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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): He remains seated.

Mrs. Browning: Indeed, he remains seated.

The fact of the matter is that the Government made a political decision. The Minister invoked the name of the Prime Minister when referring to that decision. If it was a political decision, the argument about a potential risk to the food chain is not legitimate. It must be one or the other. He has not convinced the House of the genuine basis of his concern about infectivity to humans. If his concern was genuine, he would have classified bones as specified bovine material.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): In the immediate aftermath of the introduction of the ban on beef on the bone, the Meat and Livestock Commission carried out a full investigation through consumer research. It found that 40 per cent. of people who eat beef will continue to do so, come what may. However, a further 40 per cent. were uncertain, and would be worried by any rumours that might be spread. If that were a problem, consumer demand would have fallen considerably, whereas demand for beef in the past couple of weeks has been at its highest since February 1995. Is that consistent with the argument about problems caused by a ban on beef on the bone?

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman's colleague, the Minister of State, said that by taking this measure he could confirm that beef did not contain infectivity. If I accept that as a genuine statement in the interests of human health--and the Minister has invoked the advice that he has been given; not just the SEAC advice, but advice from the chief medical officer--I must accept that he genuinely believes that there is a risk. If he believes that, he should follow it through. I invite the Minister again to name any part of the carcase that has been deemed to be potentially infective in regard to BSE that is not properly disposed of. Otherwise, his argument on the grounds of human health and safety does not stand up.

Let me make a final point to the Minister. If human health is indeed at risk, I must invite him tonight to answer a named-day question that I put to him on 5 February:

Clearly, if there is a risk--as the Minister has said tonight--it would be indefensible for him to allow farmers to consume their own beef on the bone.

The Minister replied to me:

In other words, on 5 February he was not sure whether there was a risk to farmers or to any other human being. I invite him to say now whether he believes that farmers who consume beef on the bone from home-killed animals are at risk.

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11.21 pm

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), I have been present at many--indeed, virtually all--the debates on BSE in the House over the past 10 years. The Opposition--the Government of the day--would have done better to listen more to the contributions of Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle, my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies)--who was here tonight--my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas), and, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who was a shadow Agriculture Minister for many years.

At many stages during the late 1980s and early 1990s, we warned the Government that they could never rule out the possible connection between BSE and CJD. We warned them relentlessly that that was always a possibility, but they dismissed it completely, and accused us of scaremongering. The Government's track record at the time was too little, too late. If the accusation is that we have erred too far on the side of safety, that is wonderful.

Dr. Fox: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Williams: No. Time is very short, and I have many important things to say.

I wanted to intervene on the Minister. I tried nine or 10 times, but he would not give way. I am glad that I have now been called. [Interruption.] I mean the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). He got into quite a huff over an allegation that my hon. Friend the Minister had made about the previous Government. I wish--I am happy to give way to the shadow Minister on this point--that the previous Government would have the decency to apologise to the families of the 23 victims of CJD whose deaths were caused by lack of action and by assurances that, at the end of the day, did not mean very much. We hope that there will not be many more victims, but the fact remains that the Conservatives have created an awful crisis in my constituency and throughout rural Britain.

Like most other hon. Members, I was taken aback when I watched the lunchtime news that day and heard the headline story that, in future, bones would have to be taken out of beef because of infectivity in both the dorsal root ganglia and bone marrow. I noticed on that lunchtime bulletin that, immediately after the Minister's interview, the president of the National Farmers Union, Sir David Naish, gave his support for the decision. In addition, the Meat and Livestock Commission gave its immediate support, and very important, Ruth Evans, director of the National Consumer Council, in a letter to The Guardian on 6 December, said:

on the issue.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Williams: I will not give way.

I listened intently to the arguments of the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Fylde, in attacking the regulations. He based his arguments completely on the fact that the risk is infinitesimal; it is one in a billion. SEAC did

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say that, but it is speculation. We have no real idea what the true risk is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) pointed out in an intervention, there is a long incubation period: it could be three, five, 10 or even 30 years. There may be just 20 or 30 CJD victims or there may be thousands; we do not know. In that case, that one-in-a-billion risk becomes a risk of about one in 10 million.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Williams: I give way to the right hon. Member for Fylde.

Mr. Jack: Have I understood the hon. Gentleman correctly? Is he saying that all the SEAC advice is speculative? That is the import of what he has just said. He is undermining the whole basis of the Minister's argument.

Mr. Williams: I was saying that, when SEAC speculates that the chance is one in a billion, that is based simply on the fact that, to date, the number of new variant CJD victims is 23. The figure is based on that order of magnitude of incidence. If the incidence is 10, 100 or even 1,000 times as much as that, which we cannot rule out at this stage, that one in a billion figure becomes 10, 100 or 1,000 times less.

Mr. Keetch rose--

Mr. Williams: As the hon. Gentleman has tried to intervene several times, I give way to him.

Mr. Keetch: Will the hon. Gentleman give me some advice to pass on to the beef farmers of Herefordshire? Are they more likely to die from eating beef off the bone in Herefordshire than from drinking and smoking in the tea and smoking rooms of the House of Commons?

Mr. Williams: Our beef is probably the safest in Europe, and it will be safer still if the regulations are passed.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is indefensible to say that we should allow the 5 per cent. risk, whereby there could be one more case of new variant CJD? Clearly, it is not sustainable to say that there should be another death on top of the other 23.

Mr. Williams: The problem with the previous Government was that, throughout the 10 years that they handled the crisis, they never adopted the precautionary principle. The most serious allegation that the Liberal Democrats, the House of Lords and the Conservative party can make against us is that we err too much on the side of safety, but it is about time that Governments throughout the world erred on the side of safety.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Williams: Time is running out, so I shall not give way again.

I am surprised that in this evening's well-attended debate, we have spent one and a half hours debating beef on the bone, when there are more serious issues affecting the rural economy. Because of the BSE crisis and the value of

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the green pound, and thanks to the previous Government and the problems that they caused, the rural economy is in a desperate plight. Our time would have been far better spent--

Mr. Tyler rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I do not accept that motion.

Mr. Williams: Our time would have been far better spent considering the European beef ban. The lifting of the ban would be the answer to our problem. We should also have been discussing the painfully slow progress on the certified herds scheme.

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 17 (Delegated legislation (negative procedure)).

The House divided: Ayes 196, Noes 312.

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