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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

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for agreeing.

The Southwood committee report said that there was a possibility of such a risk, although it was remote. So the risk was always there. If we had implemented the measures—even if the Government had implemented their own measures effectively, particularly the feed ban—we would not be in our current position, spending billions of pounds tackling the crisis.

Remember that the general position—the Government's position, the Opposition's position and the European position—is that the main, if not the sole, cause of BSE in our cattle is contaminated ruminant protein. Obviously we will need to see the result of the maternal transmission experiment. There may be some maternal transmission, but if there is, it is expected to be very minor. I hope that that experiment will be allowed to be concluded with a proper, published analysis.

Support for quality assurance schemes is one of our eight points. We are moving on now to the question of certified herds, which is a very important matter, as the Minister appreciates. There is great frustration in the industry that certification is still not in place 10 weeks after it was promised. Will the criteria for exemption from the 30-month scheme be the same as those for certification to export, once the European Union agrees relaxation of the ban? I hope that the Minister will answer that question when she replies.

I should now like to deal with the motion and the amendment on the Order Paper. Many criticisms can be made of the Government's handling of the current BSE crisis, and Opposition Members have made them clearly in the House. After the statement on the new evidence of a possible BSE-CJD link, on 20 March, the Agriculture Minister told the House: I do not believe that this information should damage consumer confidence and thus the beef market."—[Official Report, 20 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 387.] There was no strategy whatsoever, and rural areas will be paying for that appalling misjudgment for a long time. As bits of policy finally emerged, they were dogged by chaos. Nowhere was that chaos more apparent than in the 30-month slaughter scheme.

Whatever criticisms we may have of the handling of the BSE crisis by the current Agriculture Minister, I do not want to encourage the hope held by some Conservative Members that sacking the Minister will in some way eliminate the Government's culpability for their terrible failure for so many years to tackle BSE effectively. Indeed, if we are to get into the business of sacking Cabinet members, we should consider sacking former Agriculture Ministers, who presided over dreadful delays and under-enforcement since BSE was identified in 1986. That would of course mean saying goodbye to the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who are all former Agriculture Ministers. BSE and CJD are crucial matters of public health. Past and present Secretaries of State for Health were involved in the neglect of the duties of Government. Perhaps we should say farewell to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for National Heritage and the present Secretary of State for Health.

The Government amendment will not cut much ice with the beef and dairy industries or with our rural communities. Hon. Members who have contact with those industries or who represent rural constituencies are aware of the scale of the damage and the scale of the losses. It is true that large amounts are now going into providing some support and compensation, but they are not compensating fully for the losses. They are not compensating for the fall in the price of beef animals or for all the lost jobs in transport and other specialist aspects of the industry. It is a disaster and the House knows that. Thousands of jobs have been lost and livelihoods are at stake; that is what confronts us. I do not see any acknowledgement of that in the Government amendment.

There are very real issues to be addressed; the Minister set out the position. In their amendment, the Government boast that they have brought back from the Florence summit a "clear framework". They have done nothing of the sort: they have no timetable and no guarantee from their European counterparts of any future agreement on any of the proposed steps in the lifting of the ban.

I take exception to the Minister's criticism of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. The fact is that my right hon. Friend set out the position yesterday and the Prime Minister was unable to answer his criticisms. The reality is clear. We have agreed to implement a number of measures, including the commencement—I emphasise that it is the commencement and not the completion—of the second slaughter programme, the selective slaughter programme. Once we have all the measures in place, consideration will be given, following a submission from the Government, to lifting one step of the ban.

As has been pointed out repeatedly, that consideration will be on the basis of a Commission decision and a decision of the Standing Veterinary Committee, which has caused problems in the past. We must also recognise that there is an unfortunate discrepancy—the Minister knows more of the inside story than I do—between the attitude of the Standing Veterinary Committee and the attitude of the Scientific Veterinary Committee. We have made some criticisms of the way in which the matter was handled by the Standing Veterinary Committee; that is why there is no guarantee even of the first step. The Prime Minister put forward an ambitious series of proposed steps, to which the Minister referred today. However, there is no guarantee and that is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was right in his judgment.

As the national interest had been invoked, the Labour party promised not to undermine the Prime Minister's non-co-operation strategy, but at no stage did we give a blank cheque. We must judge the strategy by its results and it can only be judged a failure.