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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

No; I do not think that the hon. Gentleman expects me to do so. Certainly he cannot seriously suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham was not reflecting the very great concern at that time. I noted that, a month or so ago, even the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry in the Republic of Ireland referred in the press to how the Government were handling the crisis, the announcement on 20 March and the delay before a second announcement was made.

I agree with the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Baker) to this extent: it is incumbent on us to avoid unnecessary elevation of the risk and to avoid encouraging people to lose perspective. We will accomplish that by telling the truth and not by pretending that there is not an issue, because there is a very real issue.

We have always made it clear that the Government were absolutely right to come to the House of Commons to report the new information from scientists on this apparently new form of CJD. It is too early to say how many more new cases there will be of this new form of CJD, but—I say it again—even if the cases increase, we still will not know by any means whether that was caused by eating contaminated beef or beef products in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My view is that we must tell it to the people straight. They will understand. The measures in place to keep the organs—brain, spinal cord and specified bovine material—out of the food chain is the real protection, which is in addition, as everyone knows, to slaughtering animals that show symptoms. That is the important protection, as hon. Members have already said in the House, which is why hon. Members express doubts—to put it mildly—about the two slaughter programmes.

I should like to mention some of the proposals that we have made. Opposition Members have been very constructive on this issue, and we have repeatedly made constructive suggestions, some of which the Government have taken up.

First, in the long term, we believe that there should be an independent food standards agency, the purpose of which would be to ensure the safety of our food. It would be a consumer agency, and everything it recommended and all its decisions would be entirely public. It would be answerable to the Secretary of State for Health and to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It would be proactive and it would draw potential risks to the attention of the Government, the public and all interested parties.

We say that in future—it will take time—there is a role for such an agency to ensure that we re-establish our reputation for the highest quality and safest food in Europe. Sadly, BSE has tarnished that reputation, and the tarnish affects not just beef, as hon. Members are aware.

The second point, too, is wholly constructive. Indeed, the more I read the documentation from Florence, the more I am absolutely convinced of the lightness of such an approach. We should have an investigation—which, as I have already said, will take only about two or three months—into why so much contaminated feed reached cattle after the ban was imposed in 1988. Two thirds of new BSE cases occur in animals that were born after the imposition of the feed ban in 1988. If we are about tackling the problem at source, we should address that fact.

If we are about a further slaughter programme, which the Minister has acknowledged we are, I submit that it may be—I put it no higher—that a proper inquiry, particularly in Northern Ireland, with its ability to trace, is necessary to discover which mills were offending, which farms received the feed and, therefore, which animals were most at risk. For the life of me, I cannot understand why Ministers have turned their backs on that possibility and persisted with an approach that emphasises numbers. There could now be up to 150,000 cattle in the second slaughter programme.