Tory confesses BSE crisis was handled badly

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Indy Politics
The British government made mistakes in its handling of the BSE crisis a leading Conservative has admitted.

Lord Henry Plumb, a member of the European Parliament, made the admission yesterday as the Strasbourg assembly prepared to endorse a damning resolution which condemns Britain and threatens to sack the European Commission en masse for putting the concerns of beef farmers before human health.

The resolution, which is expected to be backed in a vote today, gives the Commission until November to implement a radical overhaul of food safety policy or face a vote of censure.

The entire Commission must resign if a majority of MEPs supports a censure motion. In theory, the Commission could be sacked today but a motion tabled by a Belgian MEP is not expected to draw support.

MEPs may also call today for a refund to European taxpayers of the pounds 1bn in EU subsidies paid to Britain in farmer compensation since last March, although few deputies seriously believe that this will be heeded.

Lord Plumb criticised a "witch hunt" against Britain but acknowledged mismanagement. "Whilst mistakes were made and people have said we could have done better in the past, I don't think that calls for condemnation", he said.

Downing Street described the report as a "flawed piece of work". It said the highly controversial document contained a "great number of inaccuracies" and it ignored the strenuous efforts which Britain had made to tackle the disease.

In an attempt to head off the threat of censure, Jacques Santer, the European Commission President, yesterday offered MEPs shared authority with EU governments over certain aspects of health policy.

He also promised a major shake-up of the sprawling Brussels agriculture directorate.

The farms commissioner Franz Fischler will be stripped of responsibility for food safety, which is to be transferred to Emma Bonino, the flamboyant Italian in charge of consumer affairs, hitherto an underfunded and understaffed part of the Commission hierarchy.

Mr Santer also pledged all veterinary inspections would in future be handled by a new agency, to be located in Ireland.

Today's vote on a motion of "conditional censure" comes in the wake of an eight-month parliamentary inquiry, which concluded Britain was the main culprit in the BSE debacle but that the Commission was also to blame for a series of failures and errors, such as allowing exports of contaminated cattle feed from the UK to other EU countries after it was banned in Britain.

Strasbourg's attempt to pin most of the blame on the UK government has added to the strain in relations between Britain and its EU partners.

In an unusually strongly worded letter to the German chairman of the parliamentary inquiry committee, Sir Stephen Wall, the British ambassador to the EU, dismissed the findings as a "gratuitous misrepresentation of the facts". But Labour MEP Pauline Greene, leader of the 200-strong Socialist group , used yesterday's debate to pour scorn on the Conservatives' handling of the affair.

Letters, page 13

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