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House of Commons

Thursday 16 November 2000

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Alliance & Leicester PLC


Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister was asked--

BSE and Scrapie

1. Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): If he will make a statement on his Department's risk reduction strategy for BSE and scrapie. [137130]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): The risk of BSE is reduced by a range of measures, including the ban on meat and bonemeal in feed, specified risk material controls, the destruction of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy suspects and, in cattle, the over-30-months scheme, the selective cull and the offspring cull.

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Since becoming Minister, I have pursued research into improved disease control measures, which enabled the development of the current proposals for the national scrapie eradication and control plan. I have also, on a precautionary basis, put in hand preparation of a contingency plan setting out actions that might be taken in different scenarios if, in future, BSE is found to be present in sheep.

As the House is aware, food safety is of course a matter for the Food Standards Agency.

Mrs. Lawrence: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but can he confirm that any scientific advice that he receives will be made public, and does he accept that that principle is essential to protect the livelihoods of our farmers and the interests of the public in general? Unfortunately, that fact appears to have been forgotten by Ministers in the previous Tory Government.

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When scientific advice that will inform the Government's policy decisions becomes available to me, I put it in the public domain as a matter of policy so that everyone can see what that advice is and draw their own conclusions. I do that to inform debate. If I had doubts about such a policy--I do not--I would find that the current policy was being urged on me by Lord Phillips in his report.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Does the Minister agree that, however great the temptation to indulge in vicarious pleasure at the problems currently being experienced in France, a major BSE outbreak in that country and the collapse of consumer confidence will do nothing to help the British beef industry? Will he therefore do all that he can to assist the French in combating their problems--if not to help their farmers, at least to ensure that our farmers can export the safest beef in the world?

Mr. Brown: I have sent Lord Phillips' report to my French counterpart, Jean Glavany. I hope that the thorough examination that Lord Phillips undertook will help other European Union member states and others world wide better to understand this appalling condition in animals, which has implications for human health, and ways in which to get it under control and eliminate it.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I thank my right hon. Friend for all the measures that he has taken, but, given that protein has been found in liquid condensate and that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee recommended that that should not be spread on land, will he explain how MAFF can guarantee that placing untreated liquid condensate in, on, or under the ground is safe?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend asks, essentially, a question about food safety. As she will know, that is a matter for the Food Standards Agency and the Secretary of State for Health, rather than for me, although, of course, agricultural practices are a matter for my Ministry. The lead advice in that regard comes from the Food Standards Agency, and the Ministry will follow such advice.

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Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): What steps, if any, are the Government taking to ensure that any meat imported from France, and derivatives from it, are free from contamination?

Mr. Brown: This country's public protection measures, which are very powerful, include a ban on selling any beef product derived from animals that are over 30 months. I cannot go further than that because the hon. Gentleman's question is essentially about food safety, which is now outside my ministerial responsibility. The Secretary of State for Health, not me, takes the lead in that regard, but we in government act on the advice of the Food Standards Agency, which is carefully considering those matters. So far, it has not recommended to the Government a ban on produce from France.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli): On the question of French beef, has my right hon. Friend seen a report in today's Financial Times that the Commission will spend up to 60 million euros on providing private storage facilities for the purpose of intervening in the market and, presumably, buying French beef, which, sadly, might be infected with BSE? Does he agree that that is, to say the least, a rather bizarre use of public funds?

Mr. Brown: The use of private storage aid in these circumstances is something which I understand the Commission has under consideration. The food safety implications will of course be considered by the Commission, but they will also be considered in the United Kingdom by the Food Standards Agency. It is important that these policy matters are dealt with in terms of protection of consumers and protection of food safety, and not in terms of market competition or, indeed, of trade rivalries.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Is French beef safe for British consumers?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman was the Opposition spokesman when the Food Standards Agency was established. Underpinning the establishment of that agency was the fundamental decision to take Agriculture Ministers out of the decision-making process so that the decision would be made--[Interruption.] Let me finish the answer. Ministers were to be taken out of the process so that decisions would be made by the Food Standards Agency in its advice to Government. Subsequently, that advice goes to the Secretary of State for Health.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's question directly, the recommendations from the FSA are clear: there are no health reasons to ban the importation of French beef. That is what the agency is currently saying to us; that is its professional advice to Government. If the hon. Gentleman wants to dispute that advice or has some extra-scientific evidence of his own, he should put it in the public domain. Has he anything to put in the public domain? No, he has not.

Mr. Yeo: On the contrary, this week, in the light of clear increases in the BSE level in France, the French Government have started to take the measures that in Britain were taken four years ago. In view of that, is it not clear that, as a precaution to protect British consumers, it would be wise to stop potentially BSE-infected French beef coming into Britain--particularly as, because the

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Government have refused to introduce honesty in food labelling, British consumers do not know whether they are eating safe British beef or dangerous French beef?

Mr. Brown: Let me remind hon. Members that, in 1996, the hon. Gentleman said to the House that the public protection measures that have been put in place or are now under consideration in France were a waste of money. I cannot believe that any hon. Member would take advice on food safety from Ministers in the previous Conservative Government--who incompetently presided over the BSE crisis in this country, and now seek to advise on what should be done in France.

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