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Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy

3.52 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay): My Lords, this may be a convenient moment to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

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My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, the House is very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place by his right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. As always, I should declare an interest as a director and shareholder in a farming company with dairy cattle.

Before we turn to the Statement, it would be helpful to the House if the Minister could bring us up to date with what is happening with the slaughter scheme and the necessary orders both as regards the cull-cow slaughter and the selective slaughter scheme. In the very helpful Ministry BSE newsletter on the 4th July it says:

    "We aim to introduce the necessary legislation before the House of Commons rises for the summer recess. In order to meet this, the consultation period has had to be restricted and will finish on 9th July."

I understand that orders will not now be laid until we return, presumably in the overspill. Does the timetable still hold that the Prime Minister gave when he made his Statement after the Florence summit, in which he very clearly stated the October, November and various other dates for the slaughter schemes? This is a chance for the Minister, before we rise for the Recess, to bring

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us up to date on that, although now is not the time to go into detail on the slaughter scheme. I am receiving a lot of information from farmers, from slaughterers and from renderers that it is not working well in practice, but there will be plenty of time to go into that when we deal with the orders on our return.

Perhaps I may now turn to the Statement. The phrase which puzzles me is:

    "I have recently received advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) that BSE could, theoretically, become established in the sheep flock".

The progress report from the ministry, which is an extremely helpful document that was produced in May this year and referred back to all the research which has been going on for some time, says:

    "BSE has been experimentally transmitted ... to cattle, pigs, sheep, goats"--
and to other species--

    "Cattle, sheep, goats ... also succumbed to oral challenge in separate experiments"--
that is mentioned in the Statement. It continues:

    "The susceptibility of sheep to challenge with BSE was demonstrated in 1989 ... the finding of infectivity in the spleen of sheep is consistent with the known distribution of the scrapie agent in the species".

What has happened? This information has been available. It was published in the Veterinary Record, I believe, on the 1st June, and it was published by the ministry in May, and then all of a sudden we have a crisis again which is affecting the sheep market substantially.

Could the Minister tell the House why there is this sudden need to produce this information now in the way in which it has been done? It was obvious that it was known in March when the first Statement was made about the BSE in cattle. Why is it now being produced in the way that it is?

Perhaps we can turn to the handling of the announcement itself. It seems that the Commission and the Government have learnt nothing. We understand that on Monday evening this week Commissioner Fischler made a statement in the Agriculture Council in which he called on the Standing Veterinary Committee to recommend that the spleen and the central nervous tissue, brains and spinal chord, be removed from sheep and goats. I emphasise that it was the commissioner who called on the Standing Veterinary Committee to recommend that. The commissioner did not specify any age limits in this regard. These issues will be considered by the Standing Veterinary Committee at the beginning of August and its discussions will include the practical implementation of sheep offal controls as well as the possibility of distinguishing between lambs and older sheep.

So there is that and there is the television news, with the Minister, Mr. Hogg, announcing--I think correctly--that there is no risk in eating sheep meat. The news reader immediately went on to say that it would be a month before the ban would be introduced at the very earliest. So what is happening to sheep that are being killed today? Are the specified offals being removed? We all know the effect on the sheep market

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as we heard it on the radio this morning. It is now 25 per cent. down. Those are the prime lambs--the sheep farmer has just one harvest a year--and they are just coming to market. Once again, there are announcements which cause great concern; information which has been available for a very long time; the European commissioner instructing the Standing Veterinary Committee on what to do; and the Minister attempting to catch up on behalf of the British sheep farmer. Cynics might just wonder about the timing of our European partners, just when our sheep are coming to market. We need now from the Government a clear statement which traces the whole of the scientific background and explains just why it has been felt necessary to bring out this news now.

How much notice did the Commission give the Government of its intention to make the announcement? Was it any longer than the 30 minutes that the Government gave the Commission in March? Perhaps I may also take this opportunity to ask the Minister to bring the House up to date on what is happening with tallow, gelatine and semen? What is the news on the ban? Is there any more news? Are we any further in ensuring that the ban should be lifted?

My last point on the Statement is that the Government, correctly, have overruled the scientific advice in which SEAC spoke of removing the brains of sheep, whatever their source, over six months from the human food chain. I believe that we all think that the distinction at six months is quite absurd. How on earth does one know whether a sheep is five months and two weeks old or six months and two weeks old or whatever?

The Government said that they will be issuing for consultation a proposal that the heads of all sheep and goats be removed and destroyed in the same way as the specified bovine material. The assumption is not entirely correct. I believe it is true that the brains of calves under six months old can still enter the human food chain. I ask the Minister whether it is correct for them to go in their present direction and overrule the SEAC advice in the case of sheep's brains. Why does the same point not occur with calves' brains?

Finally, the Government and the Commission are at last working on the precautionary principle. I feel that that is absolutely correct. That is what we have learned from the whole of the BSE debacle--which is what it has been. Only recently the Minister in a public speech said that since the late 1980s the Government had the working assumption that there was no connection between BSE and CJD, and that has now been called into question. They are therefore changing their policy. The possibility of such a link was made known in the 1980s and the Government were working on the wrong working assumption in effect. If they had followed the precautionary principle then, we should not be in the mess that we are in now with cattle. At last, I believe that they are following the correct principle--the precautionary principle--in dealing with this recent matter.

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