Critics say Brown was `incompetent' over ban

BEEF EMBARGO Conservatives accuse Labour of failing to control crisis as farmers urge consumers to continue partial boycott of French goods
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THE TORIES seized on France's refusal to lift the ban on British beef exports as evidence of Labour's failure to handle the crisis. Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, was rounded upon as "incompetent" and Prime Minister Tony Blair was criticised for failing to deal with the issue at the recent Anglo-French summit.

"This confirms the total failure of Labour's softly, softly approach to France during the beef crisis," said Tim Yeo, the Conservative agriculture spokesman. "British beef farmers will now pay the price of Nick Brown's incompetence. The Labour Government have been totally humiliated."

Mr Blair has already spoken to French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to protest at the French decision. He said it was totally wrong, given that the UK had Europe, the law and science on its side.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: "It now means we have to go through the courts, a process that everyone had hoped to avoid. It means too that the French are totally isolated on this issue."

The spokesman added that the Government is already in touch with the European Commission to ensure that the relevant legal steps are being taken forward.

Mr Brown tried to shore up his position but admitted the news was "a very big disappointment." He told BBC2's Newsnight: "The British Government have tried very hard to give the French government the clarifications and guarantees that they sought.

"It is particularly disappointing that at first reading of the French statement they seem to have been unable to lift the ban on precisely the points that we sought to give them the clarification they sought."

He added: "We couldn't have tried harder or worked harder to get this disagreement resolved by discussion. We have no alternative but to press ahead through the courts."

The French decision was condemned by Tory Euro-MPs as "pure politics". Conservative MEPs were described as "stunned and amazed" at the determination of the French to continue flouting EU rules.

The leader of the Euro-Tories, Edward McMillan-Scott, heard the news as he was hosting a Christmas dinner with Tory staff in the European Parliament in Brussels.

Ironically, the menu was British beef - the first time it has been cooked in the Parliament since the beef ban was lifted in Belgium and elsewhere on 1 August. "It is clear tonight that the science has gone out of the window," he said.

National Farmers' Union president Ben Gill said that his main reaction was one of "absolute annoyance" at the French attitude. "I do not possibly see how France can continue to act like this and remain within the European Union," he said. "This is a real crisis for Europe. Something must be done."

Mr Gill said he would be catching the first plane to Brussels this morning to put his case to Commissioners.

He made an appeal to consumers to step up their partial boycott of French goods in response to the decision. "We have received wonderful support from the British public over this issue and I hope we will continue to receive this," he said. "We would ask consumers to think very carefully when they go shopping before they buy any French produce, and to buy British instead.

"We have to send aclear message to the French government about what the British people think of their actions," Mr Gill said.

Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman Colin Breed said: "I am absolutely appalled by this decision. "I am going to Brussels today and will be pressing in person for the legal action to start immediately."