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BSE

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 7:09 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare 7:09 pm, 25th June 1996

It has not been stated as often as it should be that this matter was brought to public attention not by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, but by the Daily Mirror. That newspaper published in its 20 March edition four pages dealing with a leaked document— leaked, I understand, from the Department of Health—on BSE. I believe, although I have no internal knowledge of the matter, that Ministers were then forced into a corner and had to make an announcement before they had taken the necessary preparation and time to deal with the minutiae and appropriate questions attached to it.

The article was based on a leaked, or stolen, document, and it was an irresponsible way of announcing something that, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said, was always a possibility. It was always possible that BSE would pass across the species to human beings, and it was for that very reason that the enormously expensive and complex butchering operations to remove specified offal took place following a Government order in 1989. We do not always keep these matters in proportion—10 people a day are killed on our roads.

I was astonished that the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) adopted the tone he did. Does he really believe that—at a time when the world is looking closely at how we are dealing with our industry—it is in Britain's national interest to start casting doubt? He mentioned Professor Lacey and his recommendations. Professor Lacey gave evidence to the Agriculture Select Committee in 1990, but did not impress the Committee with his knowledge of the subject or his background information. Nor did we believe that any of his recommendations was likely to be practical. As the history of the disease has progressed, he has been proved entirely wrong, and SEAC has been proved entirely right.

The hon. Member for Wakefield also mentioned Harash Narang. One of the leading professors in the country told the Select Committee the other day that he would not employ Dr. Narang. If the hon. Gentleman inspects Dr. Narang's written evidence when it is published, I cannot believe for one second that he will give credibility to that gentleman, either.

The Liberal Democrats have an extraordinarily high opinion of themselves in relation to their actions in this matter. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said that the Liberals had set out to be of help, but I find it difficult to stomach that statement. On the first three days after the crisis broke, the Liberals were stampeding around the country making public statements that were critical of the Government and which added to public concern.

It was not until farmers in the constituencies of Yeovil and North Cornwall, among others, started pointing out that huge damage would be done to the British beef industry that they changed their approach, following a complete 180 deg turn. Since then, the Liberals have been of remarkably little help. They have deliberately stirred up the agricultural community, and have been spreading despair and concern.

I believe that the actions of several politicians—I do not exempt the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman)—forced our European partners in a moment of panic to introduce the ban, although "forced" may not be the right word. That was the crucial moment when public confidence went up the spout, because the public were concerned that the European countries no longer believed us, having done so through the early 1990s. Europe had taken the veterinary and scientific advice and played the game by the book, but it suddenly tore up the rule book and the scientific evidence, and banned our beef. The ban has, in fact, affected many European countries to a far greater extent than our own.

To minimise this problem would be a mistake—it is a substantial disaster, not just for Britain but for the whole of Europe. When we could make no impression on the Europeans, what other option did we have but to say, "If you have broken the rules, we will break the rules"? To suggest that that did not concentrate their minds is not facing facts—it concentrated their minds remarkably.

Critics say that there is no timetable for the ban to be lifted, but I do not agree. Although there is no calendar date for the lifting of the ban, there is very much a timetable for our actions. As we respond to the requests, Europe will see it relevant to lift various elements of the ban, until we can put the matter behind us.

The hon. Member for Wakefield questioned the decision on gelatine, but there is no evidence that BSE material is found in bones. He therefore starts his argument by referring to a material that is in itself safe, and his questioning shows that he, too, has departed from the scientific approach.

I confess that the farmers have been critical of the execution of the execution—if I can use that phrase—and have stated that it has caused great concern. There is a backlog of cattle—some of which have been eating their heads off at the farmers' expense—and there were other problems. However, we were engaged in an exercise of enormous proportions which was totally unrehearsed and unprepared. Never before has a problem of this size and nature arisen, but it is now beginning to go relatively smoothly.