Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

3.47 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, perhaps I may be forgiven for moving the debate in a slightly different direction down the food chain. I wish to speak first about the catering and hospitality industry. I declare an interest, albeit entirely honorary and non-pecuniary, as president of the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain. Not unnaturally, restaurateurs are concerned about continual food scares. They have experienced many food scares in the past few years. It began with salmonella followed by the drama of irradiation when it was suggested that every menu in every establishment should list every ingredient going into every dish. We managed to annul that absurdity. Now we have BSE, leading to the beef bone ban, which means that we cannot have roast beef and T-bone steaks and chefs are unable to make stock from beef bones. That is an important ingredient in the catering industry.

All of this uncertainty has created a lack of confidence in the minds of the consumer and the industry, which is a huge one. The catering and hospitality industry is the fifth largest consumer industry in the country following food, cars, insurance and clothing. It employs more than 2 million people. Last year alone it generated nearly £2 billion in VAT on the food element alone, not counting drink and other products served to customers. It is a vast industry. Surely, it needs to be consulted much more extensively. Restaurants and the catering industry are not very interested in poisoning their customers. That would be rather bad for business. They need an era of confidence, not continual bans and scares.

Last year consumers bought over 9 billion meals in commercial establishments. That is a large number. These people are not stupid. They must be allowed some choice. The point was made cogently by my noble friend Lord Willoughby in opening the debate and by my noble friend Lord Ferrers. There are so many things that are harmful, for example cigarettes. Crossing the road is much more dangerous than eating beef, and always will be. Surely, the ban must represent one of the ultimate absurdities.

27 Jan 1998 : Column 114

It should be left to consumers to decide what they want to eat. As we have heard from all sides, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Rea, the health risk is absolutely minimal. I hope that the Government will think again, but I fear that is a triumph of hope over expectation. Let us hope I am proved wrong.

3.50 p.m.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. There is no doubt that this outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy will enter the annals of history as among the worst, if not the worst, disaster to affect the British cattle industry.

I have no desire to pre-empt the outcome of the public inquiry conducted by Lord Justice Phillips, but I am pleased that the Government have called it. I hope that, among the many lines of investigation Lord Justice Phillips will need to take, he will find time to review how the administration of science, and the dramatic changes in the way it has been handled since the mid-1970s, might have contributed to the crisis.

What presently excites my curiosity is outside the remit of Lord Justice Phillips' inquiry, which will investigate events only before 20th March 1996. It is the sequence of events that resulted in Beef Bones Regulations 1997. We know that the research that raised concern was conducted by the Central Veterinary Laboratory at Weybridge, an establishment that has dealt with much of the BSE crisis from the beginning. It is owed thanks for its tireless work. Ray Bradley, the BSE coordinator; John Wilesmith, the epidemiologist; and the pathologists, including Gerald Wells and Martin Jeffreys, have all done heroic work in the hardest of circumstances.

However, while thanking the CVL, we should perhaps also recognise its limits, and in this case its relative inexperience with diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. By force of the epidemic, it has been put on a dramatic learning curve. In the best of all possible worlds, BSE--the most disastrous of the TSEs--would be dealt with by specialist outposts dedicated to them, such as the group based at the Institute for Animal Health at Compton and its world respected satellite, the Neuropathogenesis Unit in Edinburgh.

We know that, for whatever reason--presumably space--the scientific trials behind the beef bone ban were conducted not at these outposts but at the Central Veterinary Laboratory. The work involved dosing live cattle with BSE, then searching for infectivity in carcasses of varying ages. We are told how its researchers found infectivity in the dorsal root ganglia of an animal of 32 months old, but not in one aged 30 months, the maximum age now legally permitted for beef animals. We are also told that the experimental animals were fed an extremely large amount-- I understand three ounces--of infected brain material by mouth at the age of four months.

I appreciate that the researchers wished to accommodate a capacious margin of safety but this is many times more than a cow fed on concentrates which included meat and bone meal would have encountered.

27 Jan 1998 : Column 115

We are not told whether this material was left even more infectious by being used raw rather than after cooking at a minimum of 100 degrees Centigrade, as would be the case with meat and bone meal.

It is impossible to be more specific about the scientific evidence on which the bone ban is based. The paper involved has not yet been published. Indeed, at the time of the ban, it was not back from peer reviewers scrutinising the paper for its publisher, the Veterinary Record. Most curiously, the most apt "scrutineers", as the publication calls its expert readers, did not appear to include the researchers at Compton or the Neuropathogenesis Unit. When these establishments were questioned immediately after the announcement, they said that they did not know about the CVL paper.

Yet the paper, unreviewed, did go to a very much more general group, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC). This, we accept, was a vital step. It is the committee charged with giving the scientific advice that safeguards the country against the mystifying pathogen behind BSE, and it is a matter of public health that it sees what work is in progress. But what happened to this work in progress after it was discussed at a SEAC meeting on 2nd December 1997?

The committee noted, but appeared to reserve judgment on, reported evidence on infectivity in bone marrow. It is not clear whether the quality of the work is in doubt. Rather, focus was reserved for infectivity detected in dorsal root ganglia of heavily dosed cattle beyond the legal age ban. The committee deduced that there was a conceivable risk of the order of being hit by lightning.

Having identified the risk, or lack of it, the scientists then suggested three conceivable plans of action for the Government. It told the Minister for Agriculture that he had three choices: he could inform the public of a potential risk; meat from older animals could be deboned in special plants; or bones could be banned. Within hours of the Government receiving this advice, there was a leak to the media that the Minister for Agriculture was to take the most severe option, that bones be banned. This on the basis of an interim report of an unreviewed paper in the face of extremely low risk. I am told the choice surprised even members of SEAC.

It became clear days later that forcing Europeans to comply with this perhaps excessively severe regulation was a circuitous way to raise the slaughter standards for imported beef. One can see the logic here, while having reservations about applauding it.

I wonder, my Lords, during those late hours of 2nd December, whether the Minister for Agriculture realised that he had dealt another devastating blow to then UK beef industry? It would seem not, for he blithely announced, almost immediately afterwards, that it was time the stricken sector accepted that it was in need of reform. Does he realise that the main victims, the quality beef producers, are yet again paying for a disease that appears to be a result of the excesses of the dairy industry? His comment about how 95 per cent. of beef was already sold off the bone betrayed dangerous ignorance about the issues and economics involved.

27 Jan 1998 : Column 116

At least two noble Lords have said that for a law to be a good law it must be acceptable to the people to whom it applies and it must be enforceable. No honourable farmer wishes to circumvent important safety regulations; no honourable scientist wishes unnecessary ruination on those riding out science in the making; and no honourable Minister wishes to hang his honour on a mistake.

Might not the Government admit that they have made a mistake? Might they not accept and grin at the spot of ridicule to which they have subjected themselves? Almost immediately after the announcement, risk analysts summoned up by the media remarked that it was such a low risk that effectively it was no risk. "Newsnight" erected a "risk-o-meter". The public rushed to stock up on T-bones and ribs of beef while they lasted. I did; I still have two in the freezer. The Government, science, and the issue of safety were made an ass; the beef industry was dealt a devastating blow.

These are serious criticisms. However, there is no condemnation. The Minister for Agriculture is also due congratulations. Without his support, the Phillips inquiry would not be happening. He has handled the formation of the Food Standards Agency with exceptional diplomacy and is convincing as an ambassador for change and growth. He is proving a tough representative in Europe. He is shaping up to be a very good Minister indeed. One can only hope that he will learn that while all Ministers make mistakes, only the very best admit to them.

3.59 p.m.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, as you will know, I have been highly critical of the performances of both the previous and present governments in their handling of BSE. I am not going to repeat my arguments in the agricultural debate last week except to say again that it must be accepted that ultimately it is Ministers in both governments--starting with the then Health Minister, Mr. Stephen Dorrell, and now the Agriculture Minister, Dr. John Cunningham--who have been so alarmist in the whole matter, having unequivocally accepted the unquantified advice of their so-called experts. That successive governments should be responsible for such scaremongering is deplorable. It will go down in the annals of bad government. Meanwhile I hope that Lord Justice Phillips, who is today embarking on an inquiry into the whole BSE saga, will take full account of this debate.

My own inclination to vote for the Motion is because I am not satisfied that the cost, both to the taxpayer and the farming industry, is remotely justified by the risk of eating beef on the bone. The reason I say that is that I have not yet seen any figures to support the case for the regulation.

Has the appropriate cost benefit analysis been undertaken? There is nothing new in cost benefit analysis. It was first used in public policy some 40 years ago when the Victoria Line was being planned. In relation to BSE I should like to know whether a newer, but now well-developed, variant of cost benefit known as risk analysis has been used and, if so, with what result?

27 Jan 1998 : Column 117

I have consulted a friend of mine, Mr. Gerald Orman of Orman Risk Analysts, who have an international practice in the field. In a letter to me he said that the definition of an "expert" in risk analysis is someone who understands the underlying mechanism of how a risk materialises sufficiently well to express a view on its probability without historical records. If he cannot he is not an expert. Decisions can only be taken based on probabilities, and Stephen Dorrell was most unwise not to have forced his experts to give them. In safety engineering as it is applied to the design of railways, which is a good example because people require a far higher level of safety in a medium over which they have no control compared with, say, motoring where they see themselves as in control, the limit of expenditure on a measure which would save one life is £2 million.

Risk analysis, as some of your Lordships will know, is a branch of mathematical modelling which applies probability theory to qualitative advice so as to quantify it. Once the risk analysis is complete then the decision analysis is used to follow it up so as to balance the costs of different actions against the assessed risk.

I must say that I was amazed to learn that it would appear that those techniques do not seem to have been used in relation to BSE and I have done my best to check that nothing meaningful has been published. First, I understand that in October Professor Lacy addressed the London meeting of the Geneva Association of Risk Management and produced none of the figures which his professional audience would have expected to hear. Secondly, I spoke to the Institute of Risk Management, which was unable to point to any published work. Thirdly, I spoke to AIRMIC (the Association of Insurance and Risk Managers) and it, too, was unaware of the existence of any proper analysis. I hope that if any proper risk analysis has been done the Minister will be able to give us details and will undertake that it will be published forthwith.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, said that public health has to be protected before the scientific evidence is available. I was most unimpressed by his cholera example. It was obviously a good idea to clean up London drinking water whatever the reason. The cost of the decision made to turn off that tap was negligible in comparison with the particular benefit.

Let us be clear that this measure will not affect, one way or the other, the attitude of the Europeans. They are keeping British beef out of world markets for quite different reasons. Indeed, some of them might even feel that the more Brits who go mad the better. Meanwhile, I hope that the House will have the courage to ask the Government to think again. If they did so, it would strike a strong echo with the British people who, not for the first time, would see the House of Lords as their protector against unwise and ill-considered measures proposed in another place. The Government might even be pleased to be saved from themselves. The Chancellor of the Exchequer should certainly welcome the annulment of the measure.

27 Jan 1998 : Column 118

What, incidentally, has happened to the Treasury? In the days when I was in Whitehall it would never have allowed the Government to get away with such expensive and unjustified decisions.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page