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BSE

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:59 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe , Wakefield 6:59 pm, 25th June 1996

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) for making the point that we are discussing essentially a health issue. I am concerned that, with his honourable exception, speeches have not addressed the serious concerns about health aspects of the BSE crisis. Before I raise two specific points, I shall cite one example of how, consistently over the years, the Government have responded to warnings from scientists who do not toe the Government line by shooting the messengers and abusing people who have criticised and argued with policy.

By 1988, we knew that humans were one of six species vulnerable to infection. By 1990, we knew that there was an increasing incidence of BSE. Some hon. Members will recall Professor Richard Lacey, whom I have known for many years in my locality of West Yorkshire, warning in 1990 on the basis of what was known then that there should be selective slaughter of infected herds and the implementation of quarantine measures. The response of Government Members was to table an early-day motion on 15 May 1990, which said: That this House condemns the relentless attack on British farmers and food-producers by professors who display symptoms akin to BSE; and calls on the Department of Health to investigate the mental state of Professor Lacey who, having helped to destroy the egg industry, is now turning his attention to beef. I shall not name the hon. Members who supported that early-day motion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I shall not because, as a matter of courtesy, I would notify them first of my intention to do so. However, two of them were present earlier. Indeed, bearing in mind the fact that the debate has been initiated by the Liberal Democrats, I should say that one of the hon. Members who supported the motion was a Liberal Democrat, who is still in the House, but not present. To his great credit, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) tabled an amendment to the motion.

Perhaps we should listen to such professors and consider why such an attitude has affected the way in which we have dealt with this serious problem. Lacey was right on eggs, according to a Health Minister. He was proved right on listeria. Had we listened to the warnings about BSE in 1990, the farming industry would not be facing this crisis, billions of pounds of taxpayers' money would not have to be diverted into dealing with it, and, most important of all, public health would have been safeguarded. We should have listened to one or two people on the sidelines who were marginalised. They were saying that a serious problem was coming up.

The Prime Minister's statement yesterday primarily concerned the export issue—not health. BSE is a health issue. I shall raise two aspects of the health side of the story, which has not been addressed except by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East. I hope that I shall get some responses from the Minister. The first issue concerns gelatine.

There have been long-standing restrictions on the use of gelatine in pharmaceutical and medical products. That was changed by SEAC on 24 March, and it now tells us that gelatine is safe for use in such products. Why did that change take place? A document produced by the animal health veterinary group in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food only this month contains data showing that chemicals used and temperatures needed to extract and purify gelatine are inadequate to destroy the infective agent of BSE that is likely to be present in bones. I understand that SEAC's policy change arises from advice given by an expert in the Medicines Control Agency. I have asked the Department of Health questions about what new information caused the change and what qualifications are held by the person who proposed it. I have had no answers. Perhaps the Minister will give me some tonight.