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Ms Harriet Harman (Peckham): Once again, I thank the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee for its work. It appears that the Secretary of State has learned no lessons from last week, when I said that public confidence was hanging by a thread. Now, public confidence has collapsed. Why did he not recognise that public confidence was draining away? Even though he was advising that beef was safe, 10,000 schools had already taken it off the menu.

Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that it is his Government's reckless disregard for public health and their dogma on deregulation that have swept us into this crisis--[Interruption.]

Hon. Members: Unparliamentary.

Madam Speaker: Order. Did I hear hon. Members saying that there was some unparliamentary language?

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North): I said that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) was a stupid cow. If that is unparliamentary, I certainly withdraw it.

Madam Speaker: It is certainly unparliamentary. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the grace to withdraw that remark.

Mr. Marlow: As I said, Madam Speaker, I certainly withdraw the remark.

Ms Harman: Is not it the Government's reckless disregard for public health and their dogma of deregulation that have swept us into this crisis? Will the Secretary of State admit that even after bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered, the Government dragged their feet? There was delay before making BSE notifiable; delay before banning animal protein; delay before compulsory slaughter and compensation; and delay before banning specified bovine offal.

Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that the roots of this crisis lie in his Government's repeated failure to take prompt and effective action to protect our food? Instead, deregulation dogma fuelled by complacency has caused a nightmare scenario for consumers and farmers alike.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that in 1978 the Labour Government put forward extra controls on animal feed, but that when the Tory Government took office, they changed those planned controls and said that the industry could decide for itself on cattle feeding?

SEAC says that there is an extremely low risk if all its proposals for slaughterhouse and food safety rules are fully implemented and enforced rigorously. But why should anyone expect that from this Government, when they have allowed flagrant breaches of the rules in the past? We must now have rigorous enforcement of the rules and tough penalties for those found breaking them. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the enforcement

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authorities have the powers they need, the resources they need and strong Government backing? Is it not now time for full information and tough action?

Will the Government publish full information for the public, on the relative risk of eating beef compared with other meats? SEAC's statement barely touches on that. That is the question the public are asking. Will the right hon. Gentleman publish full information for the public on the relative risk of eating different parts of cattle? That is the question the public are asking. Will he publish a full list of all the food products that contain bovine material? Why should the public have to search the newspapers for that information? People cannot make their own choices if they do not know what they are eating.

Why is there to be a delay of four to six weeks before the publication of the scientific evidence? That evidence must be published by the right hon. Gentleman and it must be published now.

On the issue of children, SEAC recognised:


When it comes to children, must not the Government therefore err on the side of caution? For school meals, should he not say, "Better safe than sorry," at least for the next nine months, during which time we shall see whether there are any further cases? Has he considered advising schools and local education authorities, to ensure that parents decide whether their children eat beef and whether there should be no beef in school dinners? To assist consumers, has he considered identifying and publishing a list of herds that have never brought in calves and where the cattle have been fed only on grass and hay? That would identify to consumers the herds that are less at risk.

Why has the Secretary of State not told the House today of all the other options that SEAC considered and that he could have acted on? Why did he reject the option of removing all cull cows or all cows over 30 months from the food chain? We should have that information. Why did he reject the option of deboning all cows--not only those over 30 months? We need to know why he has made his choices.

Does the Secretary of State not understand that he has still not done enough to restore British consumers' confidence in British beef? They will continue to buy beef, but it will not be ours. Does he not understand that it is only by tough action, which goes beyond the minimal recommendations of the scientists, that there will be any chance of restoring public confidence? Does he accept that there is a clear conflict of interest in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about food regulation? Will he therefore establish a separate food standards agency? Will he restore the strength and independence of the Department of Health's chief medical officer, who has been marginalised and weakened by the Government?

Is not the business of government about more than just occupying the high offices of state, but about occupying a position of respect in the public's mind? This crisis has shown that the Government can no longer govern because people do not trust them. How can the Government restore public confidence when the public have no confidence in the Government?

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Mr. Dorrell: I think that the country, listening to the hon. Lady, will find it deeply offensive that she has opened up a wide chasm between the principles that she says inform her policy and the ferreting around for party political advantage that has manifested itself in both her interventions on the subject. She started off last Wednesday, as she did this afternoon, by stressing the importance of basing our decisions on this subject on science. That position was reinforced by her right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition from the Dispatch Box on Thursday afternoon.

The science has been published. What the House and the country want to know from the hon. Lady is that if she does not accept the Government's actions on the basis of that science, what actions does she recommend to the House and the country? What is the way forward that she would want us to take, which is different from the way that I announced this afternoon, as recommended by the scientists who the hon. Lady says should inform our policy?

The hon. Lady talks about a dogma of deregulation. If she had examined the Southwood inquiry into the background of BSE, she would have found that it specifically dismissed that charge. She alleges that there has been delay, but has produced no evidence at any stage in the proceedings on the issue of any delay whatever. She asks for rigorous enforcement; I have committed us to rigorous enforcement. She asks for information to be published. Let her tell the House which information she wants published that I have not committed the Government to publishing from the Dispatch Box this afternoon. She asks why the information will not be made available in the scientific journals within less than four to six weeks. The reason for that, as the hon. Lady should know, is that the marshalling of scientific evidence to prepare it for a form for publication in a scientific journal normally takes between six and nine months. I have undertaken that it will be made available through that source in four to six weeks.

The hon. Lady asks about schools: I have set out clearly the position on schools. She says that we should base our decision on the science--let her explain which bit of the science would justify the removal of beef or beef products from school menus. There is no scientific conclusion available to the House that would justify that conclusion.

The hon. Lady asks why the Government are not proceeding with a culling policy and a range of other actions. The answer lies in the quotation from the scientific advice which I gave to the House and which I shall repeat to the hon. Lady:


That is what will happen. The hon. Lady is asking the House to substitute her scientific judgment for the advisory committee's scientific judgment. I can think of no more absurd proposition.

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne): My right hon. Friend will be appearing before a joint meeting of the Agriculture and Health Select Committees on Wednesday morning, where he will be a witness on this very important matter. Will he give an assurance that, faced with such complex matters, the Government will respond swiftly and decisively, but always based on the informed views of

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scientific experts, not on some of the uninformed and occasionally hysterical views that we have seen expressed in recent days?

Mr. Dorrell: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance. That assurance is not that we substitute, as I said in my statement, the judgment of scientists for personal or political judgment, but that we agree with the principle--although not with the practice of the principle--espoused last week by Opposition Front Benchers, that decisions on the subject should be based on the science.


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