If you will forgive me, Madam Speaker, I must begin with an apology. I am afraid that I have lost my voice. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hooray."] I think that that will be the most popular part of my statement. I shall, therefore, have to lean directly over the microphone.
Madam Speaker, my original remark is more popular than your later observation. However, with permission, I would like to make a statement about transmissible spongiform encephalopathies in sheep. The subject was discussed at the Agriculture Council on Monday, and Commissioner Fischler said that he intended to put forward proposals for controls on sheep to apply across the Community.
Scrapie, a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy of sheep and goats, has been known for more than 200 years. There is no evidence that it is linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. CJD occurs at approximately the same level in countries with and without scrapie. I have recently received advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advice Committee—SEAC—that bovine spongiform encephalopathy could theoretically become established in the sheep flock. It notes that in experiments—the results of which have been published—one in six sheep experimentally challenged orally with BSE brain material succumbed to an encephalopathy and that, when their brain material was tested in mice, the same strain type as BSE was found. It notes also the possibility that some sheep could have been exposed to feed contaminated with the BSE agent before the ruminant feed ban was introduced in 1988.
The committee points out that there is no evidence of BSE occurring naturally in the sheep flock. However, SEAC is concerned that, while there is no evidence to that effect, scrapie might be masking BSE in the sheep flock. On the basis of present knowledge, SEAC has made three recommendations: first, that the Government should consider the issue further with our European Union partners, and we are doing that. We are keeping in close contact with the French Government, whose scientific committee equivalent to SEAC has made certain recommendations on the basis of the laboratory evidence about BSE in sheep and of concerns about scrapie. At the Agriculture Council on 22 July, Commissioner Fischler announced that the Commission intends to formulate proposals for the removal of certain offals of sheep and goats from the human and animal food chains. Those proposals are to be considered initially by the Standing Veterinary Committee in early August and then by other EU expert committees.
SEAC's second recommendation was that the Government should give early consideration to removing the brains of sheep, whatever their source, over six months of age from the human food chain. The agriculture departments are today issuing for consultation a proposal for the heads of all sheep and goats to be removed and destroyed in the same way as specified bovine material. That measure would go further than SEAC recommended, taking into account the practical difficulty of distinguishing the age of sheep at slaughter. It should not have a major economic impact as the vast majority of sheep's heads are already destroyed. It is worth noting that sheepmeat for human consumption comes predominantly from young lambs under 12 months of age.
We intend to reach a final decision in the light of responses to our consultation paper and progress in the EU discussion. Action on the issue at EU level would be preferable, but it is desirable, on a precautionary basis, that those measures are put in place promptly.
SEAC's third recommendation is that further research should be done to establish the levels of scrapie occurring naturally in sheep and to investigate further the risks of BSE transmission to the United Kingdom sheep flock. We accept that and some relevant research has already begun.
I emphasise that those steps are being taken out of an abundance of caution. There is no direct threat to human health. With the exception of the consumption of brains, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to change their eating habits. I repeat: there is no evidence at all that, in field conditions, BSE has got into the national flock, but as that possibility cannot be wholly excluded, we are proposing to take these precautionary measures. I am putting a copy of SEAC's advice and of my Department's consultation letter in the Library of the House of Commons.
May I put it to the Minister that, in dealing with matters relating to BSE and a possible link with CJD, we always need to err on the side of caution? It is on that basis that we support the precautionary measures that he announced today. May I also make it clear that it is vital that the regulations are properly enforced? We must have no repeat of the dreadful underenforcement of the regulations to keep the BSE agent out of beef and beef products, in the early years after it was identified in 1986. Is the Minister now taking steps to reverse the cuts that successive Conservative Governments have made in the State Veterinary Service?
In view of the trade in lamb throughout Europe, it clearly makes sense that any measures of this nature should be implemented across all the member states of the European Union. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that a number of member Governments at the Council meeting on Monday opposed the proposals? In that case, is he confident that, whatever the Standing Veterinary Committee decides, we can look forward to their being enforced throughout the EU and as uniformly as possible?
The Minister advised the House that the heads of all sheep and goats are to be kept out of human food. I should be grateful if he set out further the scientific basis for keeping heads out of our food, particularly in the light of the fact that, in relation to cattle, we keep intestines, thymus, spleen and spinal cords out of human food, again on a precautionary basis.
The Minister confirmed that the whole basis for the measure is the possibility—many people would say the theoretical possibility—that BSE is in our national sheep flock. I welcome the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman intends to carry out research to see whether he can find any evidence of BSE in our sheep. Has he noticed today's statement by the president of the Royal Society, that there is an urgent need for more research into the subject in order to reduce some of the uncertainties?
We need to attach the highest priority to the health of our livestock, and it should be our policy to eliminate transmissible spongiform encephalopathies from our cattle and sheep.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support, and I entirely agree with his assertion that it is right to act in a precautionary manner. I can confirm that when the regulations are put in place, they will be rigorously enforced, and I am confident that we have sufficient resources to do so. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Meat Hygiene Service has been recruiting substantially in order to discharge its existing duties with regard to BSE. It is true that there are some reservations in member states, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that it is desirable to approach the matter in an EU-wide way. I anticipate that any legally binding directives or decisions will be implemented throughout the European Union.
On the issue of brains and heads, the recommendation in SEAC's report extends only to brains. It does not extend to the spinal cord, although it is perfectly true that there is a French recommendation that does, albeit with a 12-months start point. The European Union vets will be considering that recommendation. For my part, I shall be annexing the SEAC recommendations and its report to the consultation document so that everyone has access to the advice that we have received.
I can confirm that we shall be looking into research to establish whether there is any evidence of BSE in the national flock. At the moment, there is no such evidence. I can also confirm that the elimination of BSE from cattle is a very high priority objective of the British Government. I can confirm that it is highly desirable for us to work out a strategy for the elimination of scrapie from the national flock.
My right hon. and learned Friend has demonstrated that in scientific laboratory conditions BSE can be transmitted to sheep. What possible evidence is there that that happens in the field, particularly in relation to sheep that are younger than eight years old and have never been able to eat any bovine beef?
My hon. Friend is right—there is no evidence that BSE has been transmitted to sheep in field conditions. We are acting out of an abundance of caution in a wholly precautionary way. But my hon. Friend was right to make his point.
We are grateful to the Minister for making an oral statement, particularly given the condition of his vocal cords. I think that he was originally intending to rely on a written answer and it is to the benefit of the House that he has made a statement and that we have had an opportunity to put questions to him.
The House will agree that there is an urgent need to clarify the position, so will the Minister tell us precisely what he has agreed to in relation to British lamb? Is it not true that the precautionary measures are irrelevant to traditionally reared and traditionally butchered English—British—lamb? Is it not true that the English chop is safe in our time? Will he now give that assurance? Will he respond specifically to the point made by the British Veterinary Association, that the proposed regulations are ludicrous in relation to the British situation?
It is true that I was thinking of relying on a written answer; an Adjournment debate was also planned and I was contemplating informing the House about the issues during that debate.
The hon. Gentleman asked what I have agreed to. I have agreed to nothing. I am in the process of consulting, in the manner that I have described to the House. Clearly, if the European Union promulgates EU-wide directives that are legally binding, I anticipate implementing them in this country—as I imagine that he would wish me to do.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the English chop. I am bound to say that I am not quite as partial as he is to it, in the sense that I am also concerned about the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh chop. Speaking of the UK chop, I think that it is a splendid product. It can be eaten in complete safety, and I look forward to doing so for very many years to come.
Perhaps the House has listened to this statement in such a quiet manner because, rather than suffering from July madness, we are suffering from crisis fatigue. Will my right hon. and learned Friend recall and reflect on the question so ably asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Sir M. Lennox-Boyd), who got to the nub of the entire matter? Is it not a fact that we are leaving our common sense behind in responding to the Commission's proposals, which are totally unnecessary for our sheep industry?
I have already made the point that we are acting out of an abundance of caution. It is our view that UK lamb—in fact, European lamb—is wholly safe. We have received advice. The French committee has advised the French Government, and SEAC, our advisory committee, has advised the British Government. Therefore, on the basis of that considered opinion—which will be made available to all hon. Members, including my hon. Friend—it is right to proceed in the manner that I have outlined to the House.
This is another fine mess that the Agriculture Minister has got himself into—or that he has got the industry into. Surely he is aware that consumers do not trust him. Furthermore, he must be aware that he is driving producers to despair, particularly those who have to sell their lamb flock at this time of year, when the lambs are ready for market. Given that he has not only lost his voice, but lost the place, has not the time come for him to hand over responsibility for these affairs to the Deputy Prime Minister—or, preferably, to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang)—before any more damage is done to consumer confidence or to the rural economy?
I think that the hon. Gentleman must have misunderstood the position adopted by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), who was, quite rightly, supporting the Government's position. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) is in fact saying that we should override and disregard SEAC's advice. That is what he is saying, and I do not think that it is a sensible or a prudential way in which to operate.
May I be forgiven for wondering where all this will end? I saw that, in some quarters this morning, the judgment of the Agriculture Commissioner was being called into question, because these precautions are being taken on the flimsiest of evidence. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is good news that this is a European rather than a British initiative, so that the onus is no longer on the British Government? Will he confirm that already 99 per cent. of the sheep brains removed in this country are destroyed, and that these measures will have virtually no effect whatever on the British sheep industry? That is quite a contrast to what happens in France, where a large proportion of sheep's brains are used in regional dishes.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that there is any truth in the rumour that is today circulating round the House, that these measures are a dastardly plot by Euro-vegetarians, who are determined to put off everyone from eating meat and to promote nut cutlets?
I have no difficulty in forgiving my hon. Friend in this matter, or in almost any other matter in which he asks for forgiveness. I have not the faintest intention of embarking on a diet of nut cutlets, and certainly not if they were the only thing that I was permitted to eat.
It is entirely desirable that the policy should be deployed on an EU-wide basis. My hon. Friend is right about that. He is also entirely right about the impact on the United Kingdom, as almost without exception— I am talking about 99 per cent.— the brains from sheepmeat in the UK are destroyed.
Will the Minister confirm that virtually every species that has been challenged with BSE in the way that the French team challenged sheep has developed a BSE-like disease? Will he therefore explain what will be done with the sheep's heads that are not now going into the food chain? Will they be rendered down into meat and bonemeal, and will that meat and bonemeal still be going into animal pet food as well as being disposed of in landfill sites?
The hon. Gentleman will find that the latter point is dealt with at some length in the consultation document. It is perfectly true that BSE can be transmitted to many creatures. As for the brains, the head— leaving aside the tongue— will be removed and destroyed and will not go into pet food. It will be treated as the equivalent of specified bovine material.
Mr. John Green way:
If we are to have these precautions, so be it— as my hon. Friend the Member for West Gloucestershire (Mr. Marland) said, they will not make a scrap of difference to the preparation of lamb for British and European tables. What livestock farmers will find difficult to understand is that it appears that the Agriculture Commissioner says that if we remove the brains and offal from lambs that theoretically might have BSE, lamb is safe. We have been doing that with British cattle for seven years, but we still have a ban on British beef. Why?
I have many sheep farmers in my constituency who are very dependent on the export trade to Europe. Is not it in their best interests if we comply fully with the new European requirements, because we do not want trouble again with Europe on these matters in future?
Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that when the European Standing Veterinary Committee considered beef, its decisions appeared not to be based purely on scientific evidence? Is he confident that when the committee meets again to consider these matters, it will consider them only on scientific and veterinary grounds?
It is very important that it should, but it is fair to say that in matters of this kind there is scope for more than one reasonable judgment. There is a difference, which I have already pointed out to the House, between the advice of SEAC, which confines the recommendation to brains from sheep of more than six months, and that of the French advisory committee, which talks of enlarging the prohibition to include the spinal cord and spleen, albeit only in respect of sheep over the age of 12 months. There is that perfectly understandable difference of opinion among scientists, which needs to be reconciled on objective scientific criteria within the EU's advisory committees.
Does the Minister accept that Welsh lamb is one of the great export success stories of recent years and that it is a quality product much sought after in France, Italy and Spain? Does he recognise that the statement by the Commissioner this time was distinctly unhelpful, bearing in mind the fact that many lambs are now coming on to our markets? Will he reinforce to his European counterparts the fact that the Commissioner's words must not in any way be used as a pretext to prevent our lambs going on to those markets?
I recognise the importance of the export of Welsh lamb. I also recognise that it is a quality product. It is important that we do not allow any action to be taken to discriminate against United Kingdom products in any respect. I should make the point that we are dealing with very young lambs. The majority of the exports from Wales are substantially under 12 months and that, for example, would mean that if we were to accept the French recommendations, there would be no prohibition of any kind.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the price of lamb at Hexham auction mart yesterday fell by more than 20 per cent., which is bad news for farmers, who are already suffering a 30 per cent. drop in income because of the BSE crisis in beef? Will he ensure that nothing is done to discriminate against English lamb in France by the French Government making regulations which would increase the processing costs of United Kingdom carcases, but which would not apply to carcases of French-bred lamb?
I was aware of the fall in price to which my hon. Friend refers. When the consumer reflects on what has been said in the House and elsewhere, we shall find that consumer confidence bounces back and the price will be restored to its former levels. My hon. Friend is quite right in what he says about discrimination. I have had the opportunity to discuss the matter in some detail with Philippe Vasseur, the French Agriculture Minister, and I do not believe that there will be any such discrimination. [Interruption.]
That information is set out in the consultation document. A detailed reply would take several minutes. The information is also in the SEAC report. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman will be able to find the precise answer to his question by reading the consultation document and the SEAC report.
Does my right hon. and learned hon. Friend agree that it is impossible to prove a negative, so it is impossible to prove that there is any food that does not have some risk? Are we not in danger of a national epidemic of paranoia, which is far more damaging to the health of the nation— a nation that still has many smokers? Can we not put the whole matter in perspective during the quiet days of August?
Does the Minister recall promising during the evidence-taking sessions of the joint Health and Agriculture Committees that MAFF would co-operate with Dr. Harash Narang by supplying him with urine samples? A fortnight ago, at a meeting in the House of relatives of CJD sufferers, Dr. Narang said that he had not yet received those urine samples. Will the Minister tell us why not? Surely it is in everyone's best interests to have a live test validated.
It is, of course, desirable that we should identify and develop an effective live test. We are perfectly willing to work with Dr. Narang, but co-operation has to be a two-way process.
Has my right hon. and learned Friend's Department learnt nothing from previous health scares? Does he not recognise that saying that a product is safe while at the same time introducing precautionary measures sends a confused and confusing message, which does nothing to maintain or restore public confidence?
Could we return to the science of the matter? When Professor Pattison of SEAC and Dr. Will of the neuropathogens unit at the Western general hospital in Edinburgh addressed the parliamentary and scientific committee some three weeks ago, they gave the impression that the French work had not been made available to them. In the past three weeks, have our scientists looked at the basis on which the French results were achieved, and what is the state of co-operation among scientists?
The co-operation has been very good. At a recent meeting of SEAC, a number of French scientists from the Dormont committee were present, and I believe that at one of the recent meetings of the Dormont committee, members of SEAC were present. I have also had a recent meeting with the French Agriculture Minister to discuss this very subject.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the great British public are getting pretty fed up with all the scare stories affecting their staple food of one sort or another? Is he further aware that one of the largest abattoirs in the country is in my constituency? As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and other hon. Members have said, abattoirs are affected by such scare stories. Will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake to assure people today that lamb is as safe as it has ever been, so that we can enjoy our summer holidays in peace and quiet and ensure that butchers, abattoirs, retailers and anyone else involved in the industry can sleep easy at night?
My right hon. Friend has stated the position with complete accuracy. In my view, UK lamb and, indeed, European lamb is wholly safe. What is being done is done out of an abundance of caution, based on assessments of theoretical risk. There is absolutely no evidence of any kind that BSE is in the national flock, either here or elsewhere in Europe.
Is the Minister aware that the opinion is going around in my constituency that his mere appearance on television is enough to undermine confidence in whichever product he is proclaiming to be safe? Will he confirm whether it is correct that there are about 170,000 cases of BSE in beef herds, so the Government have taken some precautions— belatedly and poorly enforced, but now in place— and that, although there is no evidence whatever of any BSE infection in the sheep flock, we are taking similar precautions for sheep? In the absence of such evidence, does not such action strike the Minister as somewhat drastic? Have we not reached an incredible state of affairs when Professor Richard Lacey is accusing the Ministry and the European Commission of alarmism?
I do not know what impact I may have on the hon. Gentleman's constituents, but I know of the impact that he has on mine. He is against the integrity of the United Kingdom, which causes immense dismay in most of England and Wales, and I fancy in Scotland as well.
Not all of them, yet.
Secondly, thousands of people are becoming vegetarians because they do not want their brains to turn to jelly, and that must be good for the health of the nation. Thirdly, the House has watched the interesting spectacle of the Minister becoming the first hog to make a pig's ear out of himself.
It is obviously for the hon. Gentleman to determine whether he is a vegetarian, but the consequence of what he has just said would be disastrous for British farmers and everybody working in the related industries.
Is the Minister aware that I represent a large number of producers as well as consumers, and although I agree with him and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) that it is right to err on the side of caution, it is also important not to cause panic? Will he or one of his Ministers have a quick word with the Consumers Association, to ensure that it does not make the same kind of foolish statement that it made over the beef crisis?
It is always nice to have the hon. Gentleman's support. He had better have some cautionary words with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), because his constituents would be damaged by his hon. Friend's policies. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has the matter concerning the Consumers Association in hand.
Does the Minister accept that the key lesson to learn from the BSE crisis is the need to engage and hold consumer confidence? Does he understand that many people view his Ministry as an agent of the producer rather than of the consumer? Is there not a case for an independent food advisory committee?
Of course, it is important to try to engage and retain the confidence of the consumer— that is central. I do not, however, agree with the hon. Gentleman's conclusion. It is perfectly true that the Ministry of Agriculture has always had a high regard for the interests of the producer, and rightly so. But our paramount obligation and duty is not to the producer: it is to the consumer. My Department's overriding obligation is to ensure the safety and quality of British food.
Scrapie in sheep was made a notifiable disease in 1992. Has the incidence of scrapie increased since then? Is there not a case, as the president of the Royal Society makes clear in his press statement today, for the Government to explore the possibility of a programme to eradicate scrapie in sheep?
Yes, there is. We must clearly develop a strategy designed to achieve, in the medium to long term, the eradication of scrapie from the national flock. Meanwhile, we need to determine whether our existing scrapie controls and regulations are adequate. I propose to direct that that be done. We also need to carry out research to determine, as best we can, the present incidence of scrapie in the national flock.
Is the Minister aware that I spent several hours over the Whit weekend assisting a farmer because the Intervention Board's telephone service was unmanned for the whole holiday period? Given the Government's failure to respond to inquiries that I have initiated, will the Minister assure the House that every possible support will be given to farmers with inquiries about his statement— over the telephone and by other means— during the coming holiday period? Will he also use such services as a way of collecting data from farmers, to assist with the important research that is necessary?
We have greatly improved the communication policies that we have been pursuing. It is important to do our utmost to keep the producers informed. We have established helplines; we have been writing direct to farmers. We have been issuing newsletters and publishing advertisements in the farming press. We shall certainly see how we can reinforce that approach.
I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement. May I emphasise to him the massive size of the Welsh flock? Were anything like what has happened to beef to happen to sheepmeat in Wales, our rural communities would face ruin.
Does the Minister accept that many sheep producers in constituencies such as mine work in the most marginal agricultural areas and are already right up to the wire, financially speaking— not least because of the erosion of Government support for those areas, particularly in the form of hill livestock compensatory allowances? If they are to suffer losses from a slump in market confidence, will the Minister reassure us that, in so far as it is within the power of the Government to do so, they will adjust the various forms of agricultural support so that, for once, hill farmers in marginal areas will be given a decent deal?
The truth is that all these things depend on consumer confidence. My own clear feeling is that there is absolutely no reason why consumers' confidence in lamb should be damaged by what has been said here today or at the Agriculture Council.