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BSE

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:19 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East 6:19 pm, 25th June 1996

BSE has been a problem in the United Kingdom for more than a decade. The first cases of this terrible disease are believed by Government scientists to have emerged by 1985 and the disease was officially identified in 1986.

We are still not sure that CJD can be caused by eating beef or beef products containing the BSE agent, but the possibility has always been recognised. In 1989, the Government's Southwood committee advised that the risk of transmission of BSE to humans appeared remote, but could not be ruled out entirely. On 20 March this year, the Secretary of State for Health reported to the House that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee had advised the Government that BSE was "the most likely explanation" for an apparently new form of CJD.

I submit to the House that at least four lessons can be learnt from our BSE experience. First, once a possible public health problem is identified, there must be the political will to tackle it. For many years, the Government clearly did not have the political will to protect the public from the possible risk from BSE. That can be the only explanation for their dreadful record of under-regulation and under-enforcement.

The second lesson is that there must be scientific research to tell us what is happening, to identify the nature of the threat and to design ways of combating it. In the debate which I opened for the Opposition the week before last, we dealt with the question of the Government's proposals, even at this stage, to privatise the research being carried out on BSE. Under the prior options review, as hon. Members will be aware, the Institute of Animal Health, which includes the neuropathogenesis unit, is a candidate for privatisation.

As I also pointed out in the debate, on the very day the Secretary of State announced the issue and the crisis started, the Institute of Animal Health announced a loss of 60 jobs. In 1982, the institute employed 842 people: it now employs 489 people, more than 40 per cent. of whom are on temporary appointments.

Of course, Ministers were repeatedly saying that expenditure on BSE research had been increased. Of course it has been increased— it has been increased substantially—but it would be hard to avoid that when BSE was only identified in 1986. The crucial point is that the increase in research on BSE, CJD and other related issues has taken place against the background of huge cuts in Government-funded agriculture and food research. If the Government survive until May next year, I have calculated that they will have almost halved the number of scientists funded by the Government in food and agriculture research. They have already cut the numbers by more than 40 per cent.

The third lesson is that there must be regulation to protect the public. The House is aware of the Government's record of delay in regulating to protect human and animal health from BSE. There was a 20-month delay after identifying BSE before farmers had to destroy all suspect BSE cases. There was a delay of two and a half years before the Government said in June 1989 that they planned to ban the most infective offal from human food. Another seven-month delay followed before that was fully implemented throughout the UK and farmers were not fully compensated for slaughtering BSE cattle until February 1990. The Government have admitted that under-compensation for the previous 18 months deterred farmers from declaring suspect cases.

The fourth lesson is that regulations to protect our health must be properly enforced. The House will remember the Government's appalling record on enforcing BSE control regulations. In September 1995, 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses visited were found to be in breach of BSE controls designed to keep infective offal from human food.