Common Agricultural Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:40 pm on 15th May 1996.

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Photo of Mr Nicholas Baker Mr Nicholas Baker , North Dorset 7:40 pm, 15th May 1996

If the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams), who I believe is a distinguished scientist, can make a speech based on so little attention to the scientific evidence and containing so much mere speculation, I am not surprised that, when he asks his farmers to be resilient, they look the other way.

It is undoubted that the BSE crisis has affected the beef industry and the rural community in a way that it is hard to underestimate. Our beef producers found themselves engulfed in a forest fire. I shall say a word in a moment about why it came about.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health had no alternative but to publish the evidence of SEAC as they did, but the way in which that evidence has been used and treated by others deserves a moment's attention.

No one could seriously argue that my right hon. and learned Friend's package is not an adequate and appropriate response to the situation. It has contributed, and is contributing, to the greater confidence in British beef, the results of which we are witnessing. I am delighted to welcome Asda's decision tonight to sell British beef in its shops.

Another factor in the package was the close consultation with the National Farmers Union at all times. The suggestion that such a package could be worked out in two minutes, or even in days, is an insult to the drama and gravity of the situation and fails to recognise what our farmers face.

I do not accept that the crisis was foreseeable or that the package should have been prepared and held in a drawer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) appeared to suggest. Had such a package been prepared, the criticism that sinister moves were afoot, that full scientific evidence was being withheld by the Government and that further measures were necessary would undoubtedly have been levelled from the Opposition Benches—to some extent understandably.

The crisis was unmeasurable, and nothing that has been discussed in the debate could lead anyone to think that it was measurable or other than unpredictable and irrational, but it was magnified by three factors.

The first factor was the way in which the national media covered the matter. Like ghouls, they switched their excessive and unbalanced three pages per edition from one tragedy in Scotland to BSE, and savaged everyone involved as much as they could in search of damage resulting from the crisis. As a result of the way in which the media handled the matter, they infected their European colleagues. That led to the second factor in the crisis—the European and worldwide ban.