Blushes spared as Tory whips order early cut

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The Government suffered a symbolic defeat last night over its handling of the beef crisis. A two-day debate on the Common Agricultural Policy ended with the Opposition carrying a technical motion to adjourn the House by 252 to one.

Labour MPs cheered the result but Tory whips dismissed it as a hollow victory. Copying a tactic of James Callaghan's minority Labour government, the whips had avoided possible humiliation by sending Conservative MPs home.

The only Tory who stayed to oppose Labour's protest vote was David Atkinson, the one real casualty of the night. Adjourning the House meant that he lost the chance to hold a short debate on an issue sending tremors through the computer industry - how to cope with the century date change on their systems.

The second day of the debate had brought some modest relief for farmers waiting to get cattle slaughtered and an admission that samples of contaminated animal feed were being found as late as March.

There were also repeated calls from Tory backbenchers for the Government to withhold payments to the European Union budget until the ban on British beef exports was lifted. Graham Riddick, MP for Colne Valley, said: "Diplomacy has failed, playing the game like an English gentleman has failed."

Leading Euro-sceptic Bill Cash said there was nothing unlawful in suspending payments. The EU action was not a ban. "It's illegal sanctions, and they're causing untold damage, not only to our farmers but to many in 'downstream' industries as well."

Tony Baldry, Minister of State for Agriculture, told MPs he was urgently studying how a flat-rate payment could be made to farmers whose cattle were waiting to be slaughtered in the cull of beasts over 30 months old. "This is an exceptional one-off arrangement designed to help those with a backlog, so that they know they are going to get money.

The announcement follows intense pressure on ministers from MPs and farmers unhappy about the speed with which the slaughter policy is being carried out.

Mr Baldry said the Government was on target for culling 24,000 cattle a week in England and Wales, and that an extra 27,500 tonnes of cold storage would be made available over the next three weeks.

Junior agriculture minister Angela Browning disclosed that mammalian protein had been found in eight samples of animal feed. In a written Commons reply she said 1,210 samples had been taken on 574 random visits to mills producing animal feed between 5 February and 9 May. The eight positives were taken before the BSE-CJD crisis erupted on 29 March.

Earlier, at Question Time, Tony Blair said there was a "widespread gap between the perception by ministers and the reality of what is happening" over the slaughter scheme. The Labour leader also pointed out that the cull had been embarked on without any guarantee from the rest of the EU that the ban would be lifted.

John Major said there seemed "every prospect" that the ban on beef gelatine, tallow and semen would be lifted on Monday. Broadly half the member countries had supported Britain's position in Wednesday's talks.

David Shaw, Tory MP for Dover, was described by Labour's David Winnick as the "number one smear merchant" of the Commons after he made allegations of corruption against a Westminster Labour councillor. Mr Winnick protested to the Speaker after Mr Shaw asked for a debate on councillor Peter Bradley, who, he said, "fails to disclose the clients of Millbank Consultants Ltd despite earning tens of thousands of pounds in fees for helping gain planning permissions".