Unionists wooed to avert defeat on BSE

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Two Cabinet ministers yesterday held a private meeting at the Commons with Ulster Unionist leaders in an attempt to avert a government defeat in tonight's vote on the BSE crisis.

The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and his party whip Willie Ross met Roger Freeman, the Cabinet minister with responsibility for coordinating action on the beef crisis. It is understood that they then held a short meeting at Westminster with Douglas Hogg, Minister of Agriculture.

The Government is facing a Labour attack on its handling of the beef negotiations and the vote could be close, with the Government's majority down to one.

It will be an early test of the Ulster Unionists' willingness to bail out the Government in the run-up to the election. The beef crisis is one of the few issues on which they could be prepared to join with Labour in condemning the Government.

Ministers are working on a compromise package which could allow the ban on beef exports to be lifted for Northern Ireland before the rest of the United Kingdom.

But Scottish beef farmers would be infuriated if the ban was lifted for the province while still applying to them.

The European agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, is expecting a response from Mr Hogg at an agriculture ministers' council on Monday.

Sources close to Mr Hogg last night hinted that an early breakthrough was unlikely, and it could be another month before British ministers have worked out a plan for a selective cull, crucial in getting the ban lifted. Whitehall sources said that the beef industry in Northern Ireland was well placed to go ahead with a selective cull, because cattle are routinely tagged to stop cross-border smuggling. The sea barrier between the province and the mainland was a further factor, which European ministers weighed in its favour in considering lifting the ban.

But the European ministers are also reported to be sceptical about lifting the ban on Scottish beef exports because they fear the cattle could come from England.

Gavin Strang, shadow agriculture minister, will attack the Prime Minister and Mr Hogg for mishandling the negotiations and for broken promises over lifting the ban.

In spite of their threats of non-cooperation with Europe, the ban remains and is unlikely to be lifted before 2002.