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4.25 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, before 1st May and before his elevation to the Ministry of Agriculture, I shared a room with my noble friend Lord Donoughue. He will have heard me denounce the hysteria of the previous government in relation to BSE and the ban on beef and so on in far less measured terms than I shall be able to use today. But he can be certain, because I have already told him, that I shall speak against this Government's policy, as I spoke against the previous government's policy. Therefore, he is in no doubt as to what is my attitude today.

This is the first opportunity that the House of Lords has had to discuss specifically this matter. The Statement on 3rd December was refused--which means that it was not repeated here--so unlike the House of Commons, we were unable to question the Minister when that decision was made. That was altogether unfortunate since noble Lords in this House have very great expertise in farming and related matters. Therefore, the Government and the country were denied the opportunity of having those views expressed and the benefit of advice given at an early stage.

Indeed, there has been no full-scale debate yet in the House of Commons about this ban, although that may still happen. It is right, therefore, that there should be a proper debate here and we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, for tabling this Motion. Indeed, had he not done so, I would have done so. I should have tabled a Motion because I believe that it is completely unacceptable that a Minister, without warning or proper consultation, should be able to ban a product on the flimsiest of evidence and after rejecting less extreme measures which were available on the advice of his experts. I had expected a Labour Minister to be more robust in defence of people's freedom and livelihoods than previous spineless Tory Ministers; and to exercise common sense rather than blindly follow official advice.

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If Ministers are not prepared to exercise their own judgment on behalf of the great mass of people, what are they there for? Why do we have them? Let us just leave the experts to make the decision without any control. Ministers should have taken note of the fact that symptoms showed only after animals had been fed large doses of BSE-infected meat. We are not going to feed humans with large artificial doses of infected meat. That is one of the points that I should have taken into account when making a decision.

Even so, the Secretary of State, in his Statement, stated that British beef is safe but nevertheless he was instituting the ban as a precautionary measure and to maintain consumer confidence. That is what he said on 3rd December. But by 14th January, the story had changed somewhat, as we have heard recently. In a reply to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said something quite different. I shall quote what she said because it is worth having it on the record on this debate. She said:

    "I would say to him",

that is, to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe,

    "that one of the factors has not so much to do with the area of concern with which I am primarily involved in public health, but more to do with those delicate negotiations that my right honourable and noble friends are undertaking in Europe. Had we allowed the sale of beef which was technically described as unsafe, it is unlikely that we would have made any progress in Brussels towards lifting the beef ban".--[Official Report, 14/1/98; col. 1054.]

So between 3rd December and 14th January there was a different story. I think we should take due note of that. What is the real story? Was the decision made on food safety grounds or as yet another grovelling sop to our real political masters in Europe? The health risk is not just small--as we have heard--but infinitesimal: one in about 600 million. That really is no risk at all.

As we have heard so many times, there are huge risks from other activities. Those risks are enormous compared with eating beef on the bone, or beef of any sort for that matter. So far there have been only 22 cases of CJD/BSE deaths since the beginning of the scare, yet every year 3,600 people are killed on the roads and 50,000 are seriously injured. There are 140 deaths every year from swimming, from jumping in the sea or a pool. There are 18 deaths from childbirth every year. There are 500 deaths every year from AIDS/HIV. There are 65 deaths from E.coli and salmonella poisoning. That is three times as many in one year as the total number of deaths so far from CJD/BSE. That puts the matter into perspective. Many of those E.coli and salmonella deaths may well be due to the unhygienic practices of officials of the Meat Hygiene Service at abattoirs. Indeed it seems to me under those circumstances that there is a better case for banning meat inspectors than beef on the bone!

The ban has been badly received not only by farmers and the meat trade but also by the general public, as was shown by the rush to buy beef on the bone, including oxtails,--people were trampled in the rush--before the ban was imposed. We have seen the flouting of the law by traders, aided and abetted by their customers who refuse to be intimidated by overweening Ministers. This sort of ban brings government into disrepute and induces

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the contempt of the electorate for laws which they see as ridiculous, unnecessary and harmful to large sections of people. They are simply fed up with knee-jerk reactions by Ministers and MPs to events, and the imposing of new laws, bans and other actions, without time being given for consultation, proper reflection and consideration of the wider implications of their actions which impinge on personal freedom and on people's livelihoods.

We hear a lot about the people so it is all right for me to talk about them. People are increasingly concerned about the growing arrogance and intolerance of the state. It is often described as a nanny state and that seems to me to be an apt term bearing in mind recent revelations about nannies' treatment of their charges. They beat them up and do other such things. I fear that the electorate is being beaten up by governments introducing legislation which is unnecessary, ill thought out and which should never reach the statute book. I have to say in conclusion that if the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, presses this amendment, I shall--and indeed not in fear and trembling of my Front Bench or the Whips--be pleased to join him in the Lobby.

4.35 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, in his speech my noble friend Lord Kimball went back some 200 years when he described how marrow bones were preserved for the members of London clubs. I wish to go back just 20 years or so to the time when I took part in an evaluation visit to the Neuropathogenesis Unit in Edinburgh to assess the funding of scrapie, a disease which is related to BSE. At that time it was a model for the human disease of CJD or Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease.

At that meeting two important developments occurred. First, the members of the Medical Research Council felt that it was not worth carrying on with research into scrapie as a model of CJD because the number of cases of CJD that occurred in this country was low, and they felt that the money could be better spent elsewhere. However, the advice that prevailed was that the work should go on, and indeed it did. Thank heavens that it did because that sort of work is important now because of our CJD problem.

Those were the days when spongiform encephalopathies were of a low order of interest and only a few people in this country were working on them. It is long-term, chronic research that is difficult to fund and it takes a long time to obtain any research results. Secondly, however, everything changed when there was a report of a scrapie-like condition occurring in cattle in southern England. That was BSE. Since the mid-80s there have been 165,000 cases of BSE in the United Kingdom and more than 1.2 million cattle have been slaughtered in a control--and ultimately eradication--programme. The cause has been the feeding of animal waste, specific bovine offals--or specific bovine materials as they are now known--to cattle as a source of protein. That was prohibited in 1988. Over the succeeding years that prohibition and other regulation and control policies eventually led to a dramatic fall in the number of cases of BSE to the level of around 100 new infections in cattle in this country at the present

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time, as estimated by the Oxford epidemiological group, and some 300 animals under 30 months of age remaining in the whole country which are infected with BSE.

So shortly there will be fewer cases of BSE in the United Kingdom than there are in some other countries of the European Union. Whereas we are taking extraordinarily drastic measures as regards the control and slaughter of cattle and the treatment of meat and carcasses, as many noble Lords have said, these other countries with BSE in their herds--some of whom have admitted the problem and others of whom have not--are not taking similar measures.

Despite the criticism that this Government and the previous government have received, what we have done in this country is quite remarkable. It has rid the country of a pestilence which is slow to develop, difficult to understand and which we are still not entirely sure about in terms of the causal agent. That could have been done much more quickly. We are well aware that the ban on the feeding of specific bovine offals has not been as rigorously enforced as it might have been due to a shortage of manpower and certainly a shortage of funds to support that manpower. We admit that there has been contamination of animal feeds from other animal feeds, the use of material that is already in the pipeline, and, worst of all, the illegal production of animal feeds by knacker men and the use of that animal protein in dairy herds. Nevertheless, successful control, possibly leading to eradication, is near. It has been at great cost: £150 million as compensation for the destruction of animals; £52 million on research; and another £35 million on administration.

A circumstantial association between BSE and CJD is now accepted, although many would say that it is not absolutely proven. Although the prevalence internationally of CJD is as high in other countries without BSE as in this country, the incidence of BSE in this country, and in other countries without BSE, is rising. So in the United Kingdom we are making regulations, such as the Beef Bones Regulations, to prevent human infection with BSE.

However, I believe that there is a degree of confusion between hazard and risk. There is clearly a difference between the two. The hazard of getting new variant CJD from beef is, I think, accepted now by many people. The risk of doing so is an entirely different matter. If the Oxford figures are accepted, we shall have few animals that constitute the hazard. Is it realistic to apply the meat-off-the-bone regulations to all cattle slaughtered in this country to obviate the risk that that hazard will materialise? I believe that it is not.

I hope that the Minister will comment on this point. If the meat-off-the-bone regulations are to prevail, some consideration must be given to those herds where BSE has been absent for a number of years. In certain parts of the country herds are ready for certification that they are BSE free. Why should a herd where BSE has been absent for, say, five or more years suffer the same plight as a herd where recent cases of BSE have been identified?

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Finally, I believe that there is an urgent need for a diagnostic test to identify freedom from BSE in a carcass at slaughter. Various proteins have been identified in affected animals and their use as possible indicator proteins may be useful markers that BSE and its byproducts are either present or absent in brain and spinal cord material. A confirmatory test that a carcass is free from BSE would greatly help our export efforts and would give that assurance to the consumer buying the beef. It would be especially welcome. I hope that the Minister will advise what progress is being made in developing such a test either in the laboratories at Weybridge, or elsewhere.

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