On 20 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I came to the House to inform right hon. and hon. Members of the latest advice that we had received from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee regarding bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle and its possible link with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
Our statements addressed three issues: first, the possible relationship between BSE and CJD; secondly, the assessment of the safety of British beef; and, thirdly, the steps that we propose to take further to ensure the safety of British beef.
I would summarise what my right hon. Friend and I said as follows. First, the most likely explanation of the 10 tragic cases of CJD was exposure to beef before 1989. Secondly, in order to reinforce the already very tough restrictions on the disposal of offal, certain additional steps should be taken—for example, a requirement that all meat from older cattle should be deboned and a ban on the feeding of mammalian feed to all farm animals. Thirdly, provided the controls were vigorously implemented and enforced, the risk of eating British beef was extremely small: or, to use normal language, British beef was safe.
Last weekend SEAC met again and on Monday it presented further advice to Government. That further advice was reflected in two further statements that my right hon. Friend and I made on 25 March.
The substance of the further advice that we received was that, first, SEAC confirmed its previous opinion regarding the relationship between CJD and BSE. Secondly, it reaffirmed its opinion that, provided the controls were rigorously adhered to, the risks involved in eating beef were very low. Lastly, in its opinion, the risks to children were no greater than the risks to others. In addition, SEAC made some further recommendations regarding the disposal of offal, which we accept.
I should like to stand back from the detail to take a broad view. We must ensure that we have the best available scientific advice, which is why we appointed SEAC, an independent committee of experts unsurpassed in their specialty. I pay tribute to the committee for the unstinting and clear way in which it has performed its duties.
The Government accept that the most likely cause of CJD among the 10 identified cases is exposure to BSE before 1989. We agree entirely with the view that, provided the very tight controls now in place are fully implemented the risks of eating British beef today are extremely small: or, to use ordinary language, British beef is safe.
Farmers in my constituency have written to me today because they have heard what the Minister has said, as have many consumers, and there is still a crisis of confidence in British beef. How does he respond to the advice from the farmers of north Warwickshire, who say that the National Farmers Union's proposal for certain slaughtering should be adopted?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not respond, because I am about to tackle that issue and related ones.
It is clear that consumer confidence has been damaged and that has led to a collapse in the market. The difficulties have been aggravated by the European Union ban imposed on British exports of beef and beef products, which we believe to be unjustified on the facts, in logic and to have no sound basis in law.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make a little progress.
As I have said, the collapse in confidence has caused great damage to the market. That clearly threatens the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and of others in related industries.
We need to convince the public of what most informed people believe and what is stated by SEAC: that, provided the relevant controls are rigorously adhered to, the risk of eating British beef is extremely small: or, in other words, it is safe.
I am determined to ensure that the existing specified bovine offal controls are implemented in full. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that, regrettably, lapses have occurred in the past. I have told the House on several occasions how seriously I take those lapses. That is why I called in the slaughterhouse operators on more than one occasion last year, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has done likewise.
Furthermore, as soon as we had SEAC's recommendations on 20 March, we issued instructions to the Meat Hygiene Service to ensure that the controls are implemented yet more rigorously. I am pleased to say that the audits show a vast improvement. SEAC has recently said that, in its view, implementation is now satisfactory, but we shall certainly remain vigilant.
Now that we have received the two reports from SEAC, we must proceed as speedily as we can to implement its recommendations. This will involve the laying of orders, some of which must be the subject of consultation. Indeed, it is right that there should be consultation; we are talking about important issues of public health so the details must be right. We are also talking about the livelihoods of people engaged in the relevant industries.
I am pursuing the following timetable. Orders are being laid today that will have the effect of banning, with effect from tomorrow, the manufacture of feeding stuffs for farm animals using mammalian meat and bonemeal, and extending SBO controls to cover heads and lymph glands. As a temporary measure, I am also banning the sale of meat from newly slaughtered cattle aged over 30 months. This measure will apply until we have in place a procedure for licensing and supervising deboning plans, as recommended by SEAC. I am under a legal obligation to consult on the order introducing those procedures and on a proposed ban on the use of bonemeal in agricultural fertilisers. Despite that statutory obligation to consult, I am proceeding rapidly. The consultation document has been issued, and I intend to make the relevant legislation in the week beginning 15 April.
The steps that I have set out are recommended by SEAC. It is important to see how we can further reinforce market confidence and what steps we can take to achieve the lifting of the ban imposed by the European Union.
The decision of the Commission referred to at least four directives, but it would not be helpful if I were just to read out the directives.
My right hon. and learned Friend will appreciate that consumers can simply walk away from consuming beef if they want to, but for beef farmers the devastation may be total. Will he assure the rural community that, if and when compensation is settled, consideration will be given to the people whose lives, for the most part, have been ruined in a way from which they will probably never be able to recover?
My hon. Friend correctly states the gravity of the situation, and I do not wish to leave the House under any misapprehension. The Government are fully aware of the gravity of the situation facing the agriculture industry, and we will do all that we properly can to address that crisis. I will make comment specifically on what we can do now, and I will add some general observations on what we may do subsequently.
If I understood the Minister correctly, he said a moment ago that no animal over 30 months old would be killed and put into the food chain. If so, what mechanism is he proposing for farmers who would normally sell those animals to ensure that they retain some of their expected income? Will there be intervention buying? If so, how do the Government propose to dispose of the animals? Does he foresee that happening quickly?
The order to which I have referred has the effect of preventing cattle over the age of 30 months from entering the food chain, but the hon. Gentleman should remember SEAC's recommendation that animals over that age could come into the food chain provided they did so in a deboned state, the deboning taking place in premises approved for that purpose. The order, which has the prohibitory effect referred to by the hon. Gentleman, is temporary in character and will cover the situation until such time as we can put in place the licensing regime that will enable farmers to sell cattle over the age of 30 months, the meat being in a deboned state. But the meat must be deboned in approved premises, and we are consulting on that.
I am not certain from my right hon. and learned Friend's comments whether the Government believe that the Commission's ban on exports to third countries is or is not illegal. If it is illegal, will the Government make representations at the highest possible levels in Turin this weekend?
I have said that I think that the ban, and the directives on which it was based, has a questionable basis in law, and there are serious arguments to be addressed on its legal aspects. But the truth is that it takes time to get an adjudication on such a matter, and time is what we do not have. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will certainly raise the matter in Turin in the most vigorous terms, and I am going to Brussels tomorrow—my officials are there today—to see whether we can agree some measures that may help to restore consumer and market confidence.
May I refer my right hon. and learned Friend back to the temporary ban on the slaughter of animals aged over 30 months? Is he aware that this is the most expensive time of year for many farmers—the rent is due and they must pay for the next quarter's feedstuffs, among other things? Farmers have no choice but to send their cattle for slaughter at this time of year. What comfort can he give farmers who have to sell at this time of year, but now find that they cannot do so?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I have tried to convey the gravity that the Government attach to the market and financial security of the agricultural community. I have a number of things to say about supporting the agricultural community, but I feel that the best thing would be to make some progress. What I say may help my hon. Friend—I certainly would like to think that it will.
I have explained the steps that I have put in place to implement SEAC's recommendations, and I said that I hoped to make the relevant legislation in the week beginning 15 April. The steps that I have taken are those recommended by SEAC, but clearly we must explore what more we can do to reinforce market confidence and what steps we can take to achieve the lifting of the ban imposed by the EU.
To restore consumer confidence and to obtain a lifting of the European ban, we may have to take steps that go beyond those that are strictly necessary on scientific grounds. Officials from my Department are in Brussels today to discuss with Commission officials our thoughts on how best to reassure the market and lift the European Union ban. I will go to Brussels tomorrow to meet Commissioner Fischler, and we shall prepare the ground for the emergency Agriculture Council that has been called for next Monday.
We will also discuss with the industry how best we can collectively restore the confidence of the British consumer. As I have already said, that may involve taking measures beyond those required by the scientific evidence.
Of course, to re-establish consumer confidence is also to re-establish the market, but there is an immediate problem to be tackled. To address the most immediate issues, I have two announcements to make today.
The first concerns the problem of the renderers, which is important because, if renderers cannot operate, the slaughterhouse system will seize up and it will be impossible for farmers to sell their beef. Therefore, the Government will make available transitional aid of around £1.5 million per week to help the rendering industry adjust to the changes.
Although, in the longer term, ruminant protein will not be incorporated in feed rations for farm animals, I am confident that a new and different commercial relationship will be established between renderers, slaughterhouses and farmers. What I am announcing is essentially temporary assistance.
The second announcement relates to the immediate problem of the young bull calves, for which there is not a market at present. I told the House on 25 March that a European Union market support scheme existed, which could be used to provide aid for the slaughter of young male calves from dairy herds.
I am announcing today that we shall avail ourselves of that scheme, providing a premium of slightly more than £100 per head on all such calves slaughtered before reaching 10 days of age. That will be reviewed as the market position improves. I estimate that it will be worth some £50 million year to UK farmers. Pending parliamentary approval, which will be sought in a supplementary estimate, the necessary expenditure will be met by repayable advances from the contingency fund.
The circumstances that I have described today have serious implications for businesses and communities involved in this industry. Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has asked my right hon. Friend the Lord President to examine the consequences with appropriate parliamentary and other ministerial colleagues, which will enable us to make appropriate recommendations.
My Department has made it a top priority to seek to ensure that livestock payments reach producers as quickly as possible. I am pleased to be able to announce that livestock farmers will receive an extra £35 million in their final headage payments this year. We shall do everything we can to ensure that as many payments as possible are made by the end of next month.
My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned the scheme for calves and a figure slightly higher than £100. As he knows, bull calves can be worth anything between £50 and £350. How will the scheme work as regards the range of quality in bull calves and how will it operate to ensure that it pans out fairly between farmers?
The detail should be explored in greater detail later. I am trying to deal with the main concerns that hon. Members have expressed.
I recognise that, if the market remains depressed, those measures will not be sufficient in themselves. In my statement on 24 March I referred to the common agricultural policy's mechanisms for market support—in particular, intervention purchases of steer beef and the possibility of aid for the slaughter of older animals.
Small quantities of beef have been offered to the intervention board this week and I shall press the Commissioner hard tomorrow for those quantities to be accepted. We have also impressed on the Commission the need for a scheme to remove older animals from the market. I am glad to say that the initial response was reasonably positive. I shall certainly pursue the matter tomorrow.
If the European Union ban on British beef exports turns out to be illegal, as we believe it to be, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that compensation for the enormous damage done to British farmers is paid not by the British taxpayer but by the 14 European Governments who supported the ban? If they will not pay, will he give the House an undertaking that he will deduct that amount from our next payment to Europe?
The Minister was dealing with intervention buying. Can we be clear that he is saying that he will remove the blockages in the system, which make widespread intervention buying impossible under the present circumstances? Will he give the House a commitment that he will deal with the problem on the scale that will be required, not just for farmers—although that problem is very serious—but for abattoirs, where stores are building up? Does he understand that he has to remove those blockages if anything is to be left when consumer confidence returns?
The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the blockage associated with the intervention scheme and to draw attention to the possibility of enlarging the categories capable of coming into intervention. Those are precisely the sort of issues that officials have been discussing in Brussels, and they are issues that I expect to raise with Commission officials and the Commissioner tomorrow.
Will the Minister elaborate a little on whether intervention will apply to carcases that are in slaughterhouses, which are causing an enormous cash flow problem as slaughterhouses have had to pay for animals at high prices and are not able to get rid of them? Will he express his appreciation of the importance of abattoirs, including smaller and medium-sized abattoirs, for the local economy, particularly those in areas where there is no oversupply of such institutions?
I am not sure of the accurate answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about whether intervention can be applied to carcases or only to live steers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health—trespassing off his normal responsibilities—might want to reply to that question, on advice, when he replies to the debate.
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that a lot of beef went from Northern Ireland to Europe but was sent straight back again? It is sitting in stores in Northern Ireland, which are almost jammed solid. What will happen to the intervention, if any, for Northern Ireland? Where will it go and how does he expect abattoir owners to survive? They have already paid for that stock and have no money left for anything else. That problem must be dealt with; otherwise, there will be no beef and abattoir industries left.
The hon. Gentleman asks two important questions. The first relates to the ultimate destination of any meat that may be in warehouses or slaughterhouses and the ultimate destination of any meat that comes into intervention. In a sense, that depends on the state of consumer confidence—and thus market confidence—at the appropriate time. Obviously, there are a number of possibilities. Either the meat can be sold for human consumption or it cannot. Everything will depend on the state of the market when the meat leaves storage or intervention facilities.
I would like to deal with this question, after which I will give way.
On abattoir owners, I have already told the House that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is very aware of the ramifications that the crisis could have, not only for farmers—although very importantly for them—but for people across the spectrum of industry and the rural community. He has asked my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council and other ministerial colleagues to address those problems with a view to making any proposals that may seem appropriate.
There are some problems of definition about how to address that question. My hon. Friend raises the basic question of how to restore consumer confidence, which would lead to a restoration of market confidence. That may involve measures that go beyond those already outlined, which, in our judgment, are all that are required by the scientific evidence. However, that is not to say that we may not have to explore further measures. I will give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts), after which I will make some progress.
While I appreciate the immediate and medium-term steps that my right hon. and learned Friend is taking, I am concerned, as was my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), about the restoration of confidence, which will not happen until we have eradicated BSE from the entire national herd. Has my right hon. and learned Friend given consideration to the measures necessary to achieve that end?
Yes, indeed we have. My right hon. Friend will remember the SEAC recommendations that were the subject of the statement on 20 March and its recommendations that dealt with the use of ruminant protein in feed rations for farm animals. He will recall that I have announced today an order prohibiting the incorporation of mammalian protein into feed rations for all farm animals. That is believed to be a most effective way of reducing the incidence of BSE. That is not to say that it will be the only thing that we do, because we clearly have to consider proposals from elsewhere and we will. But that is an important step designed to achieve precisely the objective that my right hon. Friend has identified.
The National Farmers Union of Scotland will be delighted with my right hon. and learned Friend's proposals on intervention because it recognises that agriculture depends on a credit system. Unless we can unclog the finance, as well as the carcasses at the abattoirs, we will not remove the problem. His speech will be welcomed by the National Farmers Union of Scotland.
I appreciate the line that my right hon. and learned Friend is taking. I have two questions on intervention. Will all cattle that will go to market, or would have gone to market, be included in any intervention arrangements? How quickly does he expect those arrangements to be in place? The news from North Yorkshire is that, unless they are in place in three or four days, the market will completely collapse and many farmers and other related business will face ruin.
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the urgency of the position. He will know that the intervention system is intended for young steers and not, if I may put it like this, for the elderly dairy cow. The elderly dairy cow, or any other elderly cow that might become destined for the beef market, is a problem that we may have to address in other ways that will not strictly be under the intervention scheme that he has in mind. I will discuss this and related problems in the course of my meeting with Commissioner Fischler tomorrow.
I very much welcomed Commissioner Fischler's statement that he would consider means of assisting farmers to overcome the present crisis. As I have said, officials from my Department are in Brussels to discuss with the Commission how best to restore market confidence. I propose to follow up those talks tomorrow. Part of those discussions will include the financial support that may be necessary as a result of the present market turmoil and of any additional measures on which we may agree. We look to the European Union to play its part in resolving this crisis.
This is a short debate and many hon. Members wish to participate. I have tried to address the main concerns that I know trouble the House.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that everyone recognises the critical importance of his visit to Brussels and of securing agreement to the lifting of the ban in recognition of the measures that we are taking? That may take a little time; meanwhile, the urgency of the financial situation is manifest for businesses and farms. Will he lend his support to the loudest call possible to banks and other financial institutions to recognise the seriousness of the situation, which farmers and companies have not brought on themselves by their inadequacy, and exercise the maximum restraint?
I was going to ask exactly the same question. Will the Lord President of the Council's committee deal with that as a matter of urgency on behalf of the Government? After all, the banks have made reasonable profits in recent years and must exercise tolerance and restraint in the interest of the entire rural economy.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that earlier it was suggested that the next meeting of the vets would be in six weeks' time? That is an awfully long time. Could it not be brought forward to two weeks' time?
It is a long time, but what I discuss, and what I may agree, with the Commissioner tomorrow may make it possible to have an earlier meeting. That is something to be explored when we see how the discussions are going.
My right hon. and learned Friend will know that I have been trying for four days to get hold of copies of documents referred to by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) on food processing and regulation. Is he aware that the documents to which she referred when she accused the Government of being deregulatory dealt not with the way in which food would be processed but only with testing for salmonella?
Even more serious, the document makes it clear that that proposal did not come from the Labour party in the first place but from the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). The Labour party took no action during the whole of its period in government to consider food processing, and it was left to this Government to bring it in.
My hon. Friend makes an important point and clearly has read, as other hon. Members may not have, the report of Sir Richard Southwood, which was published in February 1989. In paragraph 4.28 on page 11, the House will find a careful analysis of the probable causes of the outbreak of BSE.
My hon. Friend is right to say that it had nothing to do with deregulation. The first regulation was imposed in 1981. There was no regulation in the 1970s: the Conservative Government were the first to impose one. There were draft proposals, but, as my hon. Friend said, they had to do with salmonella. In any event, the temperatures contemplated in the draft regulations were wholly irrelevant to BSE, because they would not have deactivated it.
Before concluding, will my right hon. and learned Friend say a little more about his discussions in Brussels? It is obviously right and proper and necessary for him to discuss a number of measures with the European Commission, assuming that that will contribute to lifting the ban. Will he say whether the discussions that he will have about the intervention system and other measures that we intend to put in place will contribute to the lifting of the ban? If he does not secure agreement about the new intervention arrangements, will he confirm that we shall proceed regardless?
I think that the House agrees that we have two principal objectives. The first, and most important, is the need to restore consumer confidence. If we can do that, the market will recover. Secondly, there is a clear relationship between consumer confidence, market confidence and lifting the ban. Tomorrow I shall explore with Commissioner Fischler the sorts of steps that we propose to take that would, in our opinion, help to restore consumer and market confidence and assist in lifting the ban.
I think that it will assist the House if I draw the themes together.
Hon. Members feel very deeply for those who have developed CJD, and for their families. The Government accept that the most likely explanation of CJD in the 10 cases that have been referred to is exposure to BSE before 1989. We are confident that, because of the controls that are now in place and because of our determination to see that they are implemented fully, the risk involved in eating British beef is extremely small: or, otherwise put, British beef is safe.
We now need to put in place a comprehensive programme to rebuild consumer confidence. That involves ensuring that controls are implemented fully. It may also involve taking measures beyond those that are strictly justified on scientific grounds. We are discussing with Brussels how best to reassure the market, and we shall discuss the same matter with representatives of British industry.
I have announced two specific measures to address immediate financial problems. If the market remains depressed, we would expect to see the support mechanisms provided under the common agricultural policy come into operation. We stand ready to make further proposals to the House. Above all, the future of that essential part of British agriculture depends on the restoration of public confidence. Our solid and firmly founded conviction is that, for the reasons that I have already given to the House, British beef is safe and can be eaten with confidence. I believe that that opinion can be safely put to the British people.
On Wednesday of last week, the Secretary of State for Health reported to the House that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee—SEAC—had advised the Government that bovine spongiform encephalopathy was the most likely explanation for an apparently new strain of Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease. We are all aware of the gravity of that announcement. The crisis that followed has affected confidence among consumers and within the European Union. It is a crisis over the safety of our beef and a crisis affecting thousands of jobs. The Government's task is to rebuild that confidence.
Clearly, the Government's first priority must be to keep the BSE agent out of our food. Only when consumers and our European counterparts are satisfied that the necessary measures are in place and are enforced properly will they be confident that British beef is as safe to eat as any other beef in Europe.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way: he has been much more responsible than many of his colleagues in responding to the problem. If the measures with regard to beef hygiene and the slaughterhouses are carried out and if the new recommendations in the orders put forward by my right hon. and learned Friend are implemented effectively, does he agree that—given that BSE is endemic and is under-reported in other European countries—British beef will be the safest, as well as the best, in Europe?
I agree—if the implication of the hon. Gentleman's intervention is that our aim must be to make our beef the safest in Europe and among the safest in the world. There may have been some under-reporting of BSE cases in cattle in Europe—I cannot claim to be an authority on that subject. However, in my judgment and that of all the experts in the United Kingdom and in Europe, the incidence of BSE is a much bigger problem in the United Kingdom than in any other European Union member state.
I must advise the Minister that even the Government's most ardent supporters cannot claim that the Government's record will help them in their task of restoring confidence. The necessary measures were not put in place promptly in the past. BSE was first identified in November 1986. It was 20 months before the Government made farmers destroy all cattle showing the signs of BSE. It was not until June 1989—two and a half years after discovering BSE—that the Government announced that they planned to stop the parts of cattle that carried the most BSE agents from entering our foods. It was another five months before the ban was implemented in England and Wales and seven months before it was implemented in Scotland and in Northern Ireland.
Farmers did not receive full compensation for the slaughter of cattle suspected of carrying BSE until February 1990. The Government have now admitted that under-compensation during the previous 18 months must have deterred farmers from declaring suspect animals. That is the Government's record: a record of delay.
That is not correct. if the hon. Gentleman looks at the response by the Ministry of Agriculture to the Agriculture Select Committee report of February 1990, he will see that that point is addressed expressly. The fact that compensation was limited at that time did not, in the judgment of either the Select Committee or the Ministry, lead to any significant under-reporting—and probably none at all.
I do not accept that, and nor do the majority of those in the industry. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman reads and re-reads the comments by his hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for agriculture in the Scottish Office, the Earl of Lindsay, in the other place, he will see that he acknowledged that more cattle with BSE went to the slaughterhouses as a result of under-compensation.
We are not saying that the farmers were particularly devious—although there are good and bad farmers. Looking at it from the farmers' point of view, if they had a borderline case of BSE and they knew that it would cost money—perhaps 50 per cent. of the beast's value—to keep it back from market and turn it over to the authorities, it is human nature to say that it would be okay. We must remember that most farmers at that time did not believe that there was a link between BSE and CJD.
Once regulations are in place, enforcement is crucial. In September 1995, the Meat Hygiene Service made unannounced visits to 193 slaughterhouses and found failings in the handling of specified bovine offals in 92 of them. Nearly half the abattoirs visited were flouting the rules to protect us from the BSE agent. Those abattoirs have tarnished the reputation of our many excellent abattoirs.
The Government's explanation for the fact that more than half the new cases of BSE are in animals born after the animal feed ban was imposed is that that ban was not properly adhered to. So the Government's record is not good.
As soon as BSE was identified, it had to be recognised that a link might appear between BSE and CJD. In February 1989, the Southwood committee advised the Government that the risk of transmission of BSE to humans appeared remote but could not be ruled out.
The job now is to look ahead; to turn round the current position. The Government's task is to restore confidence in British beef and beef products.
Great heat has been generated about remarks made by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). Will the hon. Gentleman now say, because he was one of the authors of the paper in 1978, that that paper did not deal with the processing of feedstuffs, only their testing, and that testing was not instituted by the Labour Government even though it had been on the stocks for six years, and it took a Conservative Government to introduce any regulations to test the output of feedstuff manufacturers?
I shall be honest with the hon. Gentleman. I shall not go back over the history of what happened in the period 1978 to 1980. The hon. Gentleman is aware of the Labour Government's draft regulation, but I will say the following to the hon. Gentleman, and to the Government: BSE was not known to exist then. The regulations we were discussing related to recycling. The concern then was about salmonella, and there is all the difference in the world between food poisoning and a condition in cattle that might in some circumstances result in CJD in humans. There is a general point about regulation and the need for it, but I shall concentrate on looking ahead.
I have given way pretty religiously. I want to get on. Many hon. Members want to speak.
British consumers and producers have a common interest here. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake. As I am sure the House is aware, the Opposition proposed to the Government a series of measures. I wrote to the Minister and laid them before him yesterday. The Minister acknowledged that he had read the letter earlier this afternoon.
I deeply sorry that the Prime Minister was so dismissive of those proposed measures this afternoon. I intend to take a little time describing those measures and answering the points that the Prime Minister made, because, although I have had the privilege of being a Member of this House for more than 25 years, I have never been so depressed and disappointed by a Prime Minister as I was this afternoon.
First, we proposed the speedy implementation and enforcement of all the measures, including the new measures that the Minister has announced, to keep the BSE agent out of our food. We referred to the State Veterinary Service and the Meat Hygiene Service. The Prime Minister said that we voted against the setting up of the Meat Hygiene Service. Anyone who understands the history of the Meat Hygiene Service knows that it was created as part of the Government's Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, and they know that there was a genuine argument.
I do not impugn the Government's motives, but there was a genuine argument about whether it was better for the meat regulations to be enforced by local authorities or by a new national quango, the Meat Hygiene Service, and the Prime Minister should not have implied, as he did this afternoon, that the fact that we had voted against the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill meant that we were not concerned about enforcement. On balance, we believed at that time that it would be better to leave the responsibilities with the local authorities. That does not devalue the case we were making for effective enforcement.
Secondly, we said that we believed that the introduction of a random testing programme for BSE in the brains of cattle going through slaughterhouses, as recommended in 1989 by the scientific committee set up by the Government, the Tyrrell committee, would be of great epidemiological value. What did the Prime Minister say to that? He said that it was irrelevant because
we have stopped all brain products that could possibly be infected from entering the food chain.
If he is so confident that he has stopped it, is it really so unreasonable to ask for the implementation of a scientific recommendation made in 1989 that there should be random testing of the brains of cattle in the slaughterhouse, just to be sure?
The third proposal that the Opposition made to the Government was the publication of a full list of all products that contain bovine material. The Prime Minister's response was that this was "already happening". In fact, the Government have not published such a list. All we are saying is that we do not believe that the British people should have to rely on newspapers, helpful as they may sometimes be, for the publication of such a list.
The fourth proposal that the Opposition made to the Government was that there be a reassessment of the safety of mechanically recovered meat. The Minister assured the House on Monday that such meat had been banned in December. I knew, as I think did other hon. Members who followed these matters, that the ban that the Government had implemented related to meat that was recovered mechanically from the spinal cord. There is other mechanical recovery of beef. All we asked for was a reassessment—a reassessment dismissed by the Prime Minister.
The fifth proposal that the Opposition made to the Government was encouragement of quality assurance schemes, so that consumers know where their beef comes from, possibly with labelling of products in shops. Hon. Members who follow these matters are aware of voluntary schemes that exist throughout the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State for Scotland will be well aware of the Scottish Quality Beef and Lamb Association and similar schemes; they are purely voluntary.
The Prime Minister said that that would mean
allowing the sale of unsafe beef'.
He appeared to believe that we were suggesting that some meat would be labelled safe or BSE-free and other meat would be labelled otherwise or unlabelled. Did the Prime Minister really think that? Was it ignorance?
I am making the point that the advantage of the voluntary scheme is traceability—and any responsible Government would see the relevance and the importance of that against the background of the crisis that we face in relation to BSE in cattle throughout the United Kingdom. That is all that we were proposing—it was a long-term measure; it was not going to alter things overnight—yet it was dismissed by the Prime Minister.
One of the things that depresses and frightens me about the debate is that many consumers, particularly mums, will be totally bewildered about the priorities of the Government and the priorities of the House of Commons. We are in danger of wiping out our entire beef industry without in any way compensating for the safety and the good health of the majority of our consumers. If we cannot urgently put something in place that is acceptable to the average customer, then, frankly, the amount of money that the Minister of Agriculture has announced for the farming community and for the butchers will be absolutely no use whatsoever.
I welcome the measures announced by the Minister of Agriculture but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: if the market is not restored and if there is not some move back to confidence, the money announced by the Minister will not save us, jobs or the future of our farming.
My sixth point was the banning from human and animal food of all specified bovine offal—and, of course, I referred to cattle under six months old. The Government subsequently banned some specified offal—they banned the thymus and the intestine. However, they have not banned the brain and the spinal cord in cattle under six months old. I know that the Government's response to that is that there is no scientific recommendation asking them to so do, but I put it to them that—this was one of the Opposition's points—it was a House of Commons Select Committee that recommended that in 1990. Finally, we also made reference to our policy for an independent food standards agency—I shall not go into the detail of the point.
When the Labour party worked on these measures—I thank the agricultural organisations and the large companies that welcomed them—we did not expect the Minister to stand up and say that the Government would accept all our proposals, but we expected a dialogue, we expected a constructive response and we expected an opportunity to move forward. That is why I was deeply depressed by the Prime Minister's response to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition this afternoon.
The Minister of Agriculture is aware, as much as any of us, of the significance of Europe here, and I welcome some of the points that he made. As he knows, I have been critical of the way that the Government reacted to the French decision to halt the movement of beef and beef products when our market had collapsed and to halt the movement of cattle and calves. I have also been critical of the Minister's criticism of the European ban.
I had the opportunity to speak to the Agriculture Commissioner, Mr. Fischler, on the telephone last night. There is no doubt in my mind that the European Commission wants to help, and I think that the Minister's remarks this afternoon suggest that the Government acknowledge that and I trust that they will secure an agreed package of measures.
No, I will not give way—I would like to, but many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate.
A lot has been said about slaughtering the national herd. As some hon. Members may be aware, I was with a dairy farmer in Whittington, in the west midlands, who was the proud owner of Flo, a dairy cow with one of the best breeding records in Europe who was worth £65,000 before the crisis. The farmer, Mr. Cope, and his son have a BSE-free herd—they have never had BSE and they have not used any feed with the contaminated protein. Most vets and experts would say that that herd would never develop BSE.
I put it to the House that the extravagant statements about the complete slaughter of the national herd make no sense. [Interruption.] I acknowledge the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture but I am not referring to the hon. Lady or to the Minister of Agriculture. We have to put the slaughtering issue into perspective. I think that the hon. Lady is aware that the question of implementing measures that help us move towards a BSE-free herd is something that is of great importance and concern to the European Commission. We will not get European backing and funding if we are not prepared to move in that direction.
A complete slaughter of the national herd is not the way to tackle the problem—it is not practical. Do the people who put out the wild idea of a national slaughter understand that we would not produce milk or beef for many years? Perhaps it is a theoretical option, but the idea that we slaughter our herds and buy cattle from elsewhere is ridiculous. Where would we buy it? From France? From the Irish Republic? From Germany, where we know there are some BSE cases? Someone actually suggested to me that they were going to ship in the cattle from New Zealand.
That is not a practical approach. However, we are aware that a proposed scheme of selective slaughter is on the agenda. The National Farmers Union of England and Wales has proposed that cull cows—both in the dairy and beef herds—will be slaughtered and destroyed when they reach the end of their working lives. We believe that that proposal—which I believe has the support of the majority of farmers and other farming organisations in the United Kingdom—should be implemented if the Government intend to go down the road of the slaughter and destruction of some animals to reduce the risk of any cow with the BSE agent entering our slaughterhouses and its carcase entering the food chain.
Of course, we are all aware of the policy to destroy any cow that has the BSE symptoms. However, we are concerned that some cows have the BSE agent but do not display the symptoms—usually because they have not had the agent for a sufficiently long time. We believe that there is something constructive about preventing these older cows—which have a high incidence of BSE—from entering the food chain.
The hon. Gentleman is making a sensible and constructive speech. He is attempting to create a bipartisan policy, and the public expects that. Does he accept that we have our present problem, at least in part, because of the ridiculous, extravagant and hysterical statement by his hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman)? Can we expect a more responsible speech from her this evening?
I do not think that that was a helpful intervention. The Government have blamed Europe for our BSE, they have blamed the media for our BSE and they have blamed the Labour party for our BSE. The Secretary of State for Health—I hope that he will correct me if I am wrong—said that the people, not the cows, were mad.
I do not think that many people agree with any of those propositions. My hon. Friend was articulating the concern of many people, especially parents, about the important, historic statement on the new cases of CJD.
I was disappointed by the Prime Minister's response to our proposals, but I welcome the Minister's proposals. I welcome what he said about the renderers. It is absolutely crucial. The rendering plants are to be given £1.5 million a week in aid. The announcement of temporary aid will certainly help. I welcome especially—although they will have to move quickly—the fact that the Government are urgently considering support for the abattoirs. The potential collapse of the abattoirs is far and away the most disturbing factor. If they do not move quickly to support them, there could be a domino effect.
I note the Minister's announcement of the calf slaughter premium—which has been long standing within European Union regulations—of £100 a bull calf. There will be many sad dairymen and farmers who are being paid £100 to kill their calves.
By and large, we welcome the measures that have been announced. We shall not nit-pick. We know the scale of the crisis—and it is a crisis. It is the biggest threat to British agriculture and all its associated industries.
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. It is a much bigger threat than foot and mouth disease was in the 1960s.
My overriding point to the Minister is as follows: only when the necessary measures to keep BSE from our food are in place and properly enforced will confidence in the safety of British beef return to the country and the rest of the world.
I am most grateful to be called so early in such an important debate. First, I must declare my interest as a farmer, a master butcher and a member of the Agriculture Select Committee when it inquired into BSE in 1990.
As a butcher and a farmer, I must say that the entire meat and livestock industry will be extremely disappointed in the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang). He said very little that would give comfort to that industry at this time of crisis. The hon. Gentleman said that he would do whatever he could to restore confidence in the industry but, with very few exceptions, his proposals have done very little to engender that.
By and large, I am sure that the whole House will welcome the measures introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend this evening. My only concern—this will be reflected in some parts of the House—is the time scale against which some of the measures will be implemented. At the end of the day—as my right hon. and learned Friend recognised—we are talking about the livelihoods of the hundreds and thousands of people working in the meat and livestock industry.
Let me take a moment to explain to the House how fragile the economy and finances of the meat and livestock industry are. Even before the latest outbreak of hysteria, there was great concern about the massive over-capacity in the abattoir industry, to the extent that a scheme had been proposed whereby the owners of abattoirs would put money into a kitty that could be withdrawn by those who chose to close their abattoirs. I now fear that the very much reduced throughput in our abattoirs will make it practically impossible for their owners to keep body and soul together, and they will have to close. The knock-on effect on the industry cannot be calculated accurately. It is potentially devastating. Frankly, if the abattoirs are unable to pay the auctioneers and the auctioneers cannot therefore pay the farmers, I leave the House to draw its own conclusions.
Early-day motion 677—tabled in my name last night and supported by 115 right hon. and hon. Members—mentions the safety of beef, the involvement of the European Union and the payment for consequential loss. I have no doubt that British beef is safe and nor does my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister. In 1990, no proof was submitted to the Select Committee that there was any link between BSE and CJD. There is no positive proof of that link today and the measures that the Government have taken are responsibly based on the acceptance of a remote, but yet unproven, possibility of that link.
The European Union has disgracefully ignored the scientific evidence. It has totally ignored the findings of SEAC and moved with lightning speed to impose a ban, not just in Europe but worldwide. I doubt whether many hon. Members realised that it is now within the power of the European Union to impose a ban that goes far beyond the European Union. The European Union has precipitated a public relations disaster of unparalleled proportions, and it has been aided and abetted by certain commercial undertakings which, frankly, ought to know better.
The House will be aware of the advertisement which appeared in this morning's newspapers, in which McDonald's states:
We still believe that British beef is safe".
If McDonald's believe that British beef is safe, why in heaven's name is it not selling it? If that company believes in a market economy—presumably it does, as it is an American company; it comes from the very home of capitalism—why does it not believe in giving consumers the choice between eating British beef and eating other beef? The hypocrisy of the actions of that company defies all possible explanation.
I shall deal now with consequential loss. There must be compensation for the cattle that will be slaughtered and that will not pass into the food chain. I say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister that there can he no horse trading on this in Brussels and no quid pro quos. We have to make it a quite separate and distinct issue. We want compensation from the European Commission for the consequential loss suffered by the meat and livestock industry.
It is not their money—some of it came out of the hon. Gentleman's pocket, and probably a lot more of it came out of mine. If anybody is to pay for the mayhem caused in the industry as a result of a totally irresponsible, unwarranted and unnecessary ban on British beef, it has to be the European taxpayer. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister goes to Turin, he must make it quite clear to our colleagues in the European Union that, if they do not pay that compensation voluntarily, it will have to be docked from the huge sum of money that we pay to Brussels each year.
I have a lot more talking to do and I have very little time in which to do it, so I would appreciate fewer sedentary interventions from the hon. Gentleman.
We are where we are. I see absolutely no point in raking over the coals of past decisions, but that is exactly what the Opposition spokesman did for almost his whole speech. There is no point in trying to best-guess decisions made in the past. Decisions that have been made were not made with the benefit of hindsight; they were made in the light of all the circumstances and all the evidence available at the time. That is not to say that scientific knowledge does not improve or that more scientific data will not become available in future.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East hinted that all this was just a Government responsibility. I tell him that anyone interested in the future of the meat and livestock industry, not to mention the future of the country's whole economy, must come together to help to restore public confidence. It is no good Opposition Members taunting Ministers by asking for assurances that beef is 100 per cent. safe. Nothing on God's earth is 100 per cent. safe, as everybody knows.
No scientist worth his salt would ever say that anything was 100 per cent. safe. It is virtually impossible to prove a negative, and the Opposition should recognise that. Having recognised it, they should then be prepared to back anyone who will take a responsible view towards restoring confidence. We must work harder together to restore that confidence in a product that is as good as any product in the world, and better than most.
I want to propose a series of measures, some long-term, some short-term, some immediate. I am glad that the Minister has already dealt with my prime concern—help for the rendering industry, without which the whole meat and livestock industry would come to a grinding halt.
The Country Landowners Association has called for a scheme to ensure that all cattle culled from the dairy and beef herds are taken off the market with compensation and totally removed from the food chain. The CLA says:
Failure to act will have a devastating effect on the livestock and related industries".
I believe that that is true. I welcome the Minister's measures, as far as they go, and I hope that he will be able to flesh them out as soon as possible.
The measures proposed by the Government are not justified by the scientific evidence—
I suppose that it was too much to hope that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) would rise above his Euro-scepticism when debating an issue as serious as this is for the whole rural economy of the United Kingdom—but there we are.
I start by declaring my interest. I am a partner in a family farming business which includes 70 beef suckler cows on a traditional, extensively managed Scottish hill farm. We also have a little fold of six pedigree Highland cows. What is more, I represent a large number of livestock farmers—mainly upland farmers in the Lammermuir hills.
My interest is much more than financial: it is also emotional. Like any stockman or anyone who cares for cattle, I care about the cattle on my farm. I know that that goes for virtually every stockman and farmer in the land. We look after our stock; we tend them every day and in all weathers. We take a pride in producing good, healthy cattle in quality herds. My farm's cows will be calving in the coming month, and I am appalled by the idea that people may regard them as a health risk—and that the slaughter and incineration of such fine healthy animals is being considered.
The House is entitled to reflect on how we got into this problem. I am sure that I speak for many farmers when I express my personal fury at those in Government and in the feed compounding industry who cut costs by dropping standards to allow the incorporation of unsuitable and inadequately treated animal material in feed supplements. I am nauseated by the thought that some hill cow cobs on the market in the mid-1980s may have contained such material. The labels on the bags of feed never said anything about animal residues, and we should have been able to trust reputable feed manufacturers and Government regulatory bodies to ensure that there was nothing wrong with the concentrate feed we needed to supplement hay or silage in winter.
Unfortunately, and to the eternal shame of a mad, deregulatory Government, that confidence may have been misplaced. I was a Labour spokesman on agriculture from 1985 to 1990, and I well remember working with my hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) to press for action to eradicate the menace of BSE when it was first discovered. We wanted better controls of feed and more attention given to research, both to discover to true scale of the problem and to develop ways of achieving early diagnosis. We wanted the Government to try to eradicate BSE, but the Government seemed content to contain it in the hope that it would go away.
I suggest that that Government were guilty of serious negligence in respect of that aspect of animal and human health, and they stand condemned.
Now that the crisis has broken, the situation is being further aggravated by the Government's dreadful relationship with our EU partners. All this is undeniable—but the water has flowed under the bridge, and it serves no useful purpose to wallow in recriminations. The whole country will expect this House to deal constructively with the crisis facing the 600,000 people who work in the beef industry. Our task is to restore public confidence in the quality of British beef and to reopen the export markets. The alternative is unthinkable: a deficient diet for our people, a decimated rural economy, and a countryside without grazed pastures and traditional beef herds.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) set out a constructive agenda with the objective of eradicating BSE. We need the resources and the research, and we need action to establish the true nature and extent of the problem. So let us have fewer bland reassurances from politicians of all colours. What we need are more direct explanations and advice from credible scientists. Let us resolve here and now to follow the best scientific advice with the objective of eradicating the disease. If that means selective, targeted slaughtering, so be it.
Slaughtering can be targeted. There are detailed records of cases of BSE, and all farmers are required to keep full records of stock movements. So it should not be unduly difficult to find out where cattle come from and where they have gone; and if necessary, to cull particular breeding lines.
It would be absurd and obscene, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East said, to indulge in slaughtering and incineration of healthy cattle as a stunt for the satisfaction of the press.
I should like to add a word of special pleading, as the Minister talked about the 30-month cut-off rule for cattle going to the prime beef market. It would be almost impossible for slow-maturing highland or Galloway cattle to be fattened in that time, so there may be a need to pay special attention to certain native breeds.
I also suggest that the Government have a duty to deal with the immediate crisis facing the 600,000 people who work in the beef industry, from high street butchers right through to the stockmen who live and work in our remotest rural areas. Livelihoods, enterprises and whole communities are facing ruin this week.
There is also an immediate animal welfare problem. If stock cannot be marketed, they still have to be fed. Many farms must be running out of hay and silage as they wait for the long-delayed spring after a long, cold, difficult winter. So I hope that the Minister will be successful in his endeavours to open up the intervention system for finished cattle. That is required within days, not weeks. I appeal to the Minister also to look at ways of permitting temporary grazing on set-aside land for store cattle in these extraordinary circumstances.
This crisis is a national disgrace. Some of the best beef cattle in the world are being regarded as a health risk, which is absurd in a country such as Scotland where the incidence of BSE is just 0.03 per cent. of the cattle population and is falling. But consumers are alarmed, the market has collapsed and a massive sector of the rural economy is facing disaster. I fear that it has to be said that Government negligence in the mid-1980s must have contributed to this situation, but the House and the whole nation will not allow the Government to shirk their responsibility now.
The debate takes place against the background of the deepest sense of crisis and unease in our rural areas that I have ever known, probably greater than that during the foot and mouth crisis some 20 years ago. Setting aside for a moment the Labour party's cries that it is all the Government's fault—when does it not say that?—farmers, processors and exporters out there expect the Government and the House to come up with solutions which will preserve our rural way of life and regenerate confidence in British beef in Europe and elsewhere.
Having seen the way that the European Union has operated in the past week against the weight of scientific evidence—which it has never challenged—I am coming to the view that the two aims are not compatible. Plainly, the Government will try to persuade the EU that our measures are sufficient to restore confidence. However, we must accept that that may be a forlorn hope and that we may have to go it alone, very much along the lines that have been proposed by the National Farmers Union.
I have never in the House or elsewhere been one of the more strident anti-Europeans, yet Europe's decision, which was taken without a scintilla of evidence, has fed the growing cynicism in the House and outside about Europe and its motives towards Britain. It has performed like a trade protection agency for the farmers of France and Germany and their products. If that were not so, it would impose the same restrictions on food from those countries, which have BSE, as it is now proposing for ours. We all know that all those countries have exactly the same incidence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease as well.
Let this week be a dreadful warning to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as he goes about his duties in Turin tomorrow. The country wants no greater integration with a group which treats us like that. In the meantime, the situation continues to drift into deeper crisis. We must consider unilateral action. A wide range of options from total slaughter to selective slaughter is available and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture today announced one or two interim measures. It is unfortunate that those measures had to be, because cases of BSE notified in Britain have been coming down from 1,000 a week at the height of the disease to 250 a week now. The specified bovine offal ban which was introduced in 1989 has been instrumental in reducing the figures over the past few years.
The Government's task has not been made any easier by those who are anxious to rubbish British beef. They range from some politicians to some people involved with food—all of whom should know better. The advice from the Consumers Association not to eat British beef was disgraceful—almost as disgraceful as the mealy-mouthed comments from McDonald's, which said in its press release:
We believe British beef is safe. However, we cannot ignore the fact that recent announcements have led to a growing loss of consumer confidence in British beef which has not been restored.
By any understanding of the British language, that means, "British beef is safe but we will lose profits if we continue to use it." Those same people are proposing to import foreign beef products.
McDonald's would have us believe—I continue from its press release—
we have always put our customers first".
By putting its customers first in that way it is happily signing up for beef and beef products from countries that have BSE, just as Britain does, and CJD, just as Britain does, and have a far less stringent regime of standards within the food chain. As a consumer, I shall be much more cautious about eating burgers from such food chains in future than I would have been in the past.
People are panicking about recent cases of CJD, but at yesterday's meeting of the Select Committee on Agriculture, we heard evidence from Dr. Robert Will, who is the head of the national CJD surveillance unit at Edinburgh. He said that it was quite wrong to assume that because it was not known for sure how people got CJD, it must be assumed that it was through scrapie or BSE. He continued:
CJD occurs all round the world at about the same incidence in countries that are free of scrapie and free of BSE. Within an individual country they appear to occur completely at random. This has led to the proposition that CJD is not due to any environmental contamination at all but is due to a spontaneous change in the protein in the brain itself, occurring at a random event. We have no good evidence that CJD is caused in any way by cross contamination other than by very special circumstances.
Therefore on the basis of "no good evidence", our farmers are suffering and will continue to suffer and go under unless measures such as those that my right hon. and learned Friend has announced are continued and improved after he has been to Brussels this week.
A farmer in my constituency fattens 4,000 beef cattle a year for slaughter and export. He has never seen a case of BSE on his farm or elsewhere. He has never used concentrates or bone meal. For 20 years he has fed his cattle solely on vegetable waste. Just over a week ago, his cattle were worth £1,000 a head. Today, they are perhaps worthless. Such people have done nothing wrong in their professional lives as farmers. They are the backbone of England and the future of a prosperous rural community.
Intervention has been mentioned but intervention restrictions are harming or could harm farmers, such as the one that I have described. The weight limit for intervention is 370 kg and will not help the exporting beef producer, whose average beast weighs about 450 kg. Payment is often required up front by the intervention board, which takes six weeks to pay. Intervention does not take premium cattle; only average quality cattle.
If intervention is to work for the good farmer who has done nothing wrong in his professional life, some of those restrictions will have to be amended. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister will be able to recommend some of these improvements in his final package. They will help to prevent a disaster of national proportions from which this country may never recover in the lifetimes of many of us. Today's announcements will help, and I wish my right hon. and learned Friend every success in his discussions in Brussels tomorrow.
This week, there has been a steady stream of job losses throughout rural Britain. In the past seven days, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people have been destroyed and, tomorrow, many more will be laid off—I hope temporarily, but who knows? I wonder whether they will be encouraged by what they have heard today, especially on the evening news following Prime Minister's Question Time. I suspect that they will be further depressed.
Let me quote the statement issued by the St. Merryn Meat Co. yesterday as it announced that 149 staff would be laid off immediately and that a further 2,000 jobs were at risk. I should emphasise that the company is one of the biggest and best meat processors serving the whole of the south-west. It said:
We would like to express our total exasperation at the Government's inept handling of the BSE crisis, the Labour Party's political point scoring, with total disregard for the livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands of employees engaged in meat processing and associated food industries which they represent.
That was reported in The Western Morning News this morning. That view will be echoed by many other people all over Britain tonight; indeed, I suspect that, in their
hearts, many hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree with it. It was reflected in the comments earlier of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson).
There will be plenty of time for investigations—and blame, if need be—and, clearly, the research programme will need to be redoubled to answer the major scientific questions that remain. For example, first, what progress is being made to develop reliable testing of live cattle and why was feed not effectively tested for contamination? Secondly, is maternal transmission of bovine Spongiform encephalopathy—from cow to calf—really impossible? Thirdly, what about lateral transmission in the herd? Are the French right to insist on total infected herd slaughter?
Fourthly, what is the hard evidence of cross-species transmission'? In particular, what is the exact position with regard to sheep? Fifthly, what is the scientific analysis of the remarkable coincidence of the use of organophosphorous warble fly treatments—OPs—on cattle in the United Kingdom at the same time as BSE developed among our national herd? Could the known effect on the central nervous system make cows more susceptible to BSE? It may not have caused BSE, but it may have triggered it.
Sixthly, what lessons are to be learned from the overall pressure, to which the farming industry has been subjected, for ever-increasing intensive methods of husbandry'? What are the Government doing—what will they do at the intergovernmental conference starting tomorrow—to reassess the risks of that central strategy of the common agricultural policy?
I hope that the Government also take note of the increasing support, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has already drawn attention this week, for our 1993 proposal for an independent food commission, answerable separately to a Secretary of State, because that is clearly relevant. I note that consumers and farmers' leaders, such as Sir Simon Gourlay, now support us on that issue.
Over the years, other people and I have put those and many related questions to Ministers. It is not just the research budget that must be re-examined; training, too, will have to be upgraded if the industry is to reorientate its efforts. Rumours in the past few days of economies in ATB Landbase could not be worse timed.
Those issues, however, require longer-term re-examination. Tonight, we must face the immediate concerns. We must look forward rather than rake over the past. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I believe that it is time for cross-party and cross-industry consultation and action, not least because that will be essential to impress the European Commission and the other 14 European states that we are in this together.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has repeatedly emphasised to the Prime Minister over the past seven days, we are ready to contribute constructively to the resolution of both the public health and the public confidence issues that were raised by the ministerial statements on BSE and beef.
As the hon. Members for Newark (Mr. Alexander) and for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) have said, the whole rural economy is in danger. There have been thousands of lay-offs already. Livestock farmers have been hit at their most vulnerable time of year. In the circumstances, many Liberal Democrats, in town and county halls throughout the country, have a special responsibility for these matters, representing as we do, at all levels of government, the difficulties that rural areas have faced during the recession. It is critical that the painstaking, sustained efforts to bring back jobs to those areas are not put at risk. In the next few days, we must improve the local employment position rather than let it be further threatened by what has happened in the past week.
We believe, therefore, that investigations and recriminations can wait for another day. First, we must deal with the question of public confidence in British beef. To that end, we suggest that the Government must now announce—I do not think that it has happened yet this evening—an explicit, defined and measurable target. What is their objective? The explicit objective should be a "BSE-free" national herd—a return to the ambient and negligible levels before the mid-1980s—within an agreed timetable. It should be possible to aim for that. It cannot be left loose. Nothing less will satisfy public health concerns. Once that is established, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee will have to be mandated to advise on the most comprehensive means of achieving that objective, but the political objective must be here first.
As we all recognise, the market is governed by sentiment as well as by science. We welcome the positive contributions from the industry led by the National Farmers Union, but with the food industry involved as well. Their recommendations on a selective cull of older cows were made at the same time as our suggestions to the Prime Minister on Monday. There is obviously wide consensus on their necessity. A clear, clean break is necessary if we are to regain confidence in beef.
Since Monday, a huge range of organisations has specifically endorsed the thrust of our proposals. I have already referred to the NFU and to the other farming unions, with which we have worked closely. I should also mention the Country Landowners Association and the Livestock Industry Support Trust. Even more significant, in terms of restoring market confidence, is the support of the Initiative on Food Marketing because, as the House knows, that body represents the leaders of the food manufacturing, catering and retail industries. In addition, representations from the Consumers Association and the National Consumer Council point in the same direction.
I understand, but I am disappointed, that, until this evening, the Labour party has not seen fit to support this vital core proposal. I hope that what we heard earlier means that the Labour party has changed its mind. Its previous position was sad—understandable but regrettable. The industry has been disappointed by that. I hope that we can now move on.
There are various options, and exemptions must be rigorously examined, but they must all have this common aim: the elimination from the human food chain of all beef or cow meat that could possibly have been infected by contaminated feed before the 1989 ban took full effect. The precise timing and monitoring of that process can be the subject of further discussion among us all. At the same time, as the Minister clearly recognises, there must be an immediate package of measures to stabilise the market and to avoid further haemorrhaging of jobs in rural areas.
We recommend that a statement on the use to which the Government intend to put the intervention scheme for finished cattle is made urgently. Clearly, the ban announced this evening on 30-month-plus cattle, albeit temporary, increases the need for emergency action. As it is imperative to get the market moving again, it may be sensible to consider a top-up price scheme for the immediate future. That is something that the farming unions want the Government to deal with urgently.
It remains to be seen whether the aid scheme, again announced this evening, for young steers will be sufficient. I hope so, but I doubt it. Of course, stocks in intervention are low and only comparatively recent entries remain, so there is presumably no reason why purchases from abattoirs at an economic price should not be initiated as quickly as possible. The mechanism for ensuring that is surely financially viable, although clearly that will be a subject for negotiation with the European Commission. No doubt the Minister will brief us on his return from Brussels.
As for the culling and compensation scheme, clearly it will take time to work out, but we believe that it is vital to achieve a decision as fast as possible, commensurate with the essential consultation process that we would require. As carcases will have to be stripped out anyway, we would hope that payments by weight, rather than just by animal, will be possible, thereby ensuring that there can be appropriate compensation for quality stock.
Since European Union precedents—for example, swine fever in other member states—provided for up to 50 per cent. Brussels funding, surely it must be possible to obtain Commission endorsement very speedily for the proposals that we are suggesting. That could also ensure that other countries' BSE problems, to which reference has been made and which are becoming more and more apparent, will be treated without any discrimination. Our colleagues in the European Parliament pressed last night for assurances on those points, which I hope will prove to be correct. Incidentally, the collapse of beef sales, especially in France, but generally on the continent, may persuade other member states to join us more energetically to restore confidence throughout the Union.
In the longer term, we must reiterate our conviction that a substantial Government investment in a truly comprehensive UK-wide beef quality assurance scheme is now long overdue. A positive commitment could revive hope of returning public confidence generally, while forming the base for an effective marketing strategy abroad.
At the same time, we must carefully examine the case for the exemption from culling of herds in which, first, there have been no BSE cases whatever, as the hon. Member for Newark said, and, secondly, absolutely no bought-in cattle cake has been fed to them, which particularly applies to beef suckler herds. In such circumstances, surely the examination of MAFF records and farmers' audited accounts should be sufficient to provide proof. As long as the Government's compensation package is realistic, the motive to cheat will be minimal. Those herds will then provide the nucleus for the expanded beef quality assurance scheme that we require and a tightening up of any compensation arrangements.
We must all work together energetically for an early reversal of the EU ban. To rely on that happening—incidentally, while it is in place it is just being used as a good target for the Euro-sceptics—seems wildly over-optimistic, not least because its removal would not lead to an immediate resumption of any confidence or trade buying on the continent.
In any case, the industry in this country must regain public confidence long before the Union six-week review period is up. The Minister simply cannot afford to come back from Brussels this weekend empty handed. About two thirds of a million jobs are at risk, as the Prime Minister confirmed this afternoon in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). The people in those jobs cannot wait months for the export ban to be lifted.
The root of the problem lies closer to home. Until everybody in the UK—consumers, food retailers and food producers—is enabled to have his or her confidence renewed, export prospects will remain dire. That is why it is our conviction that the development of an agreed package of measures, along the lines that I have set out, is urgently necessary. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I will support and work constructively with the Minister in a programme of action along the lines that I have suggested to restore consumer confidence in the market. We believe that the country deserves nothing less.
In my capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on Catering, I should report that there appears to be no fall-off in the consumption of beef among hon. Members. That is not a moment of levity, but an important statement on how we in the House feel.
Hereford and beef are very much synonymous. I took time out today to go to Herefordshire to talk with people there because I wanted to get some first-hand feedback. I spoke to butchers, the public generally, meat processors and farmers. I have heard about all the knock-on effects and will not weary the House by repeating them. I want to tell the Labour party with all the strength that I can muster that there is massive resentment of the politicisation of the issue. Asking why it cannot be sorted out on a common-sense basis instead of it being hyped up was the common thread of what was said to me. That is very important, and I hope that the Labour party hears it.
The second point made to me concerned the strong resentment of the worldwide ban that has been imposed by the European Commission. That really hurts. People ask what confidence we have that the imported beef constitutes less risk. I have had the pleasure of serving on the council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons for the past 13 years and I have the highest regard for the UK veterinary profession. I do not have quite the same regard for some of the profession's members on the European side of the channel. That does not in any way reduce my European credentials; it is just a matter of perception.
I also want to know what confidence we can have in the imported product. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) mentioned that important point in his discourse on McDonald's. I happen to disagree with some amount of what he says about McDonald's, but that is another matter. When my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister attends the emergency Council of Agriculture Ministers this weekend, I want him to demand a wide-ranging review of EU countries' farming practices. I do not think that they are all whiter than white. The problem is wider than the UK. We must know that we are all playing on the same field. I am also asked why we have to take imports of white veal when we do not even agree with the practices adopted in the rearing of those animals.
Confidence-building measures are what we are about tonight. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) remarked on the point and I agree with him on it. There are three very important areas. First, it is absolutely fundamental that farmers take scrupulous care in reporting anything worrisome. Secondly, the figures quoted about abattoir operators are alarming, and it is vital that the public should have confidence that meat is handled scrupulously in abattoirs. Thirdly, there should also be confidence in the Meat Hygiene Service inspection. Those three elements are very important, and can be implemented by the industry itself.
My right hon. and learned Friend has brought forward measures today, but there is a big gap on the question of cull cows, to which other hon. Members have referred. The package is not yet complete. Until a measure on cull cows is in place, it will be difficult to assess any increase in the underlying confidence of the market, the producers and the public. I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to press ahead on that issue as fast as he possibly can, because we need to know where we stand.
Other points that have already been raised relate to the engendering of BSE-free herds. Although not all herds have been affected, a number that are BSE-free may be so only by the grace of God. We need to develop incentives to finish beef cattle particularly on grass rather than cake. I declare a small interest, in that the Hereford breed of cattle is particularly good at finishing on grass rather than on cake compared with some of its continental successors. The breed has been under threat for some time because of its inability to put on quite the same amount of weight per day as the Charolais or the Limousin, but it is a first-class breed in terms of putting on weight on grass at the finish. It will be helpful if we can encourage finishing on grass as part of the overall package.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made an important announcement about renderers today. However, I have some questions on that. They need not necessarily be answered today, but I would welcome a letter. First, does the £1.5 million a week to the rendering industry take into account the volume of offal produced by the poultry industry? That is a very relevant question, as an immense amount of offal is produced as part of the poultrymeat production process. If the figure does not take that offal into account, we must rethink the matter.
Secondly, an order is being produced today for consultation. Will the consultees include the poultry industry, which is all part of the same scene? Thirdly, will the order contain provision for a review mechanism to take into account future developments in rendering, offal handling and the continuing scientific debate?
Tonight, my right hon. and learned Friend has proposed a number of confidence-building measures, but there are still gaps, and I hope that they will be addressed. I shall meet my farmers and all those involved in the meat industry in Herefordshire tomorrow. I shall listen to what they say and I shall feed back their views to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the hope that they will form part of the useful debate on restoring confidence in the meat industry.
I may technically have an indirect interest to declare, inasmuch as I am president of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. My overriding interest is in the health of the population and in the interests of all consumers. I do not accept that our prime objective should be the restoration of confidence in the market, because I believe that the objective must be the protection of public health. Furthermore, unless the public are assured that health is the prime objective, whatever we do with the aim of restoring confidence, we shall fail. The perception that what is being done is intended to protect public health is the first prerequisite of any reassurance or any restoration of confidence.
There has been Government ineptitude for some years. The crisis would have been far less likely to arise if there had been firmer action earlier and if there had been more humility in the face of our massive ignorance. People are tired of hearing bland statements that everything is safe and that the risks are extremely small—statements which are clearly born out of ignorance and which have had to be contradicted from time to time, most recently on 20 March.
There has been order after order after order; the chronology of events is long. Each order has made certain progress and has introduced certain regulations, but there has always been a tiny step at a time. That approach is inadequate.
I do not want there to be a panic in that all herds are assumed to be the same. I am sorry that some people feel that because there is such widespread BSE, all our herds are infected. However, I believe that any slaughter policy we institute—I believe that there will have to be such a policy—must differentiate between one herd and another. There are differences which probably result from how cattle have been cared for, reared and fed; there are different practices. That must be acknowledged, because the different practices have led to different results. It should not just be the case that cows over a certain age are slaughtered. If we are to have recognisably BSE-free herds, our objective must be to distinguish between one herd and another.
It has been said that we do not need to rake over the past. However, one person's raking over the past might be another person's learning from the past. We must learn severe lessons from the lack of enforcement of the regulations on abattoirs. Regulations that are not properly implemented and are not enforced are simply a false reassurance; we are now paying the price for all the false reassurance.
It is extraordinary that there has been such complacency about the huge failure to comply with the regulations. How can we be assured that future stronger regulations will be complied with when milder regulations have not been complied with in the past? One important way to ensure compliance would have been to treat the non-compliers with great severity. Why have there been no prosecutions? The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has said that prosecutions would have made it a criminal matter. Exactly. It is a criminal matter not to have complied with regulations imposed on the handling of meat and meat products in the interests of public safety. If people who did not comply had been criminalised and had paid a penalty, there would have been a lot more compliance a lot sooner, and people would have a lot more confidence in future regulations. That is an important matter.
The sheer extent of BSE in the herds has astonished and worried people. The fact that, as at 23 February, there were 158,277 cases is very worrying. As at July 1993, there were 100,000 confirmed cases, which means that in the past two and a half years, and a long time after the ban on feeding ruminant remains to ruminants, there have been almost 60,000 more cases. That is why consumers do not have confidence, and who can blame them?
We need a frank acknowledgement, as some hon. Members have made, of the extent of human ignorance in this matter. We do not know for sure how the disease is transmitted and we do not even know whether it has come from scrapie. We do not know why sheep convey scrapie to lambs, and why cows do not convey BSE to calves. We cannot know whether humans will convey it to babies. It is time that we stopped just saying that everything is safe and that we admitted our great ignorance. Paradoxically, that would help to create confidence. Bland reassurance works for a time, but it then becomes utterly self-defeating. That is what has happened, and that is what is still happening.
One good thing that was not generally known until a recent parliamentary answer to one of my hon. Friends is that vaccine serum from British cattle was discontinued in 1989. The chief medical officer admitted that there was no actual evidence of risk, but he said that it seemed prudent to take that action. He thought that the industry itself would want to eliminate any theoretical risk.
That is a sensible attitude. If we wait for proof, it will be too late. Positive proof in such cases is not the same as negative proof, whereby we could all simply say, "It has all worked out well, has it not?" By the time we have positive proof of all the dangers, it will be too late, and we may face something uncontrollable.
I hope, and I think that I believe, that at this stage the situation is still controllable, and that it would be possible to have a BSE-free herd. I am not a vegetarian; I personally want to be able to have confidence about eating beef. Of course, I would have a lot more confidence in cattle fed on the things on which animals should be fed—those that eat grass and similar natural products. Those are the kind of cattle that we should have, and I think that they are more likely to be found free of BSE.
That is one reason why I do not want to say, "All herds are suspect. Slaughter them all, according to age," or simply, "Slaughter them all." I do not want that, but what I am looking for is respect for nature, which is so often missing from much of the human attitude to animals We are now seeing the consequences of that kind of carelessness—a carelessness about humanity's relationship with nature—and we cannot afford to continue with it.
I repeat my belief that our overriding objective must be the protection of human health. When we achieve that, confidence will be restored in the market—but not until then.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in this important debate—a debate that is exceptionally important for our countryside as well as in other ways. I must make it clear that I am attempting the double whammy tonight: I am speaking on behalf not only of myself but of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). Our constituencies are adjacent and are both rural. Between us, we represent much of the farming community in Cheshire.
I shall begin by puncturing one or two myths propagated by the media. The first is that the interests of consumers, farmers and the meat and food industry are not synonymous. That idea is almost too ridiculous to repeat. Farmers are consumers. They are not in the business, or life style, of agriculture and farming to provide the nation with food that is not fit to eat. They are as concerned as anyone to produce the best quality food. Indeed, in our part of the world, and in our country, they do—and it is about time that somebody said that.
Secondly, I shall puncture the myth that the Ministry of Agriculture, has acted only to defend a large and important industry in this country—the conspiracy theory. That idea, too, needs knocking on the head straight away. The reality is the opposite: Ministers and officials have been open and honourable, and at all times have taken the best and latest scientific advice available in the world, let alone in the United Kingdom. It is always easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight. How many times do we see that happening? Science is moving forward fast, but people must take decisions with the knowledge available to them at the time.
The next myth that needs to be exploded is that food can be pronounced 100 per cent. safe. What rubbish. We all know that that is not possible. All life is a balance of risks. It is safer for me to travel down to Westminster every week by aeroplane, but I do not. I travel by car more often than not. Every day of our lives when we get out of bed we take risks and assess the balance of risks. We must use those common-sense methods to assess the balance of risk with food.
Another myth is that scientists have been denied funding. Scientists have been given adequate and more than adequate funding for their needs. I suspect that if they need more and ask for it they will have it. Many scientists reported in the media have their own axes to grind, and they make all sorts of claims. I say to them, "If you have anything to put forward in the debate, put your ideas, theories and research before Professor Pattison and the other members of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee. Put yourselves forward and be judged by your scientific peers." I am not capable of judging whether there is any value in what such people propose; the best scientists in the country are the people to judge and assess.
The next factor is the role of the media, which has been disgraceful. We have had hype, hysteria and over-reaction, with people being interviewed for the sake of their off-beat views—rent-a-quote, in other words. People are interviewed who are obviously woefully ignorant of the issues and are very concerned. To a certain extent we are a scientifically uneducated and illiterate nation, so people are swept along with the tide and believe what is written in the newspapers, which is based on speculation and scaremongering. That is what has led to the overall crisis of confidence.
Next, blame should also be laid firmly at the feet of the European Union. The view taken by the Commission and the subsequent banning of British beef were breathtaking in their arrogance. We now know what we have always suspected—that Europe acts politically, predominantly to protect its own industry. British beef has been making inroads into European markets. What an opportunity for Europe to put a stop to those valuable exports from this country. Who would ever recommend anyone to eat Belgian beef, which is treated with clenbuterol, cortisone and angel dust? People must be really mad to do that.
The only question that the House needs to answer tonight is how to restore confidence. That is the most vital question of all, and the most difficult to answer. It is vital that the EU is made to reverse its illegal ban as a matter of urgency, and that our other export markets are reassured by the evidence that our beef is entirely wholesome. The EU has caused, aided and abetted market turmoil, and the Government must pull out all the stops to ensure that it is aware of our views.
The briefing paper from the Country Landowners Association says:
We put a clear message to Jacques Santer that European policies should similarly be based on the best scientific evidence".
The best scientific evidence says that eating our beef is perfectly safe, and that it is perfectly good.
The Cheshire branch of the National Farmers Union brought out its policy before the national organisation of the NFU. I am delighted about that, because we always try to be one step—I was about to say "in front of the herd", but perhaps I had better not, in the circumstances. The Cheshire branch recommends the culling of what I would call the "old girls" in the dairy herd when they come to the end of their productive lives. They would not go into the food chain but would be incinerated.
The scientists who appeared before the joint Select Committees yesterday made it clear that meat from such cows caused no health hazard. Frankly, I believe them, but the whole object is to try to restore public confidence, so if such a policy does that, and is thought a worthwhile thing to do, I would support it.
I remind the House how many people "swing on a cow's tail". I heard that expression last weekend, when my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and I spoke to many consumers and farmers in our constituencies to discuss these issues. The expression is absolutely true, because not only farmers but feed merchants, slaughterers and people in cattle markets and the leather trade, to name but a few, are affected by the situation. Macclesfield has an excellent abattoir, in which huge investment has been made. It is one of the best in the country, and it has been badly affected by what is happening.
This debate is vital, not only for our countryside and our farming industry but for our economy. It is essential that all political parties and responsible groups stand behind the Government and support the measures that are to be introduced to help confidence. We should give a message to our Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that, when he goes to Brussels to negotiate on behalf of this nation, whatever he does he must fight his corner hard for Britain and for British beef—the best beef in the world.
I have never eaten so much British beef as of late, and I can assure the House that, when four of our six grandsons stay with us over Easter, we shall change from having turkey on Easter Sunday to having the biggest bit of British beef that I can get. My grandsons are aged between one and seven, and I do not have a scintilla of doubt of the wholesomeness of what we shall eat—because, of course, I shall cook it superbly.
I have often heard it said that when one sells a house, the one thing that matters is location, location, location. It has become clear to everyone that when one sells beef, what matters is perception, perception, perception. If we all kept that in mind, perhaps we might have rather more light and less of the heat we have had so far.
I should like to remind hon. Members and those few people who will no doubt read my words that smoking is alleged to be responsible for 110,000 deaths every year and that alcohol is responsible for 40,000 deaths every year. Those figures are broadly agreed and are widely known among the population of the United Kingdom. People are not drinking any less alcohol, and an awfully large number of people—who know the very serious risks they run—are still smoking. Deaths from CJD are minimal, and there is still severe doubt about whether they were caused by eating meat or any meat product, yet there is mass hysteria.
I do not want to go into all the arguments about assigning responsibility for the hysteria to hon. Members or members of the press—people can draw their own conclusions—but I will say that the fear is not at all rational. Fear has arisen in people's minds because, above all things, they fear for their children and they fear brain decay. I think that most of us have had elderly relatives who slowly sank into senile dementia for one reason or another and said, "I hope I never go like that." We have an irrational fear that eating meat might cause such a condition. I do not believe it.
I would be the first to admit that it is almost impossible to prove a negative. Therefore, as many hon. Members have said in this debate, we are not dealing only with scientific evidence, because the situation has gone far beyond that. Essentially, we now need a public relations exercise and—I suggest to Ministers—an education exercise for the public and the consumer. We must repeat the facts again and again. Among the facts are that there are nearly 160,000 confirmed cases of BSE in the United Kingdom. Ministers will no doubt recall that a parliamentary answer given to me at the end of November revealed that 23 of those cattle were what could broadly be described as beef cattle. That number is so small that it is hardly worth noticing.
We must also show the consumer—the urban consumer more than the rural consumer, I think—how our beef is produced and where it comes from. It would be helpful if the Government were to make information available in every home. We could tell people that BSE is a condition of older cows, and mainly of dairy cows. I am sorry for the dairy herd that that is a fact of life, but it is a fact of life that we cannot deny.
We also need to educate the population about what beef cattle eat. The reality is that the average beef cow in this country eats grass all spring, summer and autumn. They eat grass silage all winter or hay with a relatively small amount of barley and practically no concentrate at all. They are fed as cheaply as possible. Exactly the same situation holds true for those animals' offspring that are to be slaughtered. Most of them are fattened on grass, silage and rolled barley. A certain amount of concentrate is presented, but my understanding is that it is almost invariably of vegetable origin; there is certainly no offal or protein now involved.
I believe that the public mind should draw a distinction between produce from beef cattle and from the dairy herd. Unless we create a clear understanding of that difference in the public mind, we are beating our heads against a brick wall. We have to help the public, who want to buy meat, understand exactly how it is produced, where it comes from, how it is fed and why it is safe to eat it.
Although I believe that it will be an unnecessary waste of perfectly good stock, sooner or later we will have to remove older cows and bulls from the meat trade. I say that it is unnecessary, but again it is a matter of perception. The situation is, unfortunately, being exploited, but unless people get over their fear we will have to grasp the nettle. If this fear proves as temporary as the fear of salmonella in eggs, perhaps we can get away without taking such actions. That is why the beef should be not destroyed but stored, although, as I said, the stores are becoming full.
It is an enormous job to destroy carcases on a large scale. There is no easy way to do it, and folk have to understand that. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) drew attention to the behaviour of the feed compounders. who of course wanted to use the offal. They used it, and in the long run that turned out to be the worst decision ever made in British fanning, because that is what led to the current crisis.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned local and regional problems in this debate. I propose to do the same because Northern Ireland has a particular problem, which in some respects is paralleled elsewhere. The good bit is that we can trace our cattle, if not quite from the cradle to the grave, from the cradle to the slaughterhouse. We know where they come from and where they are going. There is a similar system up and running in the Irish Republic.
Yes. We have a quality assurance scheme that can be built upon. In those circumstances, the danger of beef from a non-beef herd getting into the food chain is minimal.
We also export 80 per cent. of the beef that we produce, and 50 per cent. of our meat goes to continental Europe. I drew the Minister's attention to the fact that recently much of the exported meat was sent back. It was sent back from Holland, where supermarkets had decided to sell beef from Northern Ireland in preference to beef produced in their own country. They would take our beef again tomorrow, but their Government will not let them. That beef is back in Northern Ireland sitting in cold stores, which is appalling. As a result, the freezers are full, and all the beef producers' yards in Northern Ireland are full of cattle.
The cattle are, as we say, eating their heads off and enjoying life very much, when quite a number of them should be on the hook. That reservoir of cattle will get bigger and bigger with every passing week and the cattle must be slaughtered because there will not be the feed in the silage pit or in the fields in a month or six weeks' time to keep them. Every practising farmer knows that.
Government support will be needed for the abattoirs and the freezers. It will also be badly needed to move the cattle off the farms in large numbers. Food stocks are dropping fast, which is creating a great difficulty.
We have heard some chat about Northern Ireland having separate status. I noticed in the media some crack about the Ulster Unionist population saying that they wanted all-Irish beef status. That was not true. The only party in Northern Ireland that asked for all-Ireland status was Sinn Fein. Even the SDLP did not particularly want that because it knew that it would annoy its friends in Dublin. It was a pleasure to see someone becoming a Unionist, if only to avoid annoying his friends.
I support the idea of separate regional status for all sorts of things. It was raised earlier at Question Time. We should promote what we can produce well from the various regions. It is too late to do that in this instance; it is not a way out of the present crisis. That would not be acceptable to Europe. All the United Kingdom must sink or swim together. I wish the Minister well in his war with Europe, because a war he is going to have.
In conclusion, I ask the folk of this country to realise that there is no way of having cheap food.
First, I must declare an interest as a farmer, albeit one who, sadly, no longer has stock. I wish I had. As a dairymaid in my youth, I loved stock, and still do.
In all my years in politics, I can recall no more depressing period than the past two weeks concerning the tragedy—I cannot call it less—of BSE and CJD. I have never spent a more depressing morning than last Friday morning at Lancaster auction.
The disaster affects not just farmers but the whole community. The impact of the crisis is so great that the health of the rural economy of substantial parts of Britain, including my own, is in peril. As one of my sensible constituents, Mrs. Gardner of Scorton, put it:
The whole country must recognise that farmers, producers, meat processors and abattoir workers are also parents and consumers, and this is not an 'us and them' situation and calls for a united front and joint action.
She signed herself:
Mother of five children, consumer and farmer, in that order.
How right she is.
Yesterday, I attended the joint meeting of the Select Committees on Health and Agriculture, which interrogated the Secretary of State for Health, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and their most senior and best-qualified advisers on health and veterinary matters as well as representatives of the CJD surveillance unit. As the Secretary of State told the Committee:
The best available evidence demonstrates that British beef and beef products can be safely eaten by consumers both here and around the world. The question now is a matter of consumer confidence. It is one thing to have a safe product; it is another to command confidence in the marketplace.
That is very true, and the Prime Minister reiterated those sentiments at Question Time today.
The Government have meticulously followed all the scientific advice given to them, and I share the Minister's view that British beef is perfectly safe. I certainly continue to eat it, as do all my family, who are now old enough to make their own decisions and do not just follow mum's advice.
A remarkably small number of so-called experts have managed thoroughly to alarm people both here and abroad, although they have not taken in some of the country dwellers. As a lady from Pilling put it:
It is a lot of media hype",
and as one of my constituents from Garstang put it:
It is a lot of twaddle".
I agree, but unfortunately the media hype and twaddle have had a catastrophic affect on the public mind.
I greatly sympathise with the chief medical officer, who said yesterday, rather ruefully, that the risk is extremely low, that there may be no risk at all, and that there is no evidence of a link between BSE and CJD. He went on to say that there are many thousands of scientists here and in the United States, and in other parts of the world, who are conducting research on the matter, but the media interview only three of them. We can all remember who those three are. They make a highly lucrative living by scaring the living daylights out of people, but they flatly refuse to subject their theories to analysis by their scientific peers.
As the Secretary of State for Health said yesterday, the argument moved on on Tuesday. All over the country, the market for beef has collapsed. On Friday, at Lancaster market, just 37 cull cows were put forward as against the usual number of between 150 and 200. Those cows sold were between £100 and £150 down. By Monday, instead of between 150 and 180 beef animals being traded, just five went to market, of which four were sold and the other had to be taken home. It is imperative that action is taken to reverse that collapse. Farmers cannot hold their beef animals beyond their proper maturity or they will run to fat and be downgraded. Apart from that, after a dry summer, the farmers do riot have the fodder to do so.
The aim must be to restore confidence in the least wasteful way. It would be criminal, in a world short of food, to advocate a wholesale slaughter policy. However, cull cows from the dairy herd and old cows from the beef suckler herd, which have passed their useful breeding life, and are presented for slaughter, could be removed from the food chain and incinerated. I dread, however, the uproar that will ensue when the burning starts, because existing incinerators will be quite unable to cope with the influx of animals. I am old enough to remember the 1954 foot and mouth outbreak, when one could smell a herd that had been destroyed for many, many miles.
Proper compensation must be paid, and we are fully entitled to demand that the European Community, which aggravated the panic by its ban, should bear half the costs. Those measures should restore confidence, but the next meeting of the European Union vets should be brought forward from the proposed six weeks to two to reconsider that ban.
How do we gauge that confidence has been restored? As one of my colleagues half-jokingly observed last night: "If McDonald's think the measures are adequate, and resume their policy of buying British beef, the British public will follow suit." I rather think he has a point. People who are—in my mind mistakenly—turning to foreign beef, should remember that others feed to their animals some very odd growth promoters and other things, which could well damage their health. They will stay a lot healthier if they stick to British beef.
I begin by quoting from a letter that I received this afternoon from James Aspinall, a farmer in my constituency:
I am an arable and beef farmer who farms at Gt. Altcar in West Lancashire.
Could you please ask this Douglas Hogg"—
the House will understand that I am quoting—
why he has not put some confidence into the beef industry and ordered the slaughter of these old milk cows which can carry BSE?
I hope that what the Minister said tonight will reassure him somewhat on that. He continued:
I have never had BSE on my farm and feel I am being victimised with the total collapse of price at auction markets. I feel abandoned by the Government.
The two strands of the BSE problem run side by side: the scientific evidence—uncertain in some areas—of the transmission or otherwise of BSE, including its relationship to CJD, and the public perception of the risk and the reaction of the media and of Europe. Unfortunately, the two strands cannot be separated, much as the Government, and perhaps all hon. Members, would wish that all decisions on BSE were taken on scientific grounds alone.
The Minister said in opening the debate that measures may have to be taken that go beyond scientific evidence, confirming the National Consumer Council's briefing that said that it has always argued that the Government should follow the precautionary principle and take all necessary measures to protect public health. Such an approach involved taking precautionary measures "beyond available scientific evidence".
The difficulty we face has been compounded by the peculiar way in which the Government have dealt with the announcements in the past week and a half. To announce last week that a different strain of CJD had been identified caused a public panic about beef. It was followed by a weekend hugger-mugger of the relevant scientists to discuss the issue—the public knowing full well that the scientists had been working on the issue for a decade.
Over the weekend, the Minister talked on television—rightly—of not ruling out anything, including mass slaughter. Within a week, the Secretary of State for Health had announced that everything seemed to be okay as far as the scientists were concerned. While I commend Ministers on their openness with the House in the past week or so, I must say that no tactic could have been better devised to inflate public concern than the way in which the matter has been handled.
The public alarm is totally understandable. It is no use Conservative Members blaming the press, the Labour party or whomever they can find—apart from themselves—as the Prime Minister did today. Nor is it at all surprising that our European partners reacted with similar alarm to that of the British people—I would have been surprised if they had not. Had the situation been reversed, I can easily imagine the delight with which some Conservative Members would have rushed to demand a boycott and, in some senses, they have been doing that this evening. The vilification of European beef—justified or otherwise—would simply result in people in this country not eating beef at all, whether it was British, Belgian or whatever.
In common with most hon. Members, I am not a scientist. It is therefore fairly simple for the Government to tell me, and all of us, that we must rely on scientific information. Unfortunately, not all the scientists agree. Those who have been sounding alarms for many years about BSE have been brushed to one side, branded as bonkers and—in one case, at least—sacked. The Government must realise that, although they rightly have confidence in the scientists on SEAC to whom they listen, the public also listen to scientists who differ—even when their views might be apocalyptic.
Many people in this country suspect science and scientists—even more, they suspect Government. They fear cover-ups and vested interests that appear at times to control public policy-making. When the public hear hon. Members declaring loudly that British beef is totally safe or that British beef is the best in the world because they have tried beef from all other countries, or when they hear hon. Members declaring that they will eat more beef—as the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) has recently done—metaphorically, they count the spoons.
Comparisons of risk with road accidents or smoking are interesting, but totally irrelevant. There is something creepily awful about suspecting the food one eats, and suspecting that it might contain a poison that one cannot see. We are talking not about consequences amounting to something like flu, but about an incurable fatal disease.
Numerous questions must be addressed, and some have been by the Minister this evening. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) detailed the errors of the past. I will not go through them again, but there are questions to be asked. Why did the Government reject the recommendations of the Tyrrel committee and of the Select Committee in 1990 that there should be random checks of animals at slaughter? That has been raised before this evening, and it seems to be the most obvious and simple thing that should have been done.
A distinguished farmer in my constituency, Jim Heyes from Mossborourgh farm, wrote:
As all brains etc are removed from carcasses are they tested for BSE before disposal?…If not why not?
That is a good question. He added:
Cattle which die on the farm are normally sent to the knacker. Are brains etc removed from these carcasses?
I do not know the answer to that. Why has the regime in slaughterhouses been so lax that, last September, 48 per cent. of them were failing to handle SBOs correctly? What work has been done into the possible consequences of that for public health? Why was Haresh Nareng's proposed test for BSE in live animals not thoroughly tried out, instead of being pushed on one side? Why has there never been any testing of slurry-treated land where BSE has been found?
The joint Select Committee was told yesterday that scientists were not sure about the zero risk of BSE in muscle and that it might be one in a million. We have to remember that we have a population of more than 50 million, so that is a substantial increase in risk.
Why do we not know the reason for the incidence of CJD being much higher among dairy farmers, not merely in this country but abroad? Why were we told that mechanically recovered meat was banned in December, when it was only the mechanically recovered meat from the spinal cord? Why do we not know whether infected animals—or how many—were passed into the food chain during the period of the 50 per cent. compensation? Why do we not know whether infected animals were buried during those years in the late 1980s? Why have the questions of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) about possible cross-infection in the mid-1990s not been answered? Perhaps they cannot be.
Those matters and many others—most vitally perhaps the fact that there is still uncertainty about transmissibility between mother and offspring—are all lodged in the public mind, and reassurance on statistical grounds will not suffice. Clearly, putting the consumers' worries to rest is not going to be easy. Distrust of beef products will probably remain as a folk memory for a long time. In restoring some confidence, so that the industry can survive and rebuild, I do not believe that the Government can overreact. The proposals for slaughter suggested by the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association seem to be a minimum that would start the process of rebuilding.
The regime at slaughterhouses and on farms must be draconian, and must be seen to be so. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East proposed a quality assurance scheme. The situation is so desperate that that must not only be the case, but we must not put aside the idea of creating a statutory beef regime to ensure that all the power of Parliament is seen to be behind that quality assurance. The public must be clearly informed about the presence of bovine products in other foodstuffs. Many of us have been astonished, however well up we might be on these matters, to find out how extensive is the use of such products, which are in all sorts of things, such as sweets and biscuits.
The penalties for ignoring or flouting the regulations must be seen by the public to be harsh and effective. Moreover, whatever action is taken, it must be taken swiftly. Every day that passes means more jobs, more confidence and more exports lost and that may lose us the co-operation and support of the European Commission, which we seem to be starting to enjoy.
There is an awful lot to learn from this episode about the wider concerns of the public—
One of the greatest strengths of our parliamentary system, certainly in so far as it applies to the House, is the relationship that all hon. Members enjoy with our constituencies. I dare say that every hon. Member is proud of the constituency that he or she represents. In this past nine years, I have certainly been proud to represent Ryedale and I have good cause for that pride, because those who have been to North Yorkshire know that it is one of the jewels of our countryside.
Much of my interest and concern in the affairs of Ryedale has focused in those nine years on the fortunes, welfare and interests of the agricultural community. Were any of that community able to speak in this Chamber tonight, they would want to say that the crisis that they are facing is unprecedented in their memory and, I suspect, that of their parents and grandparents, who have farmed the land for generations. Therefore, it is time for us to stop a lot of the party political bickering that has marred debate on this matter in the past seven or eight days. The electorate will be able to judge that in due course. Now we must concentrate on what measures we can take to stem the prospect of a complete collapse of the interests of many farms and other businesses that are dependent upon agriculture.
As my hon. Friend says, whole communities could be devastated.
We face the prospect of a grotesque obscenity. It is grotesque because we are likely to have to spend hundreds of millions of pounds, perhaps more than £1 billion a year, to put things right—and for what? To destroy cattle, livestock, meat and meat products that are entirely wholesome—some of the highest-quality produce anywhere in the world. We shall spend money that, whatever our views on the Budget and the need to contain public expenditure, we could have spent on the health service, education and social services.
The purpose of the debate is to ask ourselves what can and should be done to ensure that we do not suffer the catastrophe that many of us think may occur. It is abundantly clear that, while the Government have rightly followed all the scientific advice that they have received, and have done so speedily on virtually every occasion, more action that goes beyond the science is needed.
Other hon. Members have mentioned what they have discovered at their markets. Last Friday, I discovered at one of my local markets in Malton a unanimous view that, above all else, we must differentiate in the public's mind between clean beef and cow beef. Beyond peradventure, that must be the most important way to begin the difficult job of rebuilding consumer confidence.
The housewife and the consumer want to know that the meat or other beef product that they are buying or consuming in restaurants, canteens, schools and factories has come from an animal that could not have had BSE. It is difficult for us to give that guarantee, but it is much more easily given if we take cow beef out of the food chain. For that reason, I strongly support the proposals of the National Farmers Union. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, knows that, for almost a week, I have advocated that. I know how seriously he is considering it. The Country Landowners Association has also supported it.
The question is whether that proposal will work. It is no good us being convinced that it is a sensible proposition; we have to judge the expenditure on the likelihood of its success. Will it make any difference to the European Union veterinary committee? It clearly must, because there can be no real basis for the ban that has been placed on British beef and beef products against the advice of its own veterinary scientists. Will the supermarkets support the proposal? I believe that they will. Will McDonald's and the other fast food restaurants support the move? I believe that they should. Will schools lift their bans on beef? I am sad that North Yorkshire has also succumbed and taken that ridiculous measure. Will the consumer generally be reassured? Those are the issues that Ministers have to judge. That is the objective.
It is very easy for hon. Members and for the general public to say, "Here is an easy way of resolving the problem." However, it will not be an easy solution unless the organisations agree with our decision. It may take more than tomorrow's meeting to reach agreement—I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend knows that—in which case we must decide what we will do to support the market in the immediate future.
I intervened during my right hon. and learned Friend's speech to ask whether all cattle would be available for intervention. He replied that the cull-cow beef that we want to remove from the food chain may not be available for intervention. I am grateful for his comment that other support may be available in that case. Under our system of intervention, all the intervention boxes are not available to United Kingdom producers. Some cattle—whether they are premium cattle or those that weigh too much—are not allowed through the intervention system. They must be available for intervention as a matter of urgency.
If the European Union ban is not lifted, we shall not be able to export livestock, not just beef and beef products, to Europe. It will be utterly grotesque if veal calves are slaughtered at a cost of more than £100 each, the trade in veal calves is stopped and many businesses are ruined by that ridiculous measure.
I do not for one moment underestimate the difficulty that my right hon. and learned Friend faces in Brussels tomorrow—and I do not think that any hon. Member should do so. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will travel to Brussels knowing that he has the support of all hon. Members, as well as that of the farming and rural communities, in securing the results that he needs in order to restore confidence in the British beef industry.
As I came into the Chamber this evening, I learned that Cornhill and Maud—two of the historic marts in the north-east of Scotland—closed today and are never to reopen, regardless of the state of the industry. Buchan Meat, another famous name in the industry, was closed in January. Following a vigourous community campaign, we attracted a buyer, and it was due to reopen last Monday. That reopening has now been postponed for days, weeks or months—who knows? I am aware that such events are occurring not only in Scotland but in the rural communities of Northern Ireland, Wales and England. However, the north-east of Scotland is one of the heartlands of the beef industry.
The train of events is affecting farmers, processors at the marts, factory workers and butchers. It is not simply a question of compensating companies: individuals need compensation, too. Individual workers—not just individual farmers—are losing their jobs. I hope that, in summing up, the Secretary of State for Health will mention compensation for rural communities as well as for individual enterprises.
Earlier today I likened our present situation to a blocked drain. That is the reality: unless the meat can be shifted from the abattoirs, those who finish the cattle cannot sell them for slaughter and they cannot buy the stores of the hillmen who have nourished the cattle through the long winter months. The drain must be unblocked—and quickly.
It has been said this evening that we should not refer to the past too much. I shall put one idea to the House. There may be a small premium in apportioning blame, but a significant problem of feed contamination in the dairy industry, which was identified 10 years ago, has turned into a black hole that threatens to envelop the whole of the beef industry. That hardly represents a wise carrying through of official policy. The Government say that we should not be wise after the event, but they are foolish after the event. They still do not think that they have done anything wrong during the past 10 years. That is folly. A bit more humility would come well from Ministers.
We are told that Europe is to blame—that the French have done us down. I ask hon. Members to consider what would have happened if the French Agriculture Minister had said in the Assembly of the Republic, "We have a problem with our poultry industry. It is a small risk, of course, but some people have unfortunately died." The very Members of the House who blame the French would be blockading Dover to keep out French chickens, and they know it.
What policy prescription do they advocate? That we should withdraw from the European Union. Would that make the European Union buy British beef? Would that advocacy be successful? What nonsense. The responsibility for the BSE outbreak and its repercussions, not only in what foreign Governments are doing but in what the domestic public are doing, lies much closer to home than Brussels, Paris or Bonn.
Four things must be done now to stabilise the position. First, we need tough measures to enforce the regulations that have been made. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food says that that is a problem of the past, but it is a problem of the very recent past indeed. There is a credibility problem with regard to the enforcement of regulations. I hope that we shall hear something from the Minister later about stiffer sentencing. People who break those regulations are jeopardising the livelihoods of thousands of people, and not paltry fines but gaol sentences are required.
Secondly, a selective slaughter policy should be agreed with the European Commission, to provide the basis for reopening markets at home and stabilising consumer confidence in this country. The NFU has proposed, not a compulsory cull, as I understand it, but a 30-month restriction, and after that, when animals come to the end of their useful lives, they will not go into the human food chain. There is an important distinction. I am not sure that all hon. Members fully appreciated that. If we go for a compulsory cull—which I think will be necessary for certain categories of animals—let us concentrate on the BSE-infected herds, the animals at risk, and not carry out a global cull, which will satisfy no one and will not even have the public relations value that some people advocate for it.
Thirdly, Scottish beef must be marketed as a quality product, which can be guaranteed BSE-free. I have a letter here from Professor Hugh Pennington, whom many hon. Members will know as a professor of medical microbiology at Aberdeen university, an expert in the field that we are discussing. Looking at the low incidence of BSE in Scotland, perhaps one sixth of the incidence elsewhere, cow for cow, he says:
Second, Scottish Quality Beef can be traced back to BSE-free herds. From the scientific point of view it would be irrational to rate the health risk from consuming this beef as higher than that run from consuming beef from any other country that had reported BSE in its own cattle—a risk that is currently considered to be negligible.
There are quality assurance schemes in Northern Ireland and Scotland, there may be some in England and I understand that a small one has started in Wales. If the Ministers do not succeed in lifting the global ban, we must get beef that is traceable as quality assured on to European markets, to try to unblock the system.
Fourthly, the Government must take global intervention measures to unblock the system. We heard some encouraging things in the Minister's opening speech, but without widespread intervention buying, the market will not recover. If the market does not recover, even if consumer confidence is restored quickly, the processors, slaughterhouses and farmers will no longer be there, because they will be redundant or out of business. Measures must be taken quickly.
I have undertaken to shorten my speech to allow others time to speak. I say finally that the Government must take action quickly, or the industry will not be there when consumer confidence returns.
I have undertaken to speak for five minutes or less, and I shall do just that.
When I farmed in Dorset, 15 or 20 years ago, I had a pedigree herd of Galloways and I then had to move across—single suckling—to a cross-bred herd. If I had been farming today, this would have been one of the most desolate days of my life. All I would say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is that, whatever measures we take to help the farming industry, for God's sake let us get on with it and give help quickly, because help is desperately needed now.
Yesterday, there was a joint meeting of the Health and Agriculture Select Committees. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) asked Professor Pattison:
Would you not agree that the likelihood of BSE infected food appearing on the dinner plate is as near zero as is humanly possible?
Professor Pattison's response was:
I believe that is now the case.
That was not reported in the press this morning—it does not suit them to report the facts, which would have restored some confidence. If we were dealing with a rational response to such a statement, there would be no major cause for concern, and consumers—both in this country and in Europe—would be happily eating beef as a matter of course.
Sadly, we all know that in this case, the media, the Opposition and our so-called fellow members of the European Union seem to have had one aim: to stir up public fears and—in the case of the European Union—to serve their own interests, at whatever cost to our industry. We now have to face up to that lack of confidence. There is no doubt that major resources will need to be deployed and that many thousands of cows may have to be slaughtered in an attempt to restore public confidence.
I shall say a word to those who have helped to undermine that confidence. The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) has her reasons for what she has done over the past week—and I hope that she will live to regret it. We all accepted and enjoyed hearing what the leader of the Liberal Democrats has said over the past two or three days, but I wish that he had taken the same line when he was making broadcasts earlier this week and last week—his tone was quite different. I ask the Liberal Democrats to exert some influence on the leader of Dorset county council, to make certain that he does not go around undermining confidence in our beef.
The cost of the measures that we shall have to implement may be high, but it is worth bearing it in mind that, between 1979 and 1995, Government social and reconstruction grants to British Coal totalled over £6 billion. At that time, the coal industry was in decline. However, our farming industry has a future, provided that we take the steps now to reassure our farming community and to restore confidence.
It is vital that the European market is reopened as soon as possible. The total value of beef products in this country at £2.5 billion, and over £500 million goes in exports. If we do not get that market back, we shall be in serious trouble. The Government have to listen to reason and they have to do something about it.
BSE has been in rapid decline in this country and, in large measure, that is because of the actions taken in 1989. We must all hope that that downward trend continues and that within two or three years the present catastrophic situation will, in part, have been righted. The banks should help—they must stand by the industry and, if need be, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should write to all the clearing banks.
Next Friday—5 April—the Dorset National Farmers Union will have a meeting. It has invited all Members of Parliament, all candidates, all county councillors, all district councillors and all parish councillors. At that meeting, we must be united and have only one aim: to restore confidence in Dorset beef and food products and, through that, in the rest of the country.
I thank the hon. Members who have cut their speeches short to allow me the opportunity to say something on this important subject.
I come from a good Labour constituency in the central belt of Scotland. Hon. Members seem to forget that I have one of the largest rural constituencies in the House—over 550 square miles. The Lanarkshire area secretary of the National Farmers Union told me that he has 400 members in my constituency. Therefore, I have a considerable interest in this very important subject. Obviously, I understand the plight of the farmers, but we should not lose sight of the fact that hundreds of thousands of other livelihoods are under threat. Particularly in rural constituencies such as Clydesdale, many small businesses, including family butchers and corner shops, depend considerably on a thriving rural economy and a vibrant agricultural industry.
Last weekend, I found myself appealing to my constituents to calm their response to the understandable hysteria that followed last week's announcement. In asking them to be calm, however, I could not put my hand on my heart and advise them to eat beef after the statements in the House a few days previously.
In Scotland, we have excellent beef. I did not get where I am today without being a specific supporter. In Scotland, we have the best steak pies anywhere. I have had one or two steak pies in my time. I had one last weekend and I shall have another this weekend.
I am not trying to score political points, but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), I was disappointed and somewhat surprised when I listened to the Prime Minister today. I understand that the Prime Minister has problems and pressures, as we all do. He probably has more than most, but his reaction today went over the scale and made no contribution whatever to addressing a great problem. I do not say that in a political way, but if the Prime Minister watches the tape of today's Question Time, he may regret his response to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
There seems to be a certain attitude abroad within the Government. We have had scepticism and Thatcherism—now we have "not me-ism". Whenever there is a problem, the Government take the same view. They say, "It is not us," and somebody else is always to blame. Our constituents expect the Government to take responsibility. That is what the Government and Ministers are about, so when they start bobbing and weaving to escape that responsibility, politicians lose the public confidence. That loss of confidence affects not just particular Ministers, but the whole political system. It is difficult for us as politicians to address a fall in confidence when the public see politicians refusing to accept the responsibility that they accepted in the past.
We can talk about presenting a united front in our approach to the problem. I can well understand that, but the Secretary of State for Health let the genie out of the bottle last week. It would have been better had he considered talking to consumer associations, industry, traders and Opposition parties first. Some cross-party views might have helped to reduce the hysteria.
The statement let the genie out of the bottle, and over the weekend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food suggested the possibility of selective culling. Then we were told that the Chancellor of the Exchequer came back from South Africa to veto any such proposal. I do not have to remind the House that that was followed by the ban by McDonald's, British Airways and schools, which was no help at all.
Some colleagues blame Europe for the problem. Today, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) said that the Commission had acted illegally. As Chairman of the Select Committee on European Legislation, I can tell the House that the Commission did not act illegally: it acted quite properly under the treaties. That has been demonstrated quite clearly to our Select Committee this week. It is a fact, not a matter of conjecture.
Now we need to rally round and try to pull back from this disaster. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East said, we are not going to nit-pick about the Minister's proposals. I hope that they will do enough to rebuild confidence in British beef. I agree with hon. Members on both sides about British beef; in particular, Scottish beef is the best one can find anywhere. Wherever I am in the world, if I am offered Scottish beef, I am delighted to eat it.
Let us refrain from throwing brickbats and claiming that the Opposition parties caused the whole problem. If the Government had accepted responsibility from the beginning and had consulted the industry and Opposition parties, we might have been in a better position today. If, in the interests of unity, the Opposition had supported the statement by the Secretary of State for Health last Monday, where would we be today? It was only by objecting to what he said that we brought about some movement towards solving the problem. I hope that what we have heard today will begin to solve it, but the Government cannot escape their responsibility for the issue.
The debate in the House tonight and the wider debate in the country has been prompted by the discovery of 10 cases of what has been identified as a new form of CJD, which is an horrific disease, always fatal. This new strain of the disease has a new neuropathology. Hitherto it has been thought unique to this country, although I understand that it has been announced today that there may be a case with the same neuropathology in France.
This disease strikes young people, unlike the form of CJD with which people are more familiar. The average age of the 10 victims is 27.
We are told by the Secretary of State for Health that the most probable cause of the disease in these 10 people was eating contaminated beef, most probably before 1989. We well understand the full horror of the disease, but scientists are still attempting to understand more about it. I acknowledge the work of the independent advisory committee, SEAC, which has tried hard to marshal and to understand the scientific evidence, but as my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) made clear, the problem remains that more questions have still to be answered than can be answered by the scientists.
The scientists cannot tell us with any certainty whether these 10 cases will be the first and last, or whether there will be 100 cases or 10,000 cases. The issue is full of uncertainty and must be kept under review. In particular, I ask the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that the scientists keep the susceptibility of children under review, especially those with underdeveloped immune systems—children under three. Public health must be the Government's first concern.
To take the necessary action, there must be an understanding of the roots of the crisis which has been caused by confidence in the safety of British beef first having hung by a thread and then having collapsed.
From the time that BSE was discovered, the Government asserted that mad cow disease could not be transmitted to humans and cause brain disease. On 7 June 1990, the then Minister of Agriculture, said:
the clear scientific evidence is that British beef is perfectly safe."—[Official Report, 7 June 1990; Vol. 173, c. 906.]
That was followed up by the Minister inviting the world to watch him feed his daughter beefburgers, thereby implying certainty, when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) said, there was no certainty, and concern and doubt were growing.
The problem is that trust in the Government collapsed when, having made categorical assurances for all those years, the Secretary of State for Health had to come to the House and announce, in the words of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, that the most likely explanation at present was that these new CJD cases were linked to exposure to BSE.
Of course it is true that scientific opinion on BSE and Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease has developed considerably over the years, but as new developments have emerged the balance of scientific opinion has changed. Against the background of that growing uncertainty, the problem remained that the Government continued to argue with certainty that there was no link between BSE and CJD. It is that belief in certainty when there was none that contributed to the delay and inaction and which has now led to a crisis in public confidence.
In the debate, hon. Members set out their concerns about Government delays and the failure to regulate. The only way forward is to make beef safer and to restore consumers' confidence. That is also important for the livelihood of all those who work in the meat industry. There must be a common agreement between consumers, producers and retailers on the action that must be taken to restore public confidence. I hope that the Government will now admit that that is necessary.
For a week, the Secretary of State for Health insisted that policy must be based on scientific evidence and nothing else. I argued in the House on the Wednesday that the announcement was made and on the following Monday that only tough action that goes beyond the minimal recommendations of the scientists would have any chance of restoring public confidence. It was only yesterday, seven days later, that the Secretary of State for Health came round to agreeing when he told the joint meeting of the Agriculture and Health Select Committees:
The issue is no longer a question of the safety of British beef. The question now is a matter of consumer confidence.
He said that the Government were considering a wide range of options over and above what was scientifically recommended. But it took seven days for a recognition of that action; seven days in which consumer uncertainty has grown and people in the meat and fanning industries have faced uncertainty.
I will. Today we put forward an eight-point package that commands broad agreement among retailers, the hamburger chains, consumer organisations and farmers. The task is to restore public confidence: not simply to jeer at the public. Perhaps the Secretary of State for Health will finally understand the importance of making beef safer in order to restore consumer confidence.
Nobody could fail to have been moved in the past week after hearing about farmers, farm workers, slaughterhouse workers and those in the meat and food industry, seeing the collapse of consumer confidence threatening their livelihoods.
The hon. Gentleman says that it was helped by me, but the writing has been on the wall for many years. Before I said one word on the issue, 10,000 schools, including those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, had taken beef off the agenda. The Government should have read the writing on the wall instead of just seeking scapegoats.
The awful position faced by farmers, farm workers and people in the meat industry was mentioned by the hon. Members for Newark (Mr. Alexander), for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) and by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). The tragedy is that it has taken the Secretary of State a week to be moved to action to support farmers in the meat industry by rebuilding public confidence in beef safety.
As I said in response to an intervention by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), public concern about beef had been mounting for some time before last Wednesday. A third of all schools had taken beef off the menu when the Secretary of State for Health was saying that it was perfectly safe, but he did not listen to their concerns. He ignored their worries and, as a result, they could not have confidence in him and could not trust him.
After Wednesday, consumer confidence, which had been hanging by a thread, collapsed.
Hon. Members shout, "Yes or no?" They should listen to what the scientists have said, which is that there is no certainty in this situation, but I will say that, if the Government take the eight measures that we have proposed, British beef will certainly be safer and consumer confidence more likely. The Consumers Association said that, if people want to take no risk, they should not eat beef.
There has been mounting consumer concern. On Sunday, McDonald's announced that it would no longer put British beef in its burgers. It was swiftly followed by Wimpy, Burger King, British Airways, Virgin Airways, Little Chef and Happy Eater. Even the canteen at the Department of Health has taken British beef off the menu.
As my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire said, it is no good blaming the consumer, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) sought to do. Consumers will be assured only if they are given full information and see tough action.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it right that someone should attribute a view to me that has never been expressed in the House? I have never said that the consumer should be blamed. I have made a perfectly clear, straightforward speech. I never said anything of the sort, and the hon. Lady maligns my character.
I will move on to Labour's proposals to make beef safer and to restore consumer confidence. The first priority must be enforcement of existing rules in slaughterhouses. For many years, people who work in slaughterhouses, represented by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and by the Transport and General Workers Union, have been saying that the standards are not high enough, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) said. In autumn last year, unannounced visits by the state veterinary service found that 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses failed to comply with safety regulations. That was reaffirmed yesterday in the Select Committee by John Pattison, chairman of SEAC.
How can the public have confidence that their meat is clean if slaughterhouses are not? As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said, in response to the failing standards in slaughterhouses, there have been no prosecutions for that flagrant breaking of the rules. All that has happened is that slaughterhouse owners have been invited into the Ministry of Agriculture for a cup of tea. Let me tell Ministers that, if McDonald's, Tesco or Sainsbury's find that their slaughterhouses have broken their rules, they do not invite them in for a cup of tea; they take their business away.
We have made other proposals. They include the introduction of a random testing programme for BSE in the brains of cattle going through slaughterhouses, not because those brains are to be eaten—the Prime Minister misunderstood the position—but so that we can trace the incidence of infection with greater accuracy. We are calling for publication by the Government of a full list of all food products that contain bovine material. People cannot choose if they do not know what they are eating. The Secretary of State for Health should help them be able to choose.
We are calling for the banning from human and animal food of all specified bovine offal, including offal from cows under the age of six months. We should look again at the safety of mechanically recovered meat. We should encourage a quality assurance scheme—so that consumers know where their beef comes from—with labelling of products in shops. That point was made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall.
We should be establishing a food standards agency—it would put an end to the sense of conflict in MAFF—which would report to both the Secretary of State for Health and the Minister of Agriculture. We should be guaranteeing the chief medical officer greater independence and the support needed to fulfil that role independently. That would make beef safer; it would restore consumer confidence. Safer food will make for safer jobs in the food industry.
The House will have heard the contrast between the speeches by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) and her hon. Friend the shadow agriculture spokesman, the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang). The House, the country and those whose livelihoods depend on agriculture will have drawn their own conclusions from that contrast. In the 10 minutes that are available to me at the end of this debate, I do not propose to follow the hon. Lady into the political sewers from which she has not emerged since the beginning of the argument. Every other contributor to the debate has reflected the seriousness of the position facing the country's rural economy. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Sir C. Shepherd), who said that there would be universal disappointment in the rural community, and, indeed, among those who enjoy eating beef, at those who have sought to draw party politics into the issue. That point was also made by my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) and for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer), and by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, for which I give him full credit.
The House knows the history and is aware that the central finding of SEAC is that provided that the specified offals ban and other regulations are fully enforced—the Government have made it abundantly clear that we are fully committed to the full enforcement of those regulations—beef is, in the words of the SEAC chairman, in common parlance, safe. We heard that from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and would have liked to have heard it from the hon. Member for Peckham.
Against that background, the Government were right to identify clearly from the beginning that they faced two priorities. Their first and paramount priority was to ensure that the product on sale to British and foreign consumers was safe. That is a technical question and needs a technical answer. That is why I am quite certain that the Government were right to insist that we must begin dealing with the situation by looking at the science.
The result of that, and of the fact that the Government have adopted such an approach not merely in this latest episode but right through the story of the treatment of BSE, is that we now have in Britain the most intensively regulated beef industry and the best quality assurance for it that one will find in any part of Europe. That is the foundation of our claim for market confidence. We have the best assurance of any country in Europe about the quality of the beef product on sale to consumers in this country and abroad.
It is against that background that I said—the hon. Member for Peckham was right on this at least—at the Select Committee meeting yesterday, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture repeated this afternoon, that we now need to move quickly to restore market confidence in the product. I agree with all my hon. Friends who have stressed the need to move quickly.
My hon. Friend is right to say that there is a need for support for the entire economic structure of these industries from those who deal with them and from the Government. That is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture is going to Brussels tomorrow to make clear the British Government's desire to act to restore market confidence in British beef.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the EU ban on British beef is unfair, unjustified and unwarranted, and that it owes more to commercial considerations than it does to any medical reason?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point which has been made during the debate by my hon.
Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and for Newark (Mr. Alexander), and by others. It is underlined by the wording of the press release put out by Commissioner Fischler, who said:
the evidence suggests that even should there be a link to BSE and CJD the risk to human health has been eliminated or at worst reduced to a minimal level".
That is why it is the Government's view that the ban is unjustified and why my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister has made it clear that it is an objective of British policy to see that it is removed. That is also why my right hon. and learned Friend has welcomed the fact that in the same press release, Mr. Fischler stresses that the Commission is ready to assist the UK both in terms of support to stabilise the beef market and in terms of further control measures against BSE.
My right hon. and learned Friend is going to Brussels to take forward the Government's commitment to discuss measures to support the British beef market. That is a clear commitment and my right hon. Friend will carry it forward tomorrow.
I have only another 10 minutes and I have some other important points to make in responding to the debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Four minutes."] I should have said four minutes. My mathematics is improving as my speech continues.
I have asked representatives of the British food retailing industry to come to the Department of Health tomorrow. Thus while my right hon. and learned Friend is conducting discussions with the Commission in Brussels which are designed to restore market confidence in the British beef industry, I shall be conducting discussions with food retailers in this country to ensure that we understand clearly the steps that are necessary to restore the confidence that every one of us wants to see restored.
Will my right hon. Friend remember, while he speaks to the retailers, the food manufacturing industry, including the pie factory in my constituency which makes 60 million pies a year—a third of all British frozen pies? Will he remember that such firms also face a crisis?
My hon. Friend raises a key interest. He has pursued it tirelessly with both my right hon. and learned Friend and me, and I assure him that it will also be represented.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster stressed the importance she places on bringing forward the meeting of European vets planned for six weeks' time. It is an objective of my right hon. and learned Friend in his discussions with the Commission to ensure that we are in a position whereby that meeting can be brought forward.
My right hon. and learned Friend also made it clear to the House in his opening speech that not only are we taking the steps necessary to rebuild the confidence of the beef consumer and reopen the market, but we are introducing in the House measures to support the restructuring of the rendering industry and to introduce a calf slaughter premium. My right hon. and learned Friend has also undertaken to examine other measures necessary to support the rural economy connected with the beef industry.
All those measures were welcomed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, for which I am grateful. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) stressed the importance of research, and I assure him that that emphasis is entirely supported by the Government.
I shall conclude with another point that the hon. Member for North Cornwall made, about the importance of building a national approach to a national problem. If that approach is diluted or upset by the conduct of narrow party political arguments—