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12.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison): I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) on securing it. It has been a good, constructive and well-informed debate and, perhaps inevitably, much of the focus has been on recycling. That was certainly the case in the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) and the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who spoke briefly and to the point, for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). I was not sure whether the hon. Member for Newham, North-West was recycling some of his jokes or disposing of them. I was interested in his method of greeting his constituents in Newham. He made some interesting points.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) could have been a little more forthcoming in welcoming the Government's targets and accepting that they are ambitious targets. She will know of our target to reduce the amount of household waste going to landfill and to bring about a 25 per cent. target for recycling and composting of household waste. She knows of our targets for landfill and for municipal waste. The hon. Lady will see that our strategy is wide ranging and comprehensive and is backed by initiatives and ambitious targets.

I was interested in the hon. Lady's comments about energy recovery from incineration. She seemed to criticise that at the beginning of her comments, but there was a lack of detail about the basic point of where energy recovery from incineration would fit into her hierarchy-- whether it would be alongside recycling, composting or somewhere else. She fell silent on that issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham was concerned about a number of detailed points in his locality. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Medway, he spoke forcefully about local issues and local views, which are always important and need to be taken into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham will understand that I cannot go into detail about the Government's view because there are obvious reasons why I cannot comment on matters that are still within the province of inquiries. However, it will be open to inspectors at inquiries to take into account the general

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approach set out for recycling in our strategy document entitled "Making Waste Work", which was issued just before Christmas.

My hon. Friend referred to what he saw as the blind acceptance of incineration as a principal alternative. I can reassure him that that is not the way in which incineration fits into the strategy overall. I invite him to see the strategy as a method that seeks to bring about the best practicable environmental option in any given case. The hon. Member for Huddersfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) referred to a balanced approach. The Government's approach in the strategy document is balanced and can bring about the best practicable environmental option in each case.

I invite my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham to see incineration, alongside recycling in its place in the hierarchy, as something that must be analysed in each case. We must consider the environmental advantages and disadvantages, some of which were dealt with by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend was also concerned about dioxins. He looked for assurances from me about the Government's approach to that and about future statements from HMIP. In September last year, HMIP published a report entitled "A review of dioxin emissions in the United Kingdom". It examined known and possible sources of dioxins in the United Kingdom and updated the estimates which my Department published in January 1995 as part of its response to the United States Environmental Protection Agency's draft assessment, about which we heard earlier. The HMIP report predicts that full implementation of integrated pollution control by HMIP and other control measures by local authorities will reduce the figures for dioxin emissions appreciably.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham talked about the relative cost of recycling and incineration. It is difficult to compare like with like in this situation as there are no typical examples. Fees will vary according to size, location, type of waste, outstanding capital finance liabilities and other factors. My hon. Friend may find it helpful to know that generally energy from waste costs between £10 and £30 per tonne more than landfill. Recycling costs vary widely, depending on the factors that I have identified.

My hon. Friend also made some important references to the general benefits of recycling and those matters will be taken into account. However, he will not be surprised to hear that I cannot agree with him that it is always a simple case of either/or--both recycling and incineration with energy recovery may have a part to play. The two are not necessarily exclusive. It may be that, in any particular case, both can combine to bring about a solution.

On that note, I want to emphasise that the Government have an appropriate and comprehensive strategy which sets ambitious targets. Hon. Members are concerned whether individual cases will fit into that strategy. I promise that I will give hon. Members a detailed reply by letter.

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12.30 pm

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise, albeit briefly, the issue of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and concerns about the possible connections with Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease. My particular interest in the issue arose out of representations I received in 1991 from the family of a constituent who had been diagnosed as suffering from CJD. Since that time, I have asked a significant number of questions in Parliament, of both the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health, the answers to which have, on some occasions, left me in some doubt about how seriously the Government are treating public concern about BSE and the possible connections with CJD.

My serious concern is how much the extent of BSE infection and its implications have been underestimated by the Government. The Minister will recall that by 1989 BSE had been studied for some three years. In that year, the report of the Southwood working party on BSE predicted that the total number of cases would be between 17,000 and 20,000--on the assumption that vertical or horizontal transmission did not occur.

According to a parliamentary answer on 31 October 1995, by 26 October the number of confirmed BSE cases in the United Kingdom was 154,150. I understand that the figure is now about 157,000. In view of the length of time that it takes for an animal to show signs of the disease, it is reasonable to assume that many more affected cattle must have been slaughtered before symptoms were recognised. To put it mildly, there is a significant discrepancy between the Southwood predictions and the latest figures. It is important to consider the possible reasons for that.

When the Southwood working party was announced on 21 April 1988, the Government said that they would legislate to ban the feeding of rations that contained protein derived from ruminants. That decision arose from studies completed a year earlier, which concluded that the only viable hypothesis for the cause of BSE was meat and bone meal from ruminants. By the time the Southwood committee reported, it was assumed that the ban-- introduced on 18 July 1988--had been implemented effectively. The subsequent ban on specified bovine offals was, according to the Government, a precautionary measure introduced alongside assurances that any health risk to humans from beef consumption was remote.

We all recall a former Minister publicly forcing burgers down his daughter. The tone of such highly placed reassurances, geared to a concerned public, clearly also left farmers, abattoir workers, renderers and compounders believing that affected cattle showing signs of the disease would hold no risk to humans. Now, the Government are implying in parliamentary answers and statements that a key factor in explaining the huge difference between Southwood's maximum of 20,000 and the reality of more than 157,000 is widespread breaches of regulations.

The Times on 20 November 1995 quoted Government statements to the effect that the state veterinary service made unannounced visits to 193 abattoirs last September and found failings in the handling of offal in 92 of them. The service visited 153 in October and found failings

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in 52. Although the Government's statements were qualified to assure the public that such failings were mostly not of a serious nature, the implications are clear-- that such problems offer some explanation of the extraordinary discrepancy in the figures for infected animals.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hinchliffe: I am afraid that time is limited. I had hoped for a longer debate. I do not intend to give way, but I mean no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman.

Unfortunately, the limited number of prosecutions for such breaches--for example, only two in 1991 and 1993--undermines the Government's professed concern about the alleged law-breaking. The figures for confirmed cases clearly raise a serious question about whether previous assumptions about vertical or horizontal transmission are correct. The Minister will know that between September 1988 and April 1989, new-born calves were removed from more than 600 dams in a Ministry experiment and were reared on fresh grass, with the aim of quantifying the extent, if any, of vertical transfer. According to a parliamentary answer on 31 January 1995, by that time more than 30 of those animals had developed BSE. Will the Minister confirm my information that by last month the figure had risen to 42?

I also note from a letter from the Minister on 20 November that since the feed ban was imposed in 1988, more than 22,000 calves with BSE have been born, one as recently as June 1993. The range of ages of those born since the ban is virtually the same as those born before it. In a series of replies, the Minister has claimed that all 22,000 were exposed to remnants of contaminated feed. However, that does not explain the results of the experiment, which seem to show the occurrence of vertical as well as horizontal transfer.

On 23 October 1995, the BSE advisory committee-- the SEAC--announced that it had reviewed the reported case of CJD in a farmer who had a case of BSE in his beef suckler herd. It noted that three previous CJD cases had been confirmed in dairy farmers whose herds also had BSE. It concluded that it was difficult to explain that as a chance phenomenon given the statistical excess of cases on cattle farms compared with the general population.

The SEAC's statement noted examples of CJD in other European countries with few or no cases of BSE. I know that the Government have also drawn such comparisons on a number of occasions. However, it has been put to me that those comparisons are flawed unless the number of BSE and CJD cases are expressed as a fraction of the at-risk cattle and the human population. Assuming an annual incidence of CJD of one case per million of population per year and 20,000 farmers at risk, I understand that it would be expected that one farmer at risk would succumb only every 50 years--not four in the past three years.

Serious questions must also be asked about assumptions about BSE-free herds, in relation to both the domestic and the export meat trade. The Craven Herald and Pioneer newspaper, in its edition on Friday 8 December 1995, reported the conviction of two farmers--Stephen and John

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Thompson, a father and son, of Old Hall farm, Gargrave, Yorkshire--for trades description offences. They included falsely declaring the age of a calf and not declaring that the animal had been born to a BSE-infected cow. The report quoted John Thompson as saying to Skipton magistrates:

    "We have had around 1,200 BSE cases on our farm and have kept these out of the food chain."

In the following week's edition of that newspaper, on 15 December, a letter was published from R. W. Payne, of Marton close, Gargrave, pointing out an apparent error in the previous week's report of the court case. The letter said:

The letter was accompanied by an editor's note stating that both figures were correct.

I am reliably informed that the herd in question contains around 100 milkers and that the worst possible scenario would be an average of 2 per cent. BSE cases a year, giving a total so far of, say, 20. A number of cases totalling 1,200 is regarded as being completely impossible, and it has been put to me that the only way in which so many BSE cases could be collected is by the farm representing a massive offloading station for other farmers who can continue to claim that their herds are BSE-free.

I am unclear about the legal position on transferring animals in such a way. It is just one illustration of the way in which figures on the incidence and location of BSE-infected animals are open to serious question. It is also evidence of the financial pressures of centralising on one herd. I will be interested to hear the Minister's thoughts on the implications of that practice.

I will also be interested to hear the Minister's thoughts on the policing of the order made in 1991 under the Animal Health Act 1981, banning the use of protein material derived from specified offal as fertiliser. I shall refer to another cause for concern in Yorkshire. I understand that for several years Keighley abattoir has put unusable and unsaleable blood and guts into tankers, the contents of which have been sprayed on fields owned--I am told--by Mr. Harvey Smith, which are in close proximity to the local Graincliffe reservoir. It is apparently a common sight to see gulls foraging on the freshly sprayed fields before settling on the nearby reservoir.

If what the tankers spray is not specified bovine offal, I would stress that that practice, as I understand it, is perfectly legal. I wonder, however, how it is possible in a slaughterhouse to ensure that such specified offals are totally separated, especially when cattle comprise the greatest volume of carcases. I would welcome the Minister's thoughts on that.

Apart from my serious doubts about the assumptions that the Government are making in relation to the transfer of BSE, I am greatly concerned about the effectiveness of the measures being taken to keep infectivity out of the human food chain. Although it is possible to exclude bovine tissue from symptomatic cattle entering the food chain, how can the Government guarantee that no infectivity from infected but non-symptomatic cattle from purportedly BSE-free herds will enter the food chain? The Minister will of course recall that the "World in Action"

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programme screened before Christmas showed that symptomatic and pre-symptomatic cattle with BSE were being eaten in the United Kingdom.

Sir Bernard Tomlinson, the neuropathologist who has advised the Government on health issues, was reported in The Times on 14 November 1995 as saying that he was no longer eating products likely to contain beef offal. His decision was based on the rise in cases of CJD, the disproportionate number of farmers contracting it and the recent deaths of two teenagers from the disease. He stated that the Government are taking an unjustifiable risk in allowing brain and other offal from calves under the age of six months into the food chain. His views and the views of a number of other eminent scientists raising similar doubts about the Government's handling of the matter must be treated seriously.

The Government say--and I would accept it--that there is no evidence that BSE can be passed to humans. The other side of the coin, which I think the Minister will accept, is that there is no evidence that it cannot be passed to humans. If the Government cannot give a 100 per cent. assurance that there is no transmissibility to humans or that infected tissue from non-symptomatic cattle cannot enter the human food chain, there is clearly a serious possible risk to human health which must not be ignored.

I urge the Government to take a number of immediate steps in view of the present circumstances. First, they should take action to stop completely the movement of animals from infected herds and practices such as those in Yorkshire that I have described. In "Farming Today" on Radio 4 this morning I heard allegations being made about a similar practice in the Republic of Ireland. Will the Minister consider them? They clearly tie in closely with the concerns that I am expressing about Yorkshire.

In addition, the Government should prevent breeding in such herds and evaluate very carefully the advice of those who have urged a planned and sensible slaughter prior to the replacement of those animals from BSE-free herds on new territory. I stress that I have farmers in my constituency--with boundary commission changes I have an increasing number of them--and I do not in any way underestimate the cost implications of such a policy. We have to balance those costs against the future health of the nation.

The Government must markedly increase research into trying to find the agent responsible for CJD, the extent of infected produce that humans need to consume before they are at risk and treatments for the disease. It is quite incredible that, given public concern over the issue, research evaluation is being reduced by the Government.

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