Former Cabinet scientist backs big cull of cattle

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A big cattle cull should go ahead, despite evidence from Oxford suggesting BSE, or "mad-cow disease", will have died out of Britain's herd by 2002, a former government adviser said last night.

Professor Sir William Stewart, former chief scientific adviser to the Cabinet Office, said: "How do we know for sure that the Oxford evidence will be standing up in five years' time?

"You can't be sure about that. What you can be sure about is that if you cull, the problem will not be there." Prof Stewart, who was advising the Government on the crisis until last year, told the BBC: "If in doubt, throw it out. If you cull, you won't have BSE in years to come, and only then will the consumer be assured of the quality of British beef."

His statement is expected to add to the Government's troubles on BSE, coming after the European Commission signalled willingness last night to consider the new British evidence on eradication of the disease. Coming on the eve of today's ad hoc cabinet meeting, at which ministers will consider tearing up the Florence agreement, which committed Britain to the controversial cull in exchange for a phased lifting of the beef-export ban, last night's move is calculated to defuse some of the political tension. But it does not represent a significant shift in policy, according to EU officials.

The meeting of cabinet ministers, chaired by John Major, is poised today to defy demands from European ministers for up to 140,000 cattle to be culled and to give the go-ahead for a smaller cull involving around 24,000 cattle.

Yesterday's apparent U-turn by the Commission came after Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, told the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Franz Fischler, in a private meeting that he could not deliver if he was ordered to introduce legislation in the Commons to carry out the mass cull, because it was opposed by Tory MPs. Pressure was also brought to bear by the Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan, who urged his colleagues to look more closely at the details.

He said last night: "The Commission is not unsympathetic to Britain's predicament. It considers the Oxford study a constructive and serious piece of work and is anxious to pass it to the scientific experts. The Commission is open-minded on the implications for the extended cull."

And Sir Leon made a specific plea to those demanding that the Prime Minister goes back on the deal agreed in Florence: "This positive approach by the Commission should discourage those tempted in the UK to push for the unilateral repudiation of the Florence agreement."

Unilateral action by Britain would provoke protests from the European Commission, and European leaders, but ministers have virtually ended their hopes of persuading Europe to lift the ban on British beef exports.

The row over beef could still dominate the agenda for next month's European summit, which was called - against Britain's wishes - by the Irish presidency to discuss progress towards the single currency.

That would infuriate Britain's European partners, who were angry at Mr Major's decision to block the Florence summit until a deal was reached over beef.

Any decision to review the cull has to be taken by the member-state governments, which have already demonstrated their outright opposition to unravelling the Florence deal.

The Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, whose government holds the EU presidency, yesterday said: "Agreements which have been entered into should be honoured."