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7.12 pm

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen): I want to make a few comments on the effects of BSE in my constituency. I have a rural seat, which is relatively sparsely populated. I claim to have more farmers in my constituency that any other Labour Member, and probably more than any Conservative Member as well. Farms in Wales are generally small family farms, and are, in my area, because of the grasslands, dairy, beef and lamb. Therefore, the crisis that has unfolded in the past few weeks has hit my constituency as badly as any. The livelihoods of individual farmers are at risk. They do not know what has hit them, and they cannot see any quick way out of the problems.

In addition, the crisis has had knock-on effects for farm suppliers, whether of feedstuffs, fertilisers, tractors, or cars. There is a substantial multiplier effect. A couple of weeks ago, I visited a factory in my constituency which makes sheds for farmers and constructs them throughout England, Wales and Scotland. Before the crisis, it had a good order book and employed 55 people who worked masses of overtime, each worker working 50 or 60 hours a week. It has had to make several of its staff redundant because of order cancellations, and is down to 40 staff and no overtime, and, effectively, down to half its previous turnover.

The first key point to make about the crisis is that the farmers themselves are not to blame. I am convinced that it is due to the animal feedstuffs. Back in 1989, I read the Southwood report and went through the alternative hypotheses. Like Professor Southwood, I was persuaded that contaminated feed is the primary cause of BSE.

The responsibility for that lies with the Government, who, in 1980, deregulated the animal feed industry, allowing lower temperatures and the scrapie virus thus to be transformed into BSE. It has come as a deep shock to consumers that animal feed contains recycled dead animals, chicken manure and such products. That is part of the consumer boycott.

This morning, I read a press release dated 9 May about animal feed contents which the NFU in Wales sent to all Members of Parliament this week. It says:

Farmers, in buying their animal feed, cannot check what is in it, and the Government refuse to introduce the necessary legislation. Therefore, farmers are not guilty of the awful crisis that has come upon the industry, so they deserve full and proper compensation for the huge losses that they are now incurring.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Has the hon. Gentleman seen the announcement from the United Kingdom Agricultural

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Supply Trade Association that, at long last, it has decided to do what any sensible person would do, which is to publish what it is putting into the feed? Surely that is the responsibility of that organisation and the feed manufacturers, rather than the Government by regulation.

Mr. Williams: I should be delighted if all animal feed manufacturers did that voluntarily. But if we go back to the farmers and the NFU, the pressure was there 10 years ago to introduce exactly what now may be happening voluntarily.

During the past four or five weeks, I have been appalled by the way in which blame for the crisis has been directed more and more at the European Community, as if it were a European problem. BSE is very much a British invention and a British disease--indeed, it is a Conservative Government disease. The Government's figures for the incidence of BSE worldwide show that the total number of cases in Britain is 161,663, while the total for the rest of the world is 383--a difference of a factor of 400. Switzerland has 205 cases because it imported animal feeding stuffs made in Britain in the 1980s. All the other figures are very small. France has 13 cases, Germany has four and Italy has two. We keep hearing the appalling untruth that other European countries have BSE. They do, but a tiny number of cases. We have 161,000 cases--it is a British problem.

Today, we have been lobbied by some 300 farmers from all across Britain, who have been organised by the NFU. Some 30 or 40 of those farmers came from Wales. I wish to remind the House of something that happened in Milan last Wednesday which was under-reported. The BBC "Nine o'clock News" broadcast a report of a demonstration by 150,000 farmers in Milan--that shows their feelings about the crisis.

There has been a 50 per cent. fall in demand for Italian beef in the Italian market, and no compensation has been paid to farmers. Italy has had two cases of BSE, both in cattle imported from Britain. We try to blame Italy and Germany for our problems, but we have created problems for them. We should go to the European Union negotiations in Brussels with an air of great humility, contrition and remorse. It is our problem--we have devastated the European beef market, as well as causing great problems in our own.

There is no quick solution to the problem, and I have been appalled by the talk in the House of the possibility of retaliatory action. That will only multiply the crisis. We cannot simply ban European, Argentine or American beef because of alleged hormones in it. I find it contradictory that the very people who are advocating such a course of action are, at the same time, advocating taking on the European Union in the European Court and challenging the legality of the ban. We should not up the stakes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) said today that we must sit at the table--for weeks on end, if need be--with our European partners and go through the scientific evidence that SEAC has studied with other countries' veterinary experts and Health Ministers. If it takes six weeks or six months to lift the ban, so be it. We must move forward by way of civilised discussions and rational consideration, and human health must be the priority.

Our European colleagues have made it clear that, if the ban is to be lifted, we must show that we have a series of measures aimed at eradicating BSE. That should have

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been our aim in 1986 when the disease was discovered. Had the Government followed the course pressed upon them by my hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies)--who is in his place--and by other Opposition Members during the debates in 1988, 1990 and 1991, we would not be in this appalling mess now.

There is now general agreement about the culling of dairy cows as they end their economic lives, as it is older animals that contract BSE. Taking them out of the food chain is a rational and sensible first step. This afternoon, those of us who met the farmers--I am sorry that the Minister did not take part--were made aware of the chaos in the few weeks following the introduction of the culling scheme. I was told that, in Wales, it is only in the past four or five days that any kind of slaughter has take place, and the figure is now up to about 90 a day. There are only two abattoirs involved, and there are no rendering facilities in Wales.

I am not clear what will happen to the carcases following the slaughter. Some 20,000 cattle a week are to be slaughtered, but, in an article in Farming News on 2 April, a spokesman for the Meat and Livestock Commission said:

What will happen to the carcases? That is a real problem, and it appears again that the Government have not thought it through. We must expand the cold storage capacity, but that is a temporary measure. Although it allows slaughter to take place, it does not affect the final disposal of the carcases. One of my concerns is that the Government will simply introduce landfill, and the farming community certainly does not want that. There could well be serious environmental problems if that was done.

I was told by farmers today that, following the chaos of the past two or three weeks, the stories that appeared in the press have carried to Europe, and have provided no help in terms of lifting the European ban. Our infrastructure and style of government are so appallingly inept that problems and bottlenecks are created. Unless we show that we can govern this country responsibly and achieve what we set out to achieve, no one will have confidence that our beef is of a high quality.

The Minister went to Brussels on 15 April to propose the slaughter of 40,000 selected animals--it is not clear how those animals most at risk were to be identified. But the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal was turned down as inadequate. Some 40,000 out of a livestock of 12 million cattle amounts to one third of 1 per cent., and we will not convince Europe by offering one third of 1 per cent. of our cattle for sacrifice.

I hope that the Government are working on a selected slaughter policy in close consultation with our European partners. But in France, Ireland, Italy and Germany, when a case of BSE is confirmed, the whole herd is slaughtered. I would not advocate that, as it would mean that 90 per cent. of the animals killed would be perfectly healthy. There would be appalling logistical problems and knock-on effects in other parts of the dairy industry.

It is clear that it is as urgent now as it always was to develop a test for BSE in live animals. We advocated that during the 1990 debates. Dr. Harash Narang, a Newcastle virologist, was sacked for trying to develop this very kind

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of test. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) opening a debate in 1990 with the story of the appalling persecution of this distinguished scientist, simply for wanting to develop a test for BSE in live animals.

The Government simply did not want to know. BSE was to be swept under the carpet, but six years later it has come back to haunt us.

Dr. Harash Narang is still working on a test, and the Government have set up a small company, Electrophonetics, which is also trying to develop a test. The same goes for a company in Macclesfield. In the United States, the National Institute of Health in Maryland, near Washington, has come up with a test for CJD in live people. It is a complicated test involving a lumbar puncture. It may not be useful for cattle, but it points the way to developing a test for BSE in live animals.

If the Government were really serious about eradicating BSE--Germany, France and Italy would be--they would implement a crash programme in which, over the next three months, MAFF would sponsor every research scientist with expertise in this disease in an attempt urgently to develop a test for BSE in live animals. It could then be available by the end of the summer. All cattle could be tested, and any carrying traces of BSE could be slaughtered. After another three or six months, all animals could be re-tested, and within two or three years the disease could be eradicated.

The Government should also sponsor research into the link between BSE and CJD. Over the years, they have tried to pretend that there is no conceivable risk of any such link. The Minister for Health used the word "inconceivable" last November. It is clear now that such a guarantee should never have been given--there was always the danger of the disease jumping species. About 200 cats have died of mad cat disease, and about 20 species of animal have contracted spongiform-like illnesses from eating meat contaminated by BSE.

Until the early 1990s, such research work was a no-go area for the Government. In a parliamentary answer dated 10 May, I was informed that the budget allocated by the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council to CJD's possible links with BSE used to be less than £1 million a year. Of course, it has now been stepped up. A failure to invest more earlier has therefore resulted in a cost of £1 billion a year from now on.

We need to continue discussions of the evidence with our European partners to determine how great or trivial this risk of jumping species may be. We do not know at present.

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