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From: TSS ()
Date: March 4, 2006 at 6:26 pm PST


11:01 - 01 March 2006
The Government has fuelled concerns of a further delay in lifting the near decade-old beef export ban by refusing to release the correspondence it has had with the European Commission and other member states on the issue.

An attempt to use the Freedom of Information Act to get the Government to reveal all documents and communications on the ending of the ban failed when the request was rejected by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

It said international relations could be damaged if the information was released.

Government officials had until late last year been actively telling industry representatives that a vote on lifting the embargo, imposed as a safety measure against BSE, would be taken by Europe's standing veterinary committee in January - and that the ban would be removed by the end of March.

Those hopes have been dashed and there are fears that the ban will not now be lifted until early summer.

The current plan is for European vets possibly to vote on the issue this month, but there is no guarantee that will happen, as there appears to be a growing number of member states with issues about Britain's return to world beef markets.

Defra currently accepts that the embargo may be in place until at least May, fully two months later than it originally forecast. A spokeswoman said the information sought was exempt from disclosure under sections 27 and 35 of the Act. These relate to the likely damage to international relations and the formulation or development of Government policy.

Katie Barnes, of Defra's BSE and animal by-products division, said: "You will appreciate that negotiations on the lifting of the beef ban, both within the UK and between the UK and other member states, are extremely sensitive, and that these negotiations have now reached a critical stage. Government policy is still being developed on this issue and legislation is being drafted."

Miss Barnes accepted the information on both the internal and external negotiations on lifting of the ban was in the public interest as it affected the livelihoods of British farmers and beef traders, as well as the international standing of the UK beef trade.

But, she added: "We believe that, if the information requested were to be released, the UK negotiating strategy to achieve a lifting of the ban might be prematurely revealed. This could damage our relations with other member states at a crucial time and could even cause the lifting of the ban%2

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