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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

I am not sure whether we are on the same wavelength. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that hon. Members were advocating that the slaughterhouses should not implement the regulations or that there should be some laxity in relation to implementing the measures to keep specified bovine material out of human food, given the possible link with CJD? I hardly believe that hon. Members on either side of the House seriously advocated that.

This March, 4 per cent. of slaughterhouses and 17 per cent. of rendering plants visited were still in breach of the controls. In February and March this year, eight feedmills were found to be in breach of the mammalian protein ban to keep BSE out of cattle feed.

Over the years, I have warned the House about the implications of the cuts made in the number of public servants responsible for keeping our food safe. I welcome the fact that the Government have increased the number of meat inspectors—the Minister referred to that. The inspectors are important. However, as well as the inspectors, I submit that the state veterinary service is in the front line. I have to remind the House that the number of vets employed by the state veterinary service has fallen by about one third since 1979. I hope that the Government will say something positive about how they intend to rebuild that service.

Someone said to me, "Save the state veterinary service." That may be an exaggeration, but it strikes me that Ministers keep referring to additional resources for meat inspectors, which we welcome, but there is never any statement about additional resources for the state veterinary service. I hope that there will be some response on that.

This is not a matter of being wise after the event. The Minister used the word "hindsight". Much as Ministers would like to say so, that is not the case. By May 1989, the Labour party had realised that it was vital to ban cattle offal from human food, to compensate farmers fully for slaughtered BSE cattle and to ban the export of meat and bonemeal for cattle feed. Of course, by then we all accepted the need to prevent ruminant protein from getting into cattle feed. All these things are on the record. We called on the Government to halt the export of meat and bonemeal to other countries. I refer to that because of the publicity that has surrounded the issue in the past couple of weeks.

In 1990—again this is on the parliamentary record— we called for a tagging system for all calves to be introduced in Great Britain. We knew that traceability would be key to tackling the problem. Indeed, we would have liked to see the system that operates in Northern Ireland implemented throughout the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is in a special situation because it has an excellent traceability system, but it has been hammered as a result of the BSE crisis. What a transformation there would have been if we had had that traceability system throughout the entire United Kingdom, not just in Northern Ireland.

Full confidence in beef will be restored only when all measures necessary to keep the BSE agent out of our food are properly in place and enforced. The Labour party has set out proposals to restore confidence in the safety of beef, to keep the BSE agent out of our food, to improve the epidemiology of BSE, to increase consumer awareness and to improve the role of Government.