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Mr. William Ross: I thought I heard the hon. Gentleman say a few moments ago that about 20 species of animal have contracted BSE-type diseases from eating meat. Given the dangers of inaccurate language in this debate, would he care to reconsider his words? Is he referring to eating muscle, or to eating brains and other parts in which the BSE prion is found?

Mr. Williams: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's interruption. As soon as I had said it, I realised my inaccuracy. Some of the animals to which I referred accidentally contracted the disease by consuming whatever is in their diet of beef products; most of the

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others were in laboratories in which their brains were injected with the virus to see whether they would develop the disease.

The Southwood committee and the Labour party in 1990 advocated beginning work on the risk of primates contracting BSE, both by consuming beef and by being injected. The work, however, was never done, because the Government did not want to know.

As I say, we still do not know the extent of the risk of the disease jumping species. This morning, I carefully read a document prepared for parliamentarians by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Three or four pages of this excellent 12-page document are given over to the risk of transmitting CJD. Hysterical figures are sometimes quoted in the popular press, but this careful academic analysis offers no real conclusions or solutions, and does not tell us the size of the problem.

On 20 March, 10 cases were announced. The Observer of 28 April listed another nine cases that had come to light in the past few weeks. Last week, I asked the Government how many confirmed and suspected cases there now were. They told me of 11 confirmed cases, but chose not to give any figure for suspected cases. My feeling is that there could be 100 or even 1,000 cases in the next few years. The media have carried figures as high as 100,000. If they are true, we are entering an appalling nightmare. My belief, for what it is worth, is that hundreds will be involved. I have told farmers in my constituency to be resilient as more and more stories of cases of the new strain of CJD come to light.

If it proves, in 10 years' time, that only 1,000 people have contracted the disease, I will agree with what the Minister for Health said a few weeks ago. If he had £100 million to hand, he said, he could save far more lives than that with preventive medicine. A thousand people are not many compared with the numbers who die of lung and breast cancer and heart disease, for instance.

It appears, then, that, because of a loss of customer confidence, we have been driven to a policy of slaughtering all cattle that would otherwise have gone into the food chain at the end of their lives, and compensating farmers for that will result in a bill of £1 billion a year. The tragedy is that that money will be spent for very little health gain, and that relatively few people will ever die of CJD.

The Government's blundering ineptitude throughout the past 10 years, in ignoring the problem and not tackling it--not doing research on transmission and so on--has caused the crisis. Their ineptitude has caused the appalling crisis of confidence, the difficult relations with the European Community and so on. We are paying the price for a decade of extremely bad government. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) wishes to intervene instead of making sedentary remarks, I shall be happy to give way.

It is very sad that the farming community--my constituents--are in deep despond as a result of a problem that should never have run out of control in the way that it has. The bills for this piece of appalling misgovernment will fall, for years, to an incoming Labour Government.

7.40 pm

Mr. Nicholas Baker (North Dorset): If the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams), who I believe is a distinguished scientist, can make a speech based on so

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little attention to the scientific evidence and containing so much mere speculation, I am not surprised that, when he asks his farmers to be resilient, they look the other way.

It is undoubted that the BSE crisis has affected the beef industry and the rural community in a way that it is hard to underestimate. Our beef producers found themselves engulfed in a forest fire. I shall say a word in a moment about why it came about.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health had no alternative but to publish the evidence of SEAC as they did, but the way in which that evidence has been used and treated by others deserves a moment's attention.

No one could seriously argue that my right hon. and learned Friend's package is not an adequate and appropriate response to the situation. It has contributed, and is contributing, to the greater confidence in British beef, the results of which we are witnessing. I am delighted to welcome Asda's decision tonight to sell British beef in its shops.

Another factor in the package was the close consultation with the National Farmers Union at all times. The suggestion that such a package could be worked out in two minutes, or even in days, is an insult to the drama and gravity of the situation and fails to recognise what our farmers face.

I do not accept that the crisis was foreseeable or that the package should have been prepared and held in a drawer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) appeared to suggest. Had such a package been prepared, the criticism that sinister moves were afoot, that full scientific evidence was being withheld by the Government and that further measures were necessary would undoubtedly have been levelled from the Opposition Benches--to some extent understandably.

The crisis was unmeasurable, and nothing that has been discussed in the debate could lead anyone to think that it was measurable or other than unpredictable and irrational, but it was magnified by three factors.

The first factor was the way in which the national media covered the matter. Like ghouls, they switched their excessive and unbalanced three pages per edition from one tragedy in Scotland to BSE, and savaged everyone involved as much as they could in search of damage resulting from the crisis. As a result of the way in which the media handled the matter, they infected their European colleagues. That led to the second factor in the crisis--the European and worldwide ban.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Baker: I shall make some progress, if I may.

The European and worldwide ban has undoubtedly had a dramatic effect on consumer confidence. I add my support to the efforts that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture is making to have the ban removed. As long as there is progress in the negotiations, he is right to proceed with them.

The reasoning behind the bans is unscientific, as was the hysteria that gave rise to them. The bans have, ironically, helped bring about a drop in beef consumption

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which in many European countries is greater than in Britain. The damage to those countries' beef industries must be enormous. I welcome the progress that my right hon. and learned Friend announced earlier on the three-product ban that seems to have been made in the continuing negotiations. I hope that that mini-ban will be concluded on Monday, when we find out the result of the scientific committee's deliberations. The bans were born of hysteria, bred out of continental media by the British national media, and their removal is in the interest of all the countries concerned.

The third man--or, dare I say it, woman--among the factors contributing to the hysteria was the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). I am sorry that the name of Peckham, which I once hoped to represent, should be tarnished in that way. I deplore the principle that political points should be scored and attacks made on the Government by attacking an institution such as our beef industry. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) reminded us of the words that were used on that occasion, which undoubtedly did much damage in the community at large and to our beef industry.

Mr. Prentice: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Baker: I am sorry. I know that many others wish to speak, and I do not want to be distracted at the moment.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State is playing a directing part through his daily industry meetings, as he explained to us. He should not hesitate to bang heads together when necessary. He has no absolute control, as some hon. Members would like, but he has influence, and he controls some of the purse strings and has licensing powers. He should use those powers boldly where necessary. He does not have large bodies of administrators with the power to spread an expensive bureaucracy over the problem, which some hon. Members would like, but the hard-pressed beef industry is entitled to expect the co-operation of the entire community at this time of need. I hope that, in due course, my hon. Friend will visit the west country, but his first duty remains to get this package up and running, which it has started to be, we are pleased to hear, in the past 24 hours.

It is no use complaining that the Government do not control the beef industry or the farming community generally. Of course they do not, and only the Labour party might want them to. All members of the farming community have a part to play, and I hope that the urgency of wide, effective co-operation will be understood by all those involved.

The NFU team in Dorset is doing well in co-ordinating advice, information, complaints and the concerns of their members, which we Members of Parliament for Dorset have done our best to communicate along the channel. I pay tribute to the work of the NFU in my constituency.

I shall give a small example of the way in which the community in my constituency is helping. There is a very good small abattoir at Sturminster Newton, which is empowered only to deal with the calf cull. Instead of insisting on its normal terms of trade--payment in two or three weeks--it is paying on the nail to all farmers who bring their calves for the cull. I recommend such co-operation to the community at large.

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One producer who is prominent in my constituency has illustrated how, on sales on 2 May and 9 May of prime beef cattle from his clean herd, the entire profit has gone. That picture is reflected by other beef producers. He has sold his cattle at a loss. Ironically, if they had all been over 30 months, they would have fetched more money and his loss would almost have disappeared. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will consider ways of helping beef producers in that situation--and, indeed, other parties in the food chain. I understand that profits on food sales are currently level and steady; those other parties have at least some responsibility for giving assistance.

I should like briefly to mention some matters that concern our constituents. Some were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) in his excellent speech. The first, which is urgent, is casualty slaughter; the second is the working of the intervention system, which might well be used more than it is; the third is a greater slaughter capacity in our part of the world--I was pleased to learn that capacity is to be expanded in west Dorset--and, finally, there is the position of producers of clean beef from cattle aged under 30 months.

I am certain that the way forward is to continue to ensure that British beef is the safest in the world, not to be afraid to articulate that, and to mobilise support in every quarter. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West, I want consumers to understand the quality and advantages of British beef. Let retailers and restaurants supply British beef, and I--along with some of my hon. Friends--will continue to try to promote the campaign by consumers.

The battle for confidence is being won. It is a battle that is vital to the future of our excellent beef industry.


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