with our European partners?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that way, because I just think that he is wrong. I have spent six years sitting round the European table with my partners, and he has not. I can assure him that we have made more progress by following this policy than we would have done if we had followed the policy that he seems to advocate. Animals in the accelerated slaughter scheme would in due course have been slaughtered under the 30-month-plus scheme, and the overwhelming majority of them would have been slaughtered only a few months later than under the arrangements that we advocated last week.

Compensation will be offered. As I told the House earlier, we are discussing precisely what the compensation will be. I certainly understand the hon. Gentleman’s point on that.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington): As the Prime Minister has achieved most of the objectives that he set when he started non-co-operation, would he hesitate to use those tactics again in future if British interests were at risk? My farmers are very worried about the influence of the veterinary committee. If the committee is again subject to political influence–as it has been in the past–will it be able to stop the lifting of the ban, or does the Commission have the power to overrule it?

The Prime Minister: The answer to my hon. Friend’s last question is, yes, it has the power if it were felt that the committee was not acting on the basis of objective science. That will be extremely helpful. As for his question about policy, very unusual circumstances led us to use that tactic–circumstances that I hope and expect not to see again. I cannot recall another issue on which our European partners voted against the unanimous recommendation of the the Commission, when that unanimous recommendation was clearly backed by science. The position taken by our partners was clearly taken for domestic political reasons and was not objective. That caused our response. I very much hope that that type of circumstance will not occur again.