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6.2 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, there are at least two brave men in the House tonight; they are those who intervened in the gap after 25 other speakers. I cannot say that I have enjoyed the whole debate, but I have enjoyed some of it. The Minister can be proud of having behind him the noble Lords, Lord Rea and Lord Grantchester, who have endeavoured to support him. Those were noble efforts. In particular the noble Lord, Lord Rea, actually found a silver lining. I do not know where, but it was nice of him to try. Loyalty is a thing that the Tory party always go on about; so there should be satisfaction over that.

However, the best speech from the other side came from the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. He spoke with a passion which made me think at one point that he was speaking against the European Union. However, a number of the remainder of the speeches were terribly repetitive. People do not seem to be able to stop repeating what they have on their paper. The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, did a good job and talked a lot of sense, except when he spoke about the roast beef of old England which everyone knows is an inferior article to that of Scotland.

The noble Countess, Lady Mar, and the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, made very informed speeches. I was tickled pink by the noble Lord,

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Lord Marlesford. He must have been studying the chances of infection with close attention. Perhaps he will tell us how to use this risk assessment in order to place bets in a more favourable way.

The history of the BSE crisis is very sad. All the mistakes have been delineated. It has had a curious effect on the habitants of the Ministry of Agriculture. I remember hearing the former Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Hogg, say on television that he would slaughter every cow in Great Britain if necessary. He terrified me. He obviously terrified the Germans because the reaction there has been one of the main causes of the trouble we have experienced. Why he and Mr. Dorrell needed to go to such lengths nobody will ever know.

It must be something in the air; something about the Ministry. Dr. Cunningham, while in opposition, gave every sign of being a sensible, level-headed chap. There is something wrong in the Ministry of Agriculture; there is some evil spirit there that upsets all judgment. I appeal to the right reverend Prelate to get along there and exorcise.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln: My Lords, I feel I have no more success with cattle than I have in my own cathedral.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I am sure that the right reverend Prelate is right but it is worth a try.

The history of this matter is ridiculous. We all know that the decision is wrong; we know that the effect on the Continent must have been entirely the opposite. A sensible position would have been to say that there is a minute risk, so minute that we are simply leaving it for people in this country to judge. That would have been far less harmful than slapping a ban on meat on the bone. It is stupid, ridiculous and has been very good for the sale of sirloins in certain quarters. Quite seriously, though, it has not been good for the beef trade; it has been another severe blow.

I have a great deal of time for the Minister and this Government. They should take the chance to go back and talk to their friends and say "Right, we accept the fact that we have perhaps made a mistake. On the other hand we have been careful." There are all sorts of things he can say but this stupid ban of beef on the bone has to be lifted. That is a chance he should take.

The Minister has done great harm by sticking to his position because he will force me into the Lobby with the Tory party, which I am not very fond of doing.

6.9 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friends Lord Kimball and Lord Willoughby de Broke for giving us the opportunity to discuss these regulations in detail. I apologise for the sound of my voice. Obviously the evil aura that hangs over the Ministry of Agriculture has managed to spread over the Opposition Benches and got into my throat. We on these Benches have always supported measures to ensure the safety of public health where we believe them to be warranted. This country now has the toughest food safety regulations in the world.

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When the Minister of Agriculture made his statement in another place on the 3rd December, my right honourable friend Michael Jack stated that it was essential that discussions were held on the impact of the Government's decision,

    "before casting the measures absolutely in stone".--[Official Report Commons, 3/12/97; col. 373.]

If the Minister of Agriculture had in fact taken my right honourable friend's advice and had a more extensive consultation, many of the questions raised in the debate tonight would have been resolved.

The Government should have followed the principal advice given by SEAC in paragraph 7: to inform the public of the risk posed by eating beef on the bone, and to allow individuals to make their own decision about whether or not to eat it.

We reached that conclusion only after giving due consideration to the impact that the ban on beef on the bone would have on the beef industry in Britain and confidence in beef in general, against the minute risk of infection. Details of that were given authoritatively by my noble friends Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior and Lord Willoughby de Broke.

The Government's position is fraught with inconsistencies and anomalies. Many of my noble friends have proved that beyond doubt today. I am grateful to MAFF for its website which is honest because it tells the world:

    "SEAC concluded that the risk is very small and did not say that the Government needed to act at all other than to make the results public. On this basis the action proposed by the Government is precautionary in the extreme and there is no need to clear existing stocks. The Government has spelled out the risks to consumers so they can make up their own minds about stocks in the kitchen or in the freezer".

If the ban were so essential, why was there a delay in imposing it until 16th December during which time consumers were given the chance to exercise choice? Why do the regulations allow a transitional period until 15th March for manufactured goods such as stock cubes and soups, and full choice about food already in the consumer's store cupboard and freezer? Why are consumers being allowed to make up their own minds about some products associated with beef on the bone but not about others?

Why did the Government ignore the results of the consultation exercise which was carried out hurriedly during the few days after the beef bones ban had already been announced? The vast majority of those who responded to the consultation would have preferred the Government to follow the SEAC's main recommendation--publish the information and let the people decide.

There are oddities about that consultation exercise which give rise to questions that I should like to put to the Minister. My noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke referred to some aspects of that consultation. Like my noble friend, I have read through the responses to the exercise which MAFF placed in the Library of the House. My mathematics may not be too great but I think that 334 organisations and individuals were on the consultation list. I say "think", because one person was in brackets, and I am not too sure what that says about

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that person. Of those 334 organisations and individuals, 39 replied. I make no criticism of the others for not taking the action that they should have taken, because they would have received that consultation document, at best, by first post on Monday morning, and they had to get their replies back by 4 p.m. on the Friday. I am sure that noble Lords, as I have, have taken part in consultation exercises and know that it is difficult within such a short space of time for an organisation to be able to gather together effective information.

There were a further 56 organisations and individuals who were not on the original list who sent in their comments. Taking them all together, at best, and being generous to the Government--I am sure that the Minister recognises that I am being as generous as I can be--of those, six were in favour of the regulations; 56 were against; and 33 expressed what I would term a neutral or technical view about the matter. They did not say whether they believed the regulations to be right or wrong; they were explaining to the Government how difficult it would be to implement the regulations or what impact those regulations would have upon them, whether they be a butcher or someone involved in the beef trade.

Common themes run through those responses--from real people responding to a real crisis. Consumers say that they want to be given the choice to buy beef on the bone--or not. The National Housewives Association said that such reactions from members as it had been able to obtain in the time were, "hardly printable". It was essential for consumers to be given information and the chance to make their own decision. The National Federation of Women's Institutes said:

    "We are seriously concerned that the public should be denied the freedom of informed choice in this matter. The public needs access to all scientific evidence and information in order that they can make their own decisions based on known facts".

Many individuals wrote in expressing their view that it was vital for consumers to be able to make a choice. They included Mrs. Diana Smith, and Mr. John Atkins who stated:

    "[Aged 60,] I am as capable of making sensible decisions as to whether to buy a T-bone I am of whether to buy a packet of cigarettes, take my car on the M.25 or go on a boat in a Force 6, all of which, if the Minister is to be believed, carry risks several orders of magnitudes greater than those involved in choosing to eat bone in beef".

The Government say that it is a matter of risk assessment. That is correct. But this afternoon my noble friends have proved that the Government have got their risk assessment wrong. Expert organisations which responded to the consultation exercise also believe that the Government have got their risk assessment wrong. The responses are littered with comments such as:

    "The Government reacted with panic, MAFF acted with insufficient judgment; they over-reacted, and with poor judgment in risk assessment".

Many questions were raised about the enforceability of the ban. The Chartered Institute on Environmental Health pointed out:

    "It may be prudent to consider re-drafting this legislation to ensure the measures required by the Government can actually be achieved and enforced by the authorities".

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Have the Government taken any action to redraft the regulations? Are they legal? Like other noble Lords, I noticed an article in the newspapers last week in which a Member of the other place claimed that the regulations were illegal because of the poor way in which they are drafted. Will the Minister reassure us about that?

There is also what I would call the "Scottish question". Under the terms of the Scotland Bill, could a Scottish parliament revoke this legislation? If so, what arrangements will be made to stop illegal imports across the Border? I hold no brief for Scotland, of course, but I recognise that many noble Lords on both Benches reflect the intellectual acuity of the Scots. So I am surprised that few Scottish organisations appeared on MAFF's original consultation list. But the Scots were not to be denied. Even if they were not asked to respond, many of them did.

I take just one example which reflects the response from all the Scottish organisations about which I read in the Library. The BMA Scottish office states:

    "It would be sensible to let the public choose whether they are prepared to take what appears a minuscule risk".

That must be the right course of action.

The Motion gives the Government the opportunity to consult widely and more effectively than they did the first time around. Noble Lords have today proved that that would be the best course of action for the Government to take. The debate is an example of the House of Lords working constructively to assist the Government to think again. I support the Motion.

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