Winds of beef war blow Hogg a reprieve

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A lifebelt was thrown to the Minister of Agriculture, Douglas Hogg, by the Liberal Democrats last night - ironically through a Commons motion censuring him for mishandling the BSE crisis.

The censure proposal, to be debated this afternoon, will force ministers and MPs to defend their beleaguered colleague. The House will consider a call for his salary to be slashed to pounds 1,000, a parliamentary device for moving a personal motion of no confidence in an individual minister.

Roger Freeman, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Cabinet Minister who has been put in charge of the Government's cattle cull, yesterday told the Commons that there was no question of Mr Hogg being replaced in a summer reshuffle - the debilitating speculation that was rife in Westminster and Whitehall yesterday.

While it is always possible that Mr Hogg might decide to jump by resigning before he is pushed, there can be no guarantees that he will not be sacrificed by John Major at a time of his own choosing.

In a statement on the Florence summit that was given rare support by the Tory benches, the Prime Minister told the Commons yesterday that he expected the Government to have completed all the stages of the process under which the European beef export ban could be lifted by November.

"Securing agreement of these steps would restore the position on beef exports to what it was before 27 March," he said. "In other words, we would be in a position of being able to sell for export to the European Union young animals and all the beef which could by then be sold in the UK." Mr Major said that the targets were ambitious.

Tony Blair pounced on the inbuilt ambiguity of the statement, asking: "Is he now saying that the ban will finally go in November. Is that actually what he said?"

With Mr Major and Cabinet colleagues shaking their heads at that point, the Labour leader said that while the Government was obliged to take specified action, the response of the European Commission was discretionary.

There were no guarantees in that process, Mr Blair suggested, because the same people who had been so stringent at an early stage of the crisis - the Commission's Standing Veterinary Committee - would have to recommend a lifting of the export ban.

"Whatever figleaf he has today," Mr Blair said, "the damage will be there with this country for many years to come."

The Prime Minister turned that attack back against Mr Blair, saying that he evidently distrusted the word of Britain's European partners. He also accused the Labour leader of cowardice: Mr Blair had not had the guts to criticise the deal; nor had he had the guts to defend it.

A Swiss expert in BSE has alleged that there must be more cases of the disease in Continental countries, but that farmers are not reporting them because they would lose money by doing so, writes Charles Arthur. Professor Mark Vandervelde, of the Institute of Animal Neurology in Berne, Switzerland, said yesterday "Switzerland has had 220 cases of BSE since 1990, but it seems to stop at the border. But we imported it in cattle feed, most of which came from France and the Benelux countries, which had in turn bought it from Britain. So we have to ask ourselves why there isn't more BSE in those other countries." France has reported a handful of BSE cases, but Belgium and Luxembourg have never reported any. Professor Vandervelde said: "To track BSE, you have to have a good surveillance system - and that means farmers have to be compensated."