Besieged Hogg rues change in his fortunes

Inside Parliament
Click to follow
A warning to Britain's EU partners over maintaining a total ban on British beef won Douglas Hogg, the beleaguered farm minister, his only grudging cheer at the start of a two-day debate on the Common Agricultural Policy.

Tackled repeatedly by shire Tories whose angry farmers lobbied Parliament earlier in the day, Mr Hogg acknowledged the crisis had changed his life. "Until some eight weeks ago I was accustomed to say that now was a particularly fortunate time at which to be the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food," he said.

But then he and Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, had made statements to the Commons on the likelihood of a link between BSE-contaminated beef products and CJD - the human equivalent of "mad cow" disease.

"From the point of view of the industry, and indeed myself, it seems like eight years," Mr Hogg said. It was "a beastly business". The Bunteresque remark was typical Hogg and uttered without conscious irony, but it hardly pleased rural MPs. A succession of MPs aired farmers' complaints that abattoirs were not taking their cattle for slaughter under the 30-month scheme. Mr Hogg said it was estimated that 4,173 cattle would be slaughtered that day and he hoped soon to cull 18,000 a week.

With the EU's veterinary committee considering proposals for lifting the ban in respect of gelatine, tallow and semen as he spoke, Mr Hogg wisely told MPs that the meeting was "not the make-or-break event described in some sections of the media". It ended in deadlock. Promising to pursue the issue at Monday's Council of Ministers meeting, Mr Hogg warned: "A failure to make progress would seriously complicate the relations that exist between the United Kingdom and other member states."

On reforming the CAP, he said the Government wanted progressive reductions in price support and the creation of an industry "which is ready and able to produce what markets want at prices which those markets can afford".

"Progress in securing change will be slow and attended with procrastination and compromise," he said. But when he added that the majority of states were against Britain, Christopher Gill, Tory Euro-sceptic MP for Ludlow, intervened, saying Mr Hogg had demonstrated that any vote by the House would be "entirely symbolic". Whether the Government won or lost, the CAP would continue in its present form.

Former minister Sir Michael Spicer, another sceptic, insisted the Government must have greater impact on agriculture policy. "Every single man, woman and child in this country effectively pays pounds 250 each per year more in prices than they would have to were they able to benefit from world prices," he said. Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokes-man, said the party wanted the ban lifted but would be voting on the technical motion at the close of the debate tonight because the Government had failed to represent Britain's interests in Europe.

Sir James Spicer, MP for Dorset West, called for retaliation "on health grounds" by banning imports from other EU countries where BSE was known to exist. But another Tory, Quentin Davies pointed to the figures - 150,000 cases of BSE in Britain compared to 205 in Switzerland, 123 in Ireland, 31 in Portugal and 13 in France.

"It's a British problem and we had better face up to it," said Mr Davies, MP for Stamford and Spalding, adding that rather than insulting other EU states, MPs should understand the considerable difficulties Britain had caused their markets.