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Mr. Douglas Hogg: It may help the hon. Gentleman to have the figures. On 7 May, BSE had been confirmed in 26,798 animals born after the introduction of the feed ban in July 1988. Of those animals, 82 per cent. were born in the second half of 1988 and in 1989. A total of 3,481 infected animals were born in 1990, 1,220 in 1991, 100 in 1992 and one in 1993.

Dr. Strang: I take the Minister's point, but the peak incidence of BSE is in cattle four to five years old. I dare

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say that cattle often become infected when they are under six months old, but in most cases the symptoms are not detectable until they are four or five years old. As the Oxford study published last week confirms, two thirds of current cases are of animals born after the feed ban was introduced, and that will continue.

An investigation of the younger BSE cases--cattle born after the ban--may well reveal that a number of animal feed mills were failing to keep the BSE agent out of our animal feed after the feed bans were in place. The Government are already committed to an additional selective slaughter programme; identifying those feed mills and their customers may well enable us to have a more closely targeted selected slaughter policy. Improving our ability to identify the cattle at greatest risk of BSE will enable us to have a bigger impact on reducing the number of confirmed BSE cases in the future. That would certainly do the United Kingdom no harm when it comes to convincing our European counterparts that BSE is under control, and that the ban on our beef should be lifted.

There are already some important lessons to be learnt from the BSE crisis. The first is that deregulation, under-regulation and delay are entirely inappropriate in matters of public health. BSE was officially identified in 1986; the House is aware of the Government's subsequent record--a record of delay and under-enforcement. There was a 20-month delay after BSE was identified before farmers had to destroy all suspect cases; a delay of two and a half years before the Government said, in June 1989, that they planned to keep the most infective offal out of human food; and a further seven-month delay before the ban was fully implemented throughout the United Kingdom. Farmers were not fully compensated for slaughtering BSE cattle until February 1990. The Government have admitted that under-compensation for the previous 18 months deterred farmers from declaring suspect cases.

Some hon. Members who follow these matters may remember that, in last year's agriculture debate, I warned the House of the implications of the cuts that had been made in the number of public servants responsible for keeping our food safe. The second lesson that must be learnt from the current crisis is that regulation to protect public health must be effectively enforced. The Government will recall that they have a very poor record in regard to enforcing BSE controls. In September 1995, 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses visited were found to be in breach of controls designed to keep infective offal out of human food. This March, 4 per cent. of slaughterhouses and 17 per cent. of rendering plants visited were still in breach of those controls. Eight feed mills were recently found to be in breach of the ruminant protein ban to keep BSE out of animal feed.

Mr. Hogg: Let me make two points. First, it is true that there was a failure in respect of feed mills, but that preceded 29 March, when the new regulations were introduced. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not wish to suggest otherwise. Secondly, I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that, since the beginning of this year, nearly all the failures, however regrettable they may be, have been very minor.

Dr. Strang: I am grateful to the Minister for raising the first point. It enables me to make it clear that at no point have I suggested that contaminated feed is now reaching our cattle, following the bans introduced at the

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end of March and the beginning of April. I take it that those bans are achieving their aim. As the Minister will appreciate, I am referring to contaminated feed that reached our cattle after the imposition of the bans six years ago.

I take the Minister's point about enforcement; I accept his assurance that there have been improvements. I know that he has called people in, and has been clamping down. Much of what I am saying, however, relates to decisions and failures on the part of his predecessors. There is no doubt that they were responsible for those decisions and failures. BSE was identified in 1986; if significant damage has been done to the health of the human population--and let us hope that no damage has been done--it was done in the 1980s and into the 1990s, depending on the extent to which the controls were enforced.

Let me return to an issue of which I made great play in last year's debate, with the Minister's predecessor. I refer to the attack--that is the word for it--that successive Governments have mounted on the state veterinary service. The number of people employed by the service has fallen by about a third since the present Government came to power. It has been rationalised and re-rationalised, and some of its work has been privatised. I believe that there were 25 veterinary investigation centres in 1979--I am not referring to the central laboratories--and that we are now down to 13.

The veterinary service is crucial. BSE is currently the major livestock disease, but there have been livestock diseases in the past and, with the single European market and the movement of cattle and other livestock into the United Kingdom from eastern Europe in particular, it is vital that we rescue--I use that word deliberately--our state veterinary service. It is hard to believe that, when we left office, our veterinary service was probably among the best in the world. Now, it is a shadow of its former self, and I appeal to the Government to act.

The third lesson to be learnt is the importance of research. We need a strong research base, capable of long-term work to deal with problems such as BSE. The current BSE-CJD crisis throws new light on the importance of our publicly funded research establishments. The short-term contracts encouraged by the Government cannot be beneficial to the crucial work being done on BSE and CJD, or, indeed, to any other research. Furthermore, the prior options review--the programme for selling our research establishments--must now be abandoned. Surely the Minister would not want to put the units that are responsible for investigating BSE and CJD through the uncertainty and upheaval that the review entails.

There is no escaping the fact that BSE and CJD will be with us for a number of years. Long-term research needs to be done by scientists who are not constantly looking over their shoulder for the next job.

One of the most important scientific tasks is the establishment of a live test for BSE. The Minister will be aware of widespread reports that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has hindered the development of a live test. If it transpires that it has, that will represent an unforgivable breach of its duty to protect animal and human health.

Mr. William Ross: Would the hon. Gentleman support further research to try to determine whether the primary

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cause of the present epidemic of BSE was sheep scrapie or bovine scrapie, as there still seems to be some argument about which one it was? If the answer is bovine scrapie, our concerns about the transmission of the disease across species will be greatly reduced.

Dr. Strang: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. It is still an open question. I have heard Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food vets defending the argument that the epidemic was definitely caused by scrapie. I see the Minister nodding his head--perhaps he agrees that we cannot be certain that the starting point was scrapie in sheep. A strain of BSE in cattle may well have multiplied for reasons that have been discussed--notably, the inadequacy of the rendering process. Whatever the cause, there is some concern that the agent can jump species--there is a belief that the disease may have spread to the cat population through pet food. We cannot rule out the possibility of the agent jumping species.

It is important to recognise that, when the scientists advised on the most likely explanation for the 10 new cases of CJD in young adults--the disease normally occurs in older people--it was purely on the basis that there was a BSE epidemic and a large number of people were likely to have eaten infected beef or beef products before the offal ban was put in place in 1989. There has been no evidence as yet to show that CJD in humans has been caused by eating contaminated beef and beef products. We still do not know whether the BSE agent has jumped species and is the cause of CJD in the human population.

Mr. Ian Bruce: To keep the debate on an all-party basis, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he still stands by the Labour party's policies set out in 1975 and 1979--particularly those on farming and the nation? The hon. Gentleman and the Labour party were then encouraging the intensification of our beef and dairy industry. Members of the Labour party seem to be making many remarks suggesting that intensification and the use of concentrated foods were mistakes. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would tell the House whether the intensification of feed was the right policy.

Dr. Strang: I am not quite sure that I follow the hon. Gentleman, but I shall try to help. There is no doubt that, if we want to produce reasonable quantities of milk and achieve reasonable productivity from dairy herds, there is a role for concentrated feed, but I suspect that there is general support throughout the wider community--reflected in the House--that, as far as is practically possible, we should use more extensive agricultural methods. Indeed, we should encourage organic farming, as the Government are doing.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to open a new demonstration farm that linked the environment and farming and encouraged integrated crop management and less use of fertilisers and pesticides. There is a consensus that, while we need aids to production, it is desirable to minimise their use. There are many lessons to be learnt about recycling protein and the use of meat and bone meal. We are clearly learning the hard way.

There are important European aspects of the beef crisis. We are not uncritical of our European counterparts, and we want the ban lifted, but the Government have failed to

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represent us effectively in Europe. We shall vote against the Government tomorrow because they have failed to represent our interests in Europe, they failed to act responsibly and with due diligence after BSE was identified in 1986 and they signally failed to get to grips with the crisis that followed the Ministers' announcements on 20 March of a possible link between BSE and CJD.

The Government have failed on three counts, which is why we shall vote against them tomorrow evening. I appeal to all hon. Members who agree with our criticism of the Government to join us in the Lobby.

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