– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 17th February 1997.
We have before us an Opposition day on the BSE crisis. Because of the number of hon. Members seeking to catch my eye during this debate, speeches between the hours of 7 pm and 9 pm will have to be limited to 10 minutes.
I beg to move,
That this House believes that, in view of the Government's incompetent handling of the BSE and beef crises and its failure to make the promised progress towards lifting the ban on the export of beef and beef products, the salary of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be reduced by £1,000.
The purpose of the debate is to call the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to account for his disastrous handling of the beef crisis, a crisis which he and his colleagues have exacerbated by blunder after blunder. Has any Minister presided over an episode of such misjudgment, incompetence and disarray? Farmers' livelihoods have been damaged, thousands of jobs in the industry have been lost, consumer confidence has been jeopardised and the credibility of the United Kingdom in Europe and beyond has been undermined.
The bill to the taxpayer has been more than £3 billion—that is more than £130 for every taxpayer in the land. The last Government gave us the poll tax; this Government have given us the beef tax.
The hon. Gentleman knows from previous debates on this issue that I have taken an independent line on this matter. Will he tell farmers in my constituency which part of the £3.3 billion support for the beef industry the Labour party would not have paid?
Indeed, I shall come to that point—[Interruption.] In a word, it is the hugely excessive fees paid to the slaughterhouses for slaughtering animals—two or three times what the slaughterhouses should have received. I shall come to that point later.
For the beef industry, the crisis began on 20 March. On that day, which is riveted in the minds of everyone in the beef industry, the Secretary of State for Health and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food came to the House of Commons and advised us that the Government's committee, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, had advised the Government that the most likely explanation of the new variant of CJD was BSE.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House fully appreciated the gravity of that statement. Yet on that day the Minister said:
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.]
The beef industry, the farming industry and our rural communities are still paying a heavy price for that misjudgment.
The announcement was bungled. Hon. Members will understand that since 1986, when BSE was identified, there has always been a possibility of a link between BSE in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. The Government's Southwood report made that clear in 1989. The Tyrrell committee—another committee set up by the Government—advised random testing of the brains of cattle going through our slaughterhouses. The House will know that that recommendation was never implemented.
There was always a possibility that such information could come to the Government, but the statement was bungled. On Wednesday 20 March, we were told about the possibility of the link, but we were also told that we would have to wait over the weekend and that it would be Monday at the earliest before the Secretary of State for Health would come back and tell us whether children or other special groups were particularly at risk. What an impact that had on consumer confidence! What an impact that had on our industry! What an impact that had on markets in Europe! No wonder some countries took unilateral action to halt the movement of our beef and beef supplies—there had been such a collapse in confidence in this country during those few days.
There was no contingency plan and clearly no strategy. Consider, for example, the position of cattle aged over 30 months. Those cattle are important because they are more likely to carry the BSE agent. On 20 March, the Minister told us that all cattle over 30 months would be deboned and that special slaughterhouses would be designated and licensed for that purpose. Eight days later, on 28 March, he told the House of Commons that all beef from cattle over 30 months would be banned. They had not been able to organise the licensing of the slaughterhouses to carry out the deboning. On 3 April he told the House of Commons that the Government had decided that all cattle over 30 months should be slaughtered, destroyed and incinerated. That is a measure of how unprepared the Government were. They had no strategy or contingency plan, but BSE had been in our cattle since 1986 and they knew full well that there was always the possibility of a link between BSE in cattle and CJD in humans.
The hon. Gentleman has given an account of events around 20 March last year. Does he still agree with the point that he made on 22 March last year that European Governments were acting prudently in banning British beef?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for coming up with that, because if ever a position was deliberately misrepresented repeatedly, that is it.
Yes, it does. [Laughter.] Conservative Members can laugh as much as they like. On 20 March, the Government made their announcement. On 22 March, a number of Governments, including the French Government, announced a unilateral cessation of imports of beef products from the United Kingdom until the position was clarified. Given the total collapse in the market in this country and given the confusion, the right hon. and learned Gentleman's response was counterproductive. He launched an intemperate attack on the French. He even said—I remember this well—that the French action was probably illegal. Knowing that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a distinguished lawyer, I thought that he would be right, but he was wrong. The French action was totally legal.
After that date—this is a different development—the European Union imposed its collective ban on the export of British beef and beef products. That was a worldwide ban. I have made it clear and have always done so—indeed, the whole Opposition have agreed with the Government—that that ban is not justified. The reason why it is not justified is that—
The hon. Gentleman has in his hand a press release that I put out on the Friday after the Wednesday. I am talking about the overall European Union ban which was imposed on 27 March. That is the ban that matters. The important point is that, when that ban was imposed, the Opposition took the view that provided that all the controls were in place—
Order. Hon. Gentlemen should not persist when it is obvious that the Opposition spokesman at the Dispatch Box is not giving way. They should resume their seats.
The important point is that, provided that all the controls are in place, the cattle over 30 months old have been slaughtered, and in particular, that the controls in the slaughterhouses have been implemented fully, and not in the way they were in 1995 and years before, we take the view that the ban is not justified, never has been justified and should be lifted.
Order. Is the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) giving way? [Interruption.] I need no instructions from the Opposition Front Bench. I am waiting for Mr. Strang to indicate to me whether he will give way.
That being so, hon. Members will resume their seats.
I am taking a bit of time to nail a particular misrepresentation. Most hon. Members who follow the issue know that it is quite wrong. The position is quite clear. Our position is that, if all the controls are being implemented, our beef and beef products are as safe as if not safer than those in any other country in the European Union. That is why the whole beef ban is unjustified and should be lifted. That surely cannot be clearer.
I turn from the origin of the over-30-months scheme. The House should remember that, on 29 April—
Order. Mr. Arnold, it has been indicated to you by the hon. Gentleman at the Dispatch Box and by me as Speaker that he does not wish to give way. I should be glad if, for the time being, you would resume your seat. The hon. Gentleman may give way later, but obviously not quite at this time.
I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker. If the Government Members will make a responsible attempt to listen to the debate, I shall certainly give way later.
I have described the origin of the over-30-months slaughter scheme. The scheme was supposed to start on 29 April. In fact, by the end of May, hardly any cattle had been slaughtered. There was so much chaos and confusion and anger on the part of farmers that there was wide speculation that the Minister of Agriculture would be sacked. Was he sacked? No, the Prime Minister chose not to sack the Minister but humiliate him instead. The Prime Minister appointed the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), as the man in charge of BSE and the over-30-months slaughter scheme. He was to be the new beef supremo to take over from the Minister—or to work with him. We did not know because there was total confusion. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was meeting farmers; the Minister was meeting farmers.
The Minister told us on 24 July that the backlog of cattle to be slaughtered under the over-30-months scheme would be cleared by October. What did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster bring to the situation? On 12 September, the Chancellor coolly announced that the Government had no idea how many cattle were in the backlog. There we were, into a huge slaughter scheme—more than 1 million cattle have been slaughtered under it—yet in September, months after the scheme had begun operating, the Chancellor of the Duchy announced that the Government had no idea in the first place how many cattle they would slaughter under the over-30-months scheme. No wonder there was such confusion and anger. In October, 400,000 cattle were in the backlog waiting to be slaughtered. No wonder farmers were angry.
Some farmers were lucky and had their cattle slaughtered early, but others did not manage to get the slaughterhouse to take their cattle. They had held the cattle all those months—it was autumn and winter was approaching—and they did not want to spend more money on winter feed. What did the Minister do? He cut the compensation payable for each animal to the farmer. Those farmers who had held their animals longest had their compensation reduced below what was paid to the lucky few who got their cattle slaughtered early.
At that time, the National Farmers Union passed a motion of no confidence in the Minister. That was an historic occasion—the National Farmers Union passing a vote of no confidence in a Conservative Minister of Agriculture. Surely that was an indication that something was going wrong in the farming community.
The Government were also massively overpaying the slaughterhouses, which were getting £87.50 plus the value of a hide per animal slaughtered. That is a scandal, because it is two or three times what they should have been paid. The Minister has subsequently cut that figure, but it was a disgrace—given all the groups that suffered, including the transport workers, the head deboners and the people working in the packaging plants, who did not get a penny—that such excessive sums should have been given to the huge abattoirs.
While we had that catalogue of chaos in the over-30-months scheme at home, Ministers were totally failing to put over Britain's case in Europe. The House will recall the slaughter auction that took place. The Minister came back from Brussels to tell the House that he had agreed a second slaughter programme; in addition to the OTMS, there would be a selective slaughter of milking cows—those deemed most likely to come down with BSE in the future. In April, the Minister said that we would slaughter 42,000 cattle. By May, 80,000 cattle were to be slaughtered, but by the end of that month the figure was back down to 42,000. In June, the figure finally agreed by the Prime Minister at the Florence summit was around 128,000 cattle.
The Florence summit was important. The Prime Minister came back and informed the House that he had reached an agreement for a certified herd scheme. In October, he said, we could start exporting beef from the certified herds and, in November, all the beef that could be sold in this country—from cattle under 30 months—would be available for export to Europe and beyond. In effect, he said, the beef ban would be lifted in its entirety by November.
What happened? It became clear in July that the Government would not meet their undertaking to put the arrangements in place by 1 August. We had a debate just before the House rose in July, and the Minister said:
the agreement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister secured at the Florence Council provides the framework for the step-by-step lifting of the European Union ban on exports of United Kingdom beef and beef products. Decisions on each step will be taken on the basis of scientific and objective criteria. The agreement was a great success, and provides a solid way forward."—[Official Report, 24 July 1996; Vol. 282, c. 369.]
Those were the Minister's words in July.
In September, the Government announced the suspension of the selective slaughter programme. They were not going ahead with their side of the Florence agreement. The selective slaughter scheme was the crucial element of that agreement.
After all the chaos, when the House came back in October, the Minister did not come to the House—
Sit down. The Minister did not come to the House on the first day back to explain what had happened. I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker,
for allowing me to summon the Minister on a private notice question to force him to come to the House. What did he do? He set out all the reasons why the Government were not going to implement the selective slaughter programme. He explained why we were—if not reneging on—certainly suspending our implementation of the Florence agreement. That was on 14 October. On 28 October, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said on Radio 4's "Today" programme:
We accept the Florence agreement and we intend to comply with it. We intend to implement a selective cull programme once we are in a position to do and to do it under a Union banner.
There was utter confusion. The industry did not know whether the Government would implement our side of the Florence agreement and whether we were to have a selective slaughter programme. This carried on until December, when the Government announced their U-turn. We welcomed that U-turn, as we had been urging the Government to implement a selective slaughter programme from the time the House returned in October. The Minister announced that the Government were to implement the programme.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman one simple question? If we had gone ahead with the extended or selective cull in October, what would have been the reaction of farmers who had cattle waiting under the 30-months scheme? Surely it is logical to get rid of one problem before one starts dealing with the next one.
That is a good try, and the Minister has used that argument. However, it will not wash, and I will explain why. Even if one accepts that it was not possible to start the selective slaughter programme, and I do not—after all, all we had to do was to start it in some UK slaughterhouses—we should have identified the cattle to be slaughtered under the programme. Then, if we had decided to go ahead, all the cattle would have been identified and the farmers would have been visited by the state veterinary service. There was no justification for the Government's prevarication throughout the summer, or for their U-turn on the issue. As for maternal transmission and the Roy Anderson paper from Oxford, the whole point of that information was that—if anything—it would have enabled us to have a more effective selective slaughter programme. That is no excuse, either.
What is the present position? It is exactly as was set out by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition last week. First, the Government promised last June that the beef ban would be lifted in November. Last week, not a single piece of the ban had been lifted. Secondly, the position last week was that not a single animal—not one cow—had been slaughtered under the selective slaughter programme, which was part of the deal under the Florence agreement. As for the certified herds scheme—herds from which exports can start—the position last week was that that scheme had not been put to Brussels. The cost of the BSE fiasco is now estimated at £3.3 billion. It is currently costing £4 million a day—£130 for every taxpayer in the country.
What is the way forward? First, we must accept that the Florence agreement is the only mechanism on the table to secure the lifting of the beef ban, and we must implement our side of it. That means pressing ahead with the selective slaughter programme and securing agreement with Brussels. I hope that the Minister will have something positive to say on the certified herd scheme. I want to be constructive about this, because obviously we do not just want a scheme to be submitted. We want a scheme that the Minister has discussed with the Commission and which has a chance of being agreed quickly to enable exports to start from the certified herds.
As the House understands, that is particularly important to Northern Ireland. I make no apology for speaking of Northern Ireland in particular, because it is there that the greatest damage has been done. I see the Minister smiling, but there is a serious point here; it is not a matter of votes and politicking.
The agriculture and livestock industry is proportionally more important in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom; within that agriculture industry beef is especially important; and within that beef sector, half the beef is exported. That is why so many workers have been laid off in Northern Ireland, why the industry is so angry and why it is so important for us to move ahead, with agreement, with a certified herds scheme that will enable Northern Ireland to lead us out of the crisis.
What is not acceptable—I trust that the Minister will agree with this—is an agreement that enables Northern Ireland to move ahead but that includes conditions that would prevent Scotland, Wales or England from doing so. We do not mind Northern Ireland being the first ship in the convoy, provided that we are in that convoy, but it would be totally unacceptable for it to move ahead on the basis of an agreement that locked Scottish, Welsh and English beef out of the world market for a long time.
We want progress on the certified herds scheme and the incineration of all the carcases. My right hon. Friend the deputy leader of the Labour party discovered vessels in Hull packed to the gunwales with carcases. We know why those vessels are there. Only 4 per cent. of the carcases have been rendered and incinerated. We have to press ahead and complete the destruction and incineration of the cattle, so that we can put the issue behind us.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what he said about Northern Ireland? He was talking about circumstances in which Northern Ireland could lead the way. I fully agree that it would be possible for that to happen soon, because once the cull agreed at Florence is commenced, as it soon will be in Northern Ireland, the traceability and the presence of the grass-fed herds and the farm quality assurance scheme will make it possible for an application to be made to the Commission for the beginning of a progressive lifting of the ban, beginning with Northern Ireland and then extending elsewhere. Would the hon. Gentleman support such a move?
Yes, indeed. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because he made an important point that I did not make. The strength of the Northern Ireland case lies not only in the fact that the beef industry is so important there; the strongest argument is that the traceability scheme is in place, with all the information on computer, so all the cattle can be identified.
I went to Northern Ireland many months ago and met the farmers there; I did not realise until I went that all their animals are flagged, so they know exactly where they stand. I do not want to make a meal of this, but in 1990 the Labour party, the official Opposition, urged the Government to implement just such a scheme throughout the United Kingdom. It is all there on the record in Hansard. How much stronger our position would have been had we had that computerised system up and running today.
Only last month, the Minister did another U-turn. After years of insisting that the present arrangements with regard to food safety were adequate and should not be changed, he announced the appointment of a full-time independent food safety adviser and the setting up of a part-time food council, if the Conservatives were to win the general election. He stressed then that the consumer no longer trusted Ministers when they said that our food was safe.
The Minister has lost the confidence of the beef industry. By compounding the crisis, he has caused thousands of additional jobs to be lost. He has lost the confidence of the farmers, and that is why they passed a vote of no confidence in him. He has lost the confidence of our consumers, as he has freely admitted. His beef fiasco is costing the country more than £3.3 billion: more than £130 for every taxpayer. Surely he has lost the confidence of the House. I urge hon. Members to vote for our motion.
The proper response to the motion, and indeed to the way in which it has been moved, is contempt. In promoting this debate, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) admitted on the "Today" programme this morning, the Opposition are not primarily concerned with BSE, beef, British agriculture or even with my salary. Their principal concern is to try to trigger an early general election, because they recognise that the growing strengths of the British economy and the increasing disagreement in their ranks make a Conservative victory in a May general election extremely probable. This is a political stunt, but one of which the Labour party should be profoundly ashamed. The inevitable consequence of a debate such as this is that confidence in British beef will be damaged. The already difficult task of getting the ban lifted will be made yet harder.
I read that Labour's deputy leader, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), has been put on the case. That is something of a novelty. His only knowledge of the work of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is a passing connection with the drink trade. However, I can well understand how embarrassed the Opposition are in having to field the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East as their chief spokesman. It is extraordinary that a party dedicated to devolution for Scotland should think it right that the interests of English, Welsh and Northern Irish farmers should be represented by an urban-based Edinburgh Scot.
Moreover, it is truly bizarre that the hon. Gentleman, who criticises me for having failed to secure the lifting of the ban, is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd,
North-West (Mr. Richards) pointed out, the Labour spokesman whose first reaction to the imposition of the ban was to defend it. He described it as prudent. This afternoon, he tried to wriggle out of what he said but I shall remind the House of his comments. On Friday 22 March, he issued a press release that stated:
Instead of talking about the French Government acting illegally by halting imports of beef and cattle from the United Kingdom, Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg should understand they were acting prudently … There are many more cases of BSE in the United Kingdom than in France or Germany. A temporary cessation in the movement of British cattle, beef and beef products into the continent may be wise at this time.
As if that was not enough, the hon. Gentleman repeated it on GMTV two days later, when he said:
Understandably, France immediately halted the movement of all beef and beef products into France. Indeed, if it were the other way around, I would like to think that a British Government would have done the same.
What I say to the House is this: should the hon. Gentleman ever try to persuade the Europeans to lift the ban, they will treat his overtures with incredulity and contempt.
I shall give way in a moment.
The plain truth is that Labour's record is a disgraceful one. In every debate on BSE—including statements and private notice questions we have had 25 such debates since March—Labour Members, beginning with the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), have echoed or often simply parroted the most alarmist headlines in the tabloid press. Labour Members have done serious damage to consumer confidence, and, because what they say is played back in Europe, they have made our task much more difficult. Indeed, because of this debate, I cannot today attend the Agriculture Council when beef is being discussed. United Kingdom farmers will not understand Labour undermining their interests in Europe.
I do not know whether the Minister is being deliberately gratuitously offensive to the House—he appears to have been doing so throughout his speech—but, instead of going on in that manner and making the case for our motion, will he get on to defending the Government's record on this catastrophe that has done so much damage to British beef?
Indeed, I shall get on to defending the Government's record, but before I do it is highly desirable to say something about the Labour party.
In putting down this motion, the Labour party has shown scant regard for the other parties in the House. I have read that there is a close relationship between the Labour leader and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), but when push came to shove there was no prior consultation about the motion, just the arrogant certainty that the Liberal Democrats—that refuge for the flotsam and jetsam of political life—will meekly follow Labour into the Lobby. No doubt that contemptuous assumption is well founded, but Liberal Democrats need to understand how much they are taken for granted and how little they are regarded by those by whom they sit.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with the National Farmers Union representative from Somerset, who told me a couple of days ago, "We need a debate like this like a hole in the head: just as we are getting confidence back into the British beef industry, the Labour party goes and shoots us through the heart"?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that has happened in every one of the 25 debates or statements that we have had on this subject since March last year. My hon. Friend makes another point—despite the fact that Labour has trivialised the issue and damaged British interests, the subject matter of this debate is of great importance. What I propose to do is to describe in detail where we now stand, and then to respond to some of the criticisms that have been made, both of British policy and of myself personally.
British beef and beef products are the safest in Europe. They can be eaten with total confidence. Our safeguards are stringent and our precautions are comprehensive; we lead where others should follow. Subject to the tightly defined terms of the beef assurance scheme, British beef or beef products sold for human consumption must come from cattle under 30 months of age. We have the tightest feed regulations of any—no rations containing meat or bonemeal can be fed to any other farm animal. Moreover, our controls both in and on the slaughterhouses and the renderers are widely acknowledged to be the most effective in Europe.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend reassure the people of Kent about the current proposal for a new disposal scheme involving effluent from an animal rendering plant that will feed into my constituency? Can he reassure those people that the new evidence presented by such people as Professor Almond, and currently being considered by an inquiry into the proposal, will be taken very seriously at the highest scientific and political levels in the Government?
I can indeed give my hon. Friend such a reassurance. Indeed, I can do more: I can tell him that I will ask Professor Pattison and SEAC to consider again—because they have already considered it—whether that kind of disposal mechanism is safe.
We hope that British beef is safe, and is recognised as such. It has cost the country a great deal of money to establish that.
The Minister seemed to decry the debate, but does he not consider it worth while, given the historical factor? His right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke of a thousand years of history. Does the Minister not realise that, in more than a thousand years, the British people have developed an innate genius for producing and dealing in livestock and domestic animals, and that the Government's incompetence and inadequacy has brought that historic record into sheer derision? Does that not justify a debate today?
It would if that were true, but it is not. If he thinks back to the dark days of last March and contrasts what we thought then with what we see now, the hon. Gentleman will realise how much progress we have made. Consumer confidence here in the United Kingdom is much stronger than consumer confidence in most other countries in the European Union. Moreover, the prosperity of most beef producers here in Britain is much greater than in most other European Union countries.
I want to make some progress, but I will give way again later.
In implementing the measures that I have described, introducing the selective cull and establishing an effective cattle movement and identification scheme, we have complied with all the conditions set out in the Florence agreement. We have done what we said that we would do, and we are now entitled to look to other member states to deliver their side of the bargain. Soon, they will have an opportunity to do so.
The House knows of our proposals for certified herds. They have been prepared, published and available for comment for some time, and we have been working closely with the European Commission on the detailed papers. I myself met Commissioner Fischler at the end of last month. The Government will formally submit those proposals to the Commission at the moment when we are, in my judgment, likely to receive the most favourable response. That will probably be within the next two weeks.
Our proposals for certified herds are general in character, but, because of the low incidence of BSE in Ulster and because of the unique and reliable data base that is available there, they are likely to be of particular benefit to the farmers of Northern Ireland. That is especially true now that the rate at which BSE is occurring in Northern Ireland is lower than the rate in the Republic. I think that that constitutes a response to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). The applications will be general in character, but we will not stand in the way of progress in any part of the United Kingdom.
I thank the Minister most sincerely for giving way on this very important point, fundamental to the future of the beef industry in Northern Ireland, which is a base industry. Is he saying to the House that, in respect of Northern Ireland, which has already completed the four conditions of the Florence convention and within three weeks will be able to complete the fifth requirement, in those circumstances he will proactively ask the Commission and the European Community to allow Northern Irish beef access to Europe in advance of any region that has not fulfilled those requirements?
The concept of certified herds is general in its application, but in the drafting of the provisions, we had very much in mind the special circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland; because, by the nature of the identification systems, and because of the very low incidence of BSE and because the Republic of Ireland is now experiencing a higher rate of BSE than is the Province, the concept will be especially beneficial to Northern Ireland, and we had that in mind when we prepared those papers. I have no doubt that, in the course of our negotiations with the Commission, points such as those that I have just outlined to the House will be made to me by the Commissioner, and I will agree with them.
I want to say something about the state—
I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I have listened with great interest to what the Minister has said, but will he tell the House and the farmers in Northern Ireland that he will actually ask that the ban on Northern Irish beef be lifted? That is the key.
That flows from what I have said. [HON.MEMBERS: "Oh no."] Oh yes, it does. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh no, it doesn't."] Oh yes, it does. Our application is general, but it works with particular effect in Northern Ireland, for all the reasons that I have mentioned. I certainly intend to support the case of Northern Ireland—apart from anything else, I come from a family that knows and lived in Northern Ireland for many a generation. I feel strongly about the Province of Northern Ireland.
I am sure that the House and the right hon. and learned Gentleman know that this week there will be complete chaos and turmoil in Europe—that there is a censure motion to sack the entire Commission on the issue that we are discussing today. I am sure that, keeping that in mind, he wants to do something that would be of real practical value to the farmers of Northern Ireland.
Will the Minister say today clearly to the farmers of Northern Ireland that, as they are ahead in the matter of meat and its standards, and as the Commissioner, and the President of the Council, said that an application for Northern Ireland was needed first, he will make that application—not to do down any other part of this kingdom, but to start the ball rolling, and to take up what the Commissioner has asked for?
The hon. Gentleman is right. He will not find a more formidable supporter of the case of Northern Ireland than himself and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. Of course the case for Northern Ireland is powerful; that is precisely why I drafted the certified herds scheme in the way that I did. It is general in its application—it applies throughout the United Kingdom—but the case for Northern Ireland is very powerful and the Commissioner knows that and will find that I urge it.
I have given way about 12 times. Now I shall make progress. I want to say a word about the situation in Britain as regards the consumption of beef, and about our support for the producer and those in allied businesses.
Consumption of prime beef in Britain has fallen less than in many other European countries. Overall consumption is about 15 per cent. below trend, but consumption of prime cuts is very close to pre-crisis levels. That firmness in the market is in part an effect of the over-30-months scheme and the public's confidence in the measures that have been introduced to ensure the quality and safety of British beef.
We have invested huge sums to support the beef industry and some essential and related industries. The overall commitment, domestic and European, is around £3.5 billion thus far. In doing so, we have made an investment in public health—
Order. The Minister has said that he is not giving way for the moment. I ask Members to give him three or four minutes to make some progress, and then they may question him.
I was dealing with the overall financial commitment we have made, domestic and European. It is around £3.5 billion thus far. We have made an investment in public health, in agriculture, in the countryside and in our future. It is the clearest possible evidence of the Tory party's commitment to rural Britain.
The Minister is dwelling on the cost. That £3.5 billion could have built so many hospitals and paid so many nurses. We could have done so much with that £3.5 billion. He seems to be saying that it was a good investment. Has he seen the House of Commons Library figures? The cost is not just £3.5 billion to this country. A 10 per cent. reduction in demand since last March has meant £10 billion for the rest of Europe. What insanity has he visited on our country and the rest of Europe since last March?
The implication in that remark is that the hon. Gentleman would not have supported the beef industry, would not have wanted his party to underpin the market in this country, and would have let the farmers go to the wall. That is the implication in his remarks, and I reject them.
No, I am going to make some progress. I want to address some of the criticisms that have been made of my conduct over the past 12 months.
Some say that I should not have come to Parliament with the information that I had received from SEAC. Some say that I should first have gone to the European Council, to the European Parliament or to the Commission. Those things are frequently said by people who also say that I should have given evidence to the Committee of the European Parliament.
Such criticisms undermine the principle that British Ministers are accountable to, and only to, this Parliament and through it the British people. Once I had received the advice from SEAC that BSE was the most likely cause of the new strain of CJD, my clear and absolute duty was to communicate that information to the House and to the public. That was my duty, and that I did.
The suggestion that I should have gone to Europe before giving the facts to the House is preposterous. It is a denial of every constitutional principle that I have always sought to uphold. Had I done so, I would have been rightly condemned the length and breadth of the country.
For the same kind of reason, I decided that it would be wrong to appear before the committee of inquiry established by the European Parliament. British Ministers are held to account here in Westminster in debates such as this, in statements on the Floor of the House and in Select Committees. All of this I have done—and many times too.
I do not accept that British Ministers can be summoned by Members of the European Parliament to testify as to matters that are the preserve of this House. There should be co-operation most certainly, the supply of information most certainly, and testimony by officials by all means. We did all that. Indeed, when the Committee came to London, I invited its members to lunch—which I thought might be more agreeable—but they declined. Once one concedes that Members of the European Parliament can summon a British Minister, one is derogating from the sovereignty of this place.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will acknowledge the importance of sound scientific research. Will he confirm that the Government almost eliminated research into BSE and scrapie in the late 1980s? Will he further confirm that the foresight panel reports, which define the Government's priorities for the future, make absolutely no mention of scrapie, BSE, prions or spongiform encephalopathy? Does the Minister believe that that represents setting the right priorities for the future? Do the Government appreciate the enormity of what they have done?
As the hon. Lady was reading in her intervention, I think that she might have done somewhat better than that. In the current year, we are increasing very substantially the research moneys being expended on BSE. One of the first things that I did upon the appointment of Professor Pattison was to discuss with him whether he could identify any shortcomings in our research programmes. He was not able to do so at that time, and we shall seek to address any shortcomings he may identify subsequently.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) seeks to intervene.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) refused to do so. Does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that the press release that the hon. Gentleman issued on 22 March 1996 has been properly accounted for? It is interesting to note that the Labour party director who issued the press release has since resigned from her job—perhaps because she was so embarrassed about that Labour press release, which did so much damage to the British beef industry and set in train our problems with Europe. Is it not a fact that Labour is to blame for much of the £3 billion spent on the problem?
My hon. Friend makes a very substantial point. There is no doubt that the advice given by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) led directly to the withdrawal of beef from many schools throughout the country: a profoundly damaging consequence. I shall now make some progress.
I turn now to money. So far, a total of about £3.5 billion has been committed. Some of the expenditure is met by Europe—and we are grateful—but the bulk of the expenditure will ultimately fall on the United Kingdom taxpayer. In this area, I face two criticisms, which are mutually contradictory. For example, the Leader of the Opposition has said—most recently on Thursday—that the Government are spending too much on BSE-related expenditure. We heard echoes of that position this afternoon. However, many of his hon. Friends say that we are not spending enough. To those who say that we spend too much, I reply, "What would you like us to cut away?"
You. Mr. Hogg: I am not very expensive.
Would the Opposition lessen the support for the beef producer? Would they reduce payments to the hill farmer? Would they reduce public protection by dismantling the over-30-months scheme? Would they reduce research, to which the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) referred earlier? Would they reduce the controls within the abattoirs? The answer in every case is no.
No; I shall make some progress.
To those who argue for more; to those who seek compensation for all of those who have suffered loss—the headboners, the carriers, the exporters, the retailers, the manufacturers, the corner shops—I say this: "Your expectations are unreal. They are beyond the capacity of Government to meet; and no provision for any of these items has been made in Labour's spending plans. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise."
Last year, the Minister of Agriculture said—my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) referred to this in his speech—that there would be a step-by-step approach to the lifting of the ban. Can he say how many steps there are to take, and how many steps have been taken under his stewardship?
I shall deal shortly with the lifting of the ban, but before I do, I want to say a word about the operation of the over-30-months scheme, under which more than 1,250,000 beasts have been slaughtered.
Yes, there were teething problems—
No; I shall make some progress.
Some would describe them as problems of dentition. That is hardly surprising; nobody, anywhere, has ever conducted such a huge operation. However, those problems were overcome. We cleared the backlog by Christmas, as we said we would. To do that, we had to process more than a third of the total annual beef consumption, but we did it and the scheme is now working smoothly.
I now deal with the ban itself and the selective cull. The ban is wholly unjustified. It is wrong in principle and wrong in law. It should never have been imposed. Its removal, however, is not within our gift. What my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister secured at Florence was a framework that can and should lead to the lifting of the ban. Other member states may find it difficult to honour their part of the bargain; their beef markets have indeed collapsed, and they face pressures from their own farmers and consumers, but we have performed our part of the agreement. We are entitled to look to other member states to perform theirs.
No; I shall make some more progress.
The selective cull is, of course, a key element in all this. Leaving aside the question of maternal transmission, which, on any view, is a small part of the whole, there is no scientific or objective justification for the selective cull. It is a process that I find deeply distasteful, not least because it constitutes a serious interference with the property of others. However, unless we do it, the prospects for any lifting of the ban are negligible.
Last September, we deferred the implementation of the selective cull. For that I make no apology. As a result of work done by Professor Anderson and others, it is clear that BSE will virtually die out of the national herd by around 2001 or 2002. It is also clear that there is no acceptable selective cull—certainly not the one agreed with member states—that will decisively reduce the incidence of BSE or materially advance the date when the disease will die out.
Against such a background, it was clearly right that there should be a pause so that other member states could consider the justification for a selective cull. There was a further reason: implementation of the selective cull depended and depends both on parliamentary consent and on the co-operation of farmers.
For all the summer and much of the autumn, the National Farmers Union was strongly opposed to the cull. It argued, correctly, that it was without scientific justification. For that view it received much support in the House. It was not until late last year that the majority opinion within the farming community swung behind the selective cull, concluding, as we have, that, however distasteful it may be, without a selective cull there is no chance of getting the ban lifted.
The order was approved by the House at the end of January, and it passed through the other place on 3 February. We have started the process of tracing, and very soon the first cattle will be slaughtered.
Nobody knows better than I what a tragedy BSE has been. It has been a calamity for the individual beef producer. It is the greatest crisis that British agriculture has ever faced.
I shall not give way.
As a result of the action taken, we are now in a much better state than anybody in those dark days of last March would have thought possible. BSE is in fast decline: the number of confirmed cases in the United Kingdom is falling by 40 per cent. each year. By 2001 or thereabouts, BSE will be out of the national herd. It is right to say that British beef is the safest and best in Europe.
Consumer confidence is recovering, and farm incomes have been supported. The essential links in the chain have been preserved. Those achievements are the product of a collective effort by farmers, by their representatives, by retailers, by scientists, by manufacturers and by the Government too. Together we have created the circumstances in which the British beef industry can face the future with confidence.
The motion is a cheap political stunt, and I invite the House to reject it.
We have listened to the Minister rampaging, but we have not received any answers. The reason is that he does not have answers to give us. He has lost the confidence of the House, and has failed to obtain any agreement from Europe. I am not surprised about that. We all recall that, in June 1996, following the Florence meeting, the Prime Minister said in the House that the ban would be lifted by November. We are still waiting for the ban to be lifted. That is of no surprise to any of us, given the Minister's performance this afternoon.
I am not particularly surprised, given an incident that occurred in my constituency. We learned from leaked information that BSE-affected offal had been dumped in the constituency. That was denied by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, when I approached it. It was later found that more than 15 tonnes had been dumped, because a company in Stalybridge and Hyde had decided that it could not keep the contaminated offal over Christmas. Other than that, no reason has been given. No attempt has been made to examine the long-term effects of the dumping on safety and on the soil.
I brought this matter up with the Minister. After numerous letters to him, I issued a press statement about the incident. It was denied by MAFF in a statement that was issued by the MAFF office in Stafford, whereas the company that had dumped the offal had obtained permission from the MAFF office in Preston, which knew that the company was facing prosecution. If neither of the two offices knew what the other was doing, it is hardly surprising that we have not had the ban lifted in Europe.
It is no good the Minister doing as he has done today and blaming everyone else. He has blamed Europe, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats; indeed, he has blamed everyone, except himself and the Government, for the mess that he has got us into. I am afraid that what he said today will do nothing to resolve the crisis that he has created or to find a solution.
The Minister has lost the confidence of the farming community. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said, it must be unknown for the National Farmers Union council to pass a vote of no confidence in a Conservative Minister of Agriculture. The Minister is not contrite and has not apologised for the £3.3 billion—indeed, he said that it was £3.5 billion—that he has already cost this country. That sum is the equivalent of 2p on income tax.
The Minister could not respond to the points raised by hon. Members from Northern Ireland and could not assure them that the interests of Northern Ireland's farmers would be taken into account or given priority. They could be given priority because they know and can trace the history of their cattle, but nothing that the Minister said today will satisfy hon. Members from Northern Ireland that their interests are put first. It would make sense for us to get the ban lifted for Northern Ireland and then proceed to get it lifted for Scotland and England. That is surely the way forward, but nothing that the Minister said today suggests that that is his policy. Unless there is a dramatic change in the Government's policy, it appears that we shall be debating this matter right up until the general election.
I shall be brief, because I know that many hon. Members wish to speak. I have often admired the Minister's rumbustious style in the House and the way in which he always attacks his opponent. He gives no quarter and very often asks for no quarter to be given to him. However, in this instance, the cavalier methods that he has deployed in Europe have displayed arrogance and pomposity. That pomposity is equalled only by his ignorance of the subject. He should resign and take with him the fag end of a Government of weary Willys and tired Tims. It is time for a new start. The Government have today shown that they have no solution to the problem and no idea how to get the ban lifted.
It is reasonable that the House should debate BSE yet again, but it is wholly ludicrous that it should do so in the terms suggested by the Opposition and exemplified by the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle).
In the past few days, I have read many unrecognisable things about my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister. I have worked closely with him for a good many years, at the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and developed a very warm admiration for his frankness, courage and sense of service. If he has one political failing, it is a failing that would not have counted against him in former times. As we have seen again today, he believes in debate and robust argument rather than the smooth soundbites which are fashionable and which for a moment—but only a moment—turn away wrath.
The Opposition have tried to pin on my right hon. and learned Friend and on the Government the entire responsibility for the crisis and for the loss and anxiety that have come with it. If, however, we look for the truth behind the headlines, we find something entirely different. We find the latest example of what can happen in a modern democracy when it faces an onrush of consumer anxiety. It has happened before and it will happen again, in different countries and in different ways; and any Government, and the House, need to consider how to deal with it.
This consumer anxiety can be sparked off, as it was in this case, by a scientific report; but, whatever the spark, it is fanned by the media into a forest fire. Within days, perhaps even hours, the flames of that fire beat on the man in charge. That man may be the chairman of Shell, as in the case of Brent Spar, or it may be my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, as in the BSE case. Within hours, they are pressed for absolute and specific answers to questions such as, "Is it safe?"
No, I had better make my speech.
Those Ministers are asked whether it is safe and are told that people do not want any of their glib, shilly-shallying, politicians' answers. People ask, "Can my children eat the stuff or not?"
The Minister turns to his scientists and is told:
We are not in a position to confirm whether a causal link between BSE and human disease exists.
I am quoting the report of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee from 25 March last year. The scientists say that the risk is "extremely small" and that the implementation of this recommendation
should further reduce the risk to minimum levels".
That is what the scientists say. They plead for more research, but that is as far as they will go, and I do not blame them—who could reasonably do so?
Scientists today are less dogmatic than they used to be. We know a great deal more but, as we increase our knowledge, the complexities and uncertainties also increase. The chain of cause and effect in such a matter is more complex than we supposed. Such abstract reflections are not very much use to the man or the Government in charge in the moment of crisis.
Surely there can be only three guidelines for a Minister's reaction in such a situation. First, he must publish what is known. As my right hon. and learned Friend was absolutely right to say, concealment would be the most fatal error. He was also right to say that the body entitled to know the facts first is the House. Secondly, the Minister has to frame policy as best he can in the light of what is known. Thirdly, he has to educate and persuade. In that context, I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's recent decision about the food safety adviser and the food council.
Consumer anxiety is probably greatest in the most prosperous societies. For example, the Americans were among the first—they were perhaps the first—to take measures against British beef, and the Germans would certainly have done so a good deal earlier had they not been constrained by European rules. Some consumers in very prosperous countries seem reluctant to accept that there is no such thing as a risk-free world. I should think that German children are more at risk being taken to school each morning along the autobahn than they could possibly be from eating British beef, but the autobahn risk—or the American motorway risk—is an old risk to which they are accustomed. In a sense, they have come to terms with it. The new risk, though it may be a lesser one, is strange to them and they clamour for it to be removed.
Another difficulty facing people in a position of authority in such cases is that the scientific knowledge shifts under their feet, which must be a very uncomfortable feeling. The Minister, or the chairman of the company, knows that what he is saying may not be the scientific best assessment in a year or two years' time. He may not be on firm ground, but he is still being asked for firm answers all the time. Unless the House and the media understand this dilemma, we shall face it over and over again and we shall get into difficulty over and over again.
There have been two new developments in this case.
If I may, I will continue, as I know that many hon. Members wish to speak.
In the case of BSE, since last March, there have been at least two new developments in the scientific sphere, both of which have been mentioned in this debate. First, there was new thinking on the—perhaps 10 per cent.—possibility of maternal transmission. That development is important, but, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister said, it probably does not fundamentally affect the size of the problem. Secondly, last September, in Nature, Professor Anderson was more precise about an early end to BSE in the British herd. As my right hon. and learned Friend explained, that led the Government to delay conducting a selective cull—the accelerated slaughter programme which was part of the Florence agreement.
Throughout the difficulties, there have been those who exploit the anxieties and twist them to their own purposes. Although that may be inevitable, it is lamentable. Those people belong to various groups. On the continent, there are certainly those who believe that the situation is entirely the result of British perfidy in unloading on to their herds dirty feed that we banned here some time ago. In the United Kingdom, it is sometimes describe as a "continental plot" to destroy the British beef industry. The export ban, although clearly illogical and deserving opposition, is also quite clearly the result of intense consumer anxiety on the continent, as I have described. In those circumstances, Governments and consumers cannot be coerced; they must be persuaded. We must persuade them—whether they are German consumers, customers of McDonalds or, sadly, local education authorities in many authorities, including my own in Oxfordshire.
Time and again, however, the greatest exploiters of our anxieties have been the Labour party and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang).
Yes; particularly the hon. Member for Peckham.
As Opposition Members often do, they had a choice between treating the situation as a national problem and crisis and joining in—as the Opposition sometimes do, particularly in international matters, as the Foreign Secretary knows—a national task of informing, educating, assessing risk and persuading. They could have taken the latter choice—as the Opposition sometimes do on matters in which the prosperity and security of many of our citizens are at stake. Just as my right hon. and learned Friend the Agriculture Minister had to take his decision within hours and come to the House, so the Opposition had to take their decision within hours. They took it, and they have consistently stuck to it ever since. They chose consistently and narrowly to exploit those difficulties for party advantage.
If in the history of this Session of Parliament there has been a subject that is unsuited to constant party warfare, this is it.
After talking to fanners in my constituency, I am quite clear on the fact that farmers do not see the matter as the Opposition do. Farmers of course become indignant with the Minister, and then, as he described, they—perfectly understandably—change their position. They pressed him to take action, and he has taken it. Farmers of course are in ferment and are anxious, but they, and British consumers, do not regard the matter as a party political one, to be used to gain votes for one party or another.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Privy Councillors in the House have a great privilege in being called early in the debate and before imposition of the 10-minutes rule. Does that privilege include taking absolutely no interventions in their speeches? Is it not surprising—
Order. It is quite clear that the onus of allowing interventions rests with the hon. Member who has the Floor.
I think that, over quite a number of years in the House, I have been generous in giving way—[Interruption.] I feel that, in the twilight of my political life, I might be allowed to make a short speech, which I am concluding, in my own way. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) is using the oldest trick in the game, to try to spoil the final seconds of a speech.
Order. It is also true that seated interventions are not acceptable. I expect the right hon. Gentleman to be heard quietly.
I am just drawing to a close, very quietly, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Because of the interruptions, I merely repeat that, in the view of British farmers and consumers, if ever there were a subject unsuited to the type of perpetual sniping and point scoring in which the Opposition have indulged since their strategic choice last March, it is this one. Although it has misfired, they have once again tried to mobilise their battalions and all the resources of hindsight to attack the Government. As we have seen, the attack is based on ignorance and prejudice. It deserves no support in the House, and I think that it will receive no support in the country.
I am glad to follow the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), because his speech contained at least some thoughtful substance. I wish the Minister had taken more note of that possibility in this debate. As this may be the last opportunity to do so, I should also like to say that I am delighted that the right hon. Member for Witney will move into such a very useful occupation after he leaves the House—in contrast to many other hon. Members when they retire from the Government Front Bench.
I am lucky to represent a livestock area; it is a great privilege and a great responsibility. I spent this morning in a Cornish livestock market, and much of the weekend on the telephone speaking to farmers across the country. Unlike the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), I am in close contact with the people most concerned and affected by the BSE experience. They say—with good reason—that they are deeply sceptical about the timing of this debate. In the dying days of this Parliament, the debate looks like a typical Westminster party game rather than a serious attempt to deal with the problems facing the industry.
Let us contrast the situation today with that on 25 June 1996, when a similar motion was debated in the House. The Prime Minister had just returned from his surrender in Florence. The previous day, he had announced, first, that the over-30-months cull would be completed by October; secondly, that the selective accelerated slaughter programme would begin immediately afterwards; and, thirdly, that from November the export ban would begin to be lifted. He told us the following:
The targets we have set are ambitious. It is now up to us in this country—the farming and ancillary industries and the Government—to ensure that we meet them. The point is that this timetable is essentially in our hands."—[Official Report, 24 June 1996; Vol. 280, c. 22.]
There was no mention of those targets from the Minister today. Indeed, if any Conservative Members are thinking of using the Conservative research department brief in this debate, I advise them against it, because the omission of that statement is one of many omissions and mistakes made by the teenage scribes in central office. The Minister said earlier that the removal of the export ban is "not in our gift". That is what he says now, but it is not what he or the Prime Minister said last June.
By last June, every farmer in the country knew that the management of the over-30-months cull was going gravely awry and causing great damage to much of livestock farming. So much damage was being done that, on the very afternoon on which the Prime Minister announced the outbreak of hostilities in his "beef war", he took responsibility for the slaughter programme away from the Agriculture Minister and handed it over to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
After four weeks in charge, and after having met many farmers across the country and shown that he was rather more responsive to their concerns and anxieties than the Agriculture Minister, the Chancellor met furious farmers whose cattle were not being taken for slaughter, as promised. He told them that he would stamp out mismanagement, profiteering and dodgy dealing—but the backlog continued to grow.
Simultaneously, the Agriculture Minister's ham-fisted diplomacy in Europe exacerbated the ill feeling already caused by the ludicrously counterproductive beef war, so even the export ban on derivatives was still in place. It still is. He showed no signs of preparing the detailed, factual, scientifically based working documentation that the Commission needed to help in our case for the resumption of exports. Not for nothing were foreign commentators referring to his antics as being like those of a
Hogg in a China Shop.
That was the situation on Tuesday 25 June 1996. All those suffering from the BSE catastrophe were in despair at the Government's failure to accept their share of the blame and take a grip on the problem. For the farmers, the crisis was at its height, so that day we initiated a debate, similar to today's debate but with one important difference: we could have made a major change to what happened thereafter.
Would not one have expected the Labour party to support that motion? Some Labour Members did, but some, particularly among the Labour leadership, who had shamefully acquiesced in the xenophobic beef war in the previous few weeks, sat on their hands, stayed away and ignored the lessons of history.
We all know that when a Government are having trouble at home, an overseas diversion—preferably a little war—can be extremely convenient. Dictators have done that throughout history. The Labour party swallowed that one, too, but once it was seen that that little war was unpopular, Labour Members came round to our view that it was damaging British interests. I pay tribute to the 33 Labour Members who joined us in the Lobby, but where was their deputy leader then? He was propping up the Government.
The clue to the Labour party's current tactic is the precise timing of the announcement last Wednesday. On that day, the House was debating the police bugging Bill and we were treated to the nauseating spectacle of the shadow Home Secretary cosying up to the Home Secretary—a case of "man of Straw" adopts "Howard's way". A brave band of 20 Labour Members nevertheless stuck to their principles and voted for our reasoned amendment. Their deputy leader, however, suddenly became an expert in agriculture, despite the fact that he seemed to think that there was a Secretary of State in that Department.
I shall keep fond memories of the spectacle of the Labour deputy leader suddenly faced by Mr. Jeremy Paxman on "Newsnight" with a question about maternal transmission. His face was a picture. He obviously thought that maternal transmission had something to do with ambulances for mothers-to-be.
I am sad about the timing of this debate, but I want to follow the example of the right hon. Member for Witney and concentrate on what could be done now to mitigate the appalling problems that have arisen.
Naturally, there are continuing concerns about the over-30-months cull. The cut in compensation rates and then the change in the value of the green currency have meant a drop of some 13 or 14 per cent. The farmers who were caught with cattle on their holdings as a result of delays in the cull have had to feed and house them at extra expense, all because of the mismanagement of the cull.
However, I want to turn my attention to the selective, or accelerated, cull. There are five main areas of concern, the first of which is the detailed way in which it has been introduced—not the principle, but the practice. For example, in our brief debate on statutory instruments on 21 January. not one hon. Member from any party was prepared to defend the unprecedented definition of a herd which the Minister introduced. He was the only person to support that definition. It was a clear fix to reduce compensation sums, and it has huge financial consequences, particularly for closed herds, which are exactly what we want to encourage.
The South West National Farmers Union summed up that debate by saying:
MPs raised all of the NFU's concerns on compensation, flexibility, timing and the definition of the herd. The Minister, in his summing up, ignored it all.
Secondly, Ministers have been reluctant to give precise estimates of the number of cattle that will be compulsorily selected for slaughter under the cohort scheme. This weekend, the experience of a farmer in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) was indicative and alarming. He has a closed herd of some 120 British Friesians with followers, and all his replacements have been home bred and reared for some 20 to 30 years. No suspect foodstuffs were used at any time and he uses only the minimum of bought-in feed. His calving is spread out throughout the year and he has no peaks or troughs. He has had only two BSE cases during the whole period.
When the Ministry vets visited that farmer last week, he could give them all the information they needed. Their first reaction was to estimate that more than 60 cows would have to go. Naturally, he was horrified; when they looked at the cohort calculations again, they reduced the figure to 46. That is still 38 per cent., yet that herd had only minimal BSE incidents.
Yesterday, I talked to another farmer who has had a rather higher incidence. He calculates that, according to the cohort calculations that the vets have given him, more than 50 per cent. of his dairy herd will have to go.
It will take years for those herds to gain their former strength. How can those farmers, with their careful breeding and replacement policies, expect to maintain the standard and quality that they have had in the past? Even if they wanted to, how could they get the stock at a price that they could afford? If every dairy herd is cut to pieces in that way, the effect will be devastating. What will happen to the price of good quality milkers? As I pointed out when the crisis first broke last March, importing replacement stock from countries with less effective controls than we have in Britain would be sheer lunacy. So where will they come from?
This is a far cry from the Conservative central office brief, which says:
Even using the highest estimate for the voluntary part of the scheme, less than five per cent. of the national herd will be affected. For the vast majority of farmers, only a very small number of their animals (if any) will be involved.
As we all know, even farmers with a closed herd can find themselves in difficulty, but those who bought in at any time will have much more difficulty.
Are the hon. Gentleman and his party in favour of the selective cull?
We have made it quite clear that we now favour a selective cull. The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say that we are in favour of the principle, but the way in which the cohorts are being designed has nothing to do with Brussels. Brussels did not invent the scheme. It is entirely due to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The hon. Gentleman should know that better than anyone else.
This is an extremely serious matter, which has not so far been touched on in the debate. It relates not to the Government's incompetence last year, but to what is happening now. The implications of the issue raised by my hon. Friend, particularly as they apply to the application by the Ministry of the Florence agreement cull, which is now under way, are extremely grave. I hope that the Minister will respond at the end of the debate on the precise implications of the second Florence agreement cull. If, as my hon. Friend suggests—
Order. I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman's intervention is becoming a short speech.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I wish to emphasise—I am sure that he agrees—that those figures are not dragged out of the air. They are based on the advice and experience of the Minister's own vets. It is no good the Minister going on the "Today" programme and denying their relevance. Those are the practical figures being given to hon. Members' farmers throughout the country by the Minister's vets.
I shall not give way for the moment.
It would be horrendous if those figures were applied throughout the national dairy herd. We could end up with a third of the national dairy herd—850,000 animals—going for slaughter, and what for?
If, instead, the farming unions' original solution, which we backed at the time, had been adopted, the number would have been much more manageable. To have taken all cattle exposed to contaminated feed, and born before the ruminant ban took effect, would have been scientifically logical and resulted in less than 10 per cent. of the dairy herd being taken. Again, the teenage scribes in Conservative central office seem to think that beef cows live for seven or eight years—like dairy cows—which clearly they do not.
A straightforward cull, taking all appropriate cattle born before the registration system came into operation, would have been far more workable than either the 1996 OTM scheme or the 1997 selective scheme.
Thirdly, the Government have so mismanaged negotiations with their European Union partners that we still do not know whether the measures that they have chosen to pursue will achieve anything. In January, hon. Members on both sides of the House pressed the Minister on that. We got no answer then and no answer today. We have heard only bluster and backpedal. The Government's failure to produce a working document last summer, to do the preparatory work for the new cull last autumn and even now to submit a workable scheme for certifiable herds—we have heard from the Minister that he still has not done that—mean that they cannot guarantee a time scale for the relaxation of the export ban. So much for the Prime Minister's promise, post Florence, that the timetable was in our hands.
Crucially, no progress has been made on the important traditional markets for British beef outside Europe. As the right hon. Member for Witney said, some of our best markets were closed to us before the European Union took action. Nothing has been done to reopen those markets. Most of the bans have been in place much longer than the EU ban. The Government's delaying tactics last year merely increased their permanence.
Again, the Conservative research brief is out of touch, as many hon. Members with farmers in their constituencies will know. To claim that the Florence failure was a victory would be laughable if we were not still so far from achieving anything eight months later.
Fourthly, there are continuing concerns in the agriculture community about the validity and credibility of the scientific explanations given by Ministers and their advisers. On the day of his announcement about the new food and safety adviser and the new advisory council, the Minister accepted my comment that the public now judged his assurances and those of his so-called experts as "untrustworthy and incredible". Given the long saga of misleading reassurance on BSE and similar issues, that is scarcely surprising.
For the Government continually to chant the mantra that they are acting on "the best scientific advice" surely means that they should do so in all particulars. Eighteen months ago, I challenged Ministers to examine the possible connection between the spread—not the cause—of BSE and the use during the appropriate period of organophosphorus warble fly treatments on cattle. Those highly toxic chemicals, similar in origin to nerve gases, have a proven effect on the central nervous systems of animals and humans. I asked at that time whether they could reduce the immunity of cattle to the BSE prion, and whether that could be the explanation for the rapid epidemic in this country, where OPs were used extensively during that period, while other countries had escaped with relatively few cases?
Ministers were dismissive of the theory. Today, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and the European Commission are actively examining that possible link. Proof that OPs were a major reason for the BSE outbreak spreading so fast and so far here would clearly be relevant to the relaxation of the export ban. As those chemicals have long since been withdrawn because they are far too dangerous, such proof would help our case for opening up the export market. It might also radically alter the shape and scope of the new selective slaughter programme. Why has there been no mention of it from the Minister or in the research brief? Are Ministers embarrassed that they might be proved wrong yet again?
Where is the examination of the new work on maternal transmission that has been briefly referred to this afternoon? Is not there an important distinction between the two possible explanations: the transmission of infection from cow to calf; or inherited genetic susceptibility? Surely those explanations have different implications for the new cull. If the Minister is following the best possible scientific advice, what is his conclusion on that?
Fifthly, there is increasing alarm, not just among farmers, but among taxpayers, that the gross mismanagement of the over-30-months scheme will continue into the new slaughter programme. During the debate before the Christmas recess, I set out my concerns in full. A small cartel of large abattoirs and renderers has made millions of pounds in extra profits. That is on the record. Farmers and taxpayers have been shortchanged. Meanwhile, only 4 per cent. of the slaughtered animals have been incinerated and safely disposed of. The weekly cost of storing the remainder is £265,000—more than a quarter of a million pounds each week.
The Government's failure to take powers to deal effectively with the emergency—Ministers have acknowledged that they could have done so—has led to an economic, environmental and public health time bomb. Meanwhile, some of the big operators have made a killing.
Why is it taking more than 12 months to introduce competitive tendering? Every local authority in the country would have been forced long since to put such a scheme out to tender. Not in this case, even though it would be necessary under United Kingdom and European Union regulations if it was not claimed to be an appalling emergency. After 11 months, it is still said to be an emergency.
In the debate before Christmas, the Leader of the House promised answers to all the points that I had raised. The Minister and his colleagues have still given no answers and been suspiciously silent.
According to the Minister's own figures, published just a few weeks ago, farming incomes fell last year by 9.5 per cent. in real terms. Measures of cash flow, which the Ministry statisticians acknowledge
reflect more closely the variations in incomes perceived by farm households",
showed a drop of 13.1 per cent. Those figures are averages, which are artificially improved by some of the good arable results, particularly for the largest holdings. The livestock sector has had a miserable year, but the Ministry had the nerve to gloat in its press release announcing the figures.
At the outset of this national crisis, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and I—
Not now. I am about to complete my speech, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will wish to make his.
At the outset of the crisis in March last year, my right hon. Friend and I offered the Prime Minister and the Minister our co-operation, help and support. Even the Conservative research department acknowledges that we did not scaremonger. We made that offer because we represent, locally and nationally, some of the areas most affected by the devastation that has occurred since the crisis was triggered by the announcement in the House. The Prime Minister and the Minister ignored our offer and decided to go their own way. So be it.
It is nearly 50 years since a Minister of Agriculture took responsibility for a mistake in his Department, even though he was unaware of it at the time. He resigned. As a student of the British constitution, I was taught that Ministers of the Crown were accountable for everything that their Departments did or did not do. That used to be the proud claim of Ministers of honour and integrity. That is not so now. When the ministerial team at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food blundered with the negotiations abroad and the slaughter programme at home, the Prime Minister did not ask for their resignations. He simply took them out of the driving seat, and put the Foreign Secretary in charge of the first of those issues and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in charge of the second. Can one imagine Lord Hailsham suffering such a double indignity without resigning?
Through all the suffering of the past 11 months, we have heard a great deal of self-justification from the Minister and his colleagues. We have heard it again this afternoon. Until the National Farmers Union annual meeting a few weeks ago, when I managed to extract a half-hearted and muffled "sorry" from the Minister of State, there was no hint of acceptance of blame or responsibility. We and all the victims of the crisis might think differently about tonight's motion if the Minister had, just for once, substituted a note of apology for his usual arrogance.
My only comment on the speech that we have just listened to is that the leader of the Liberal Democrats has a bare-faced cheek coming in five minutes before his spokesman makes a speech and then telling us what has been left out from the first hour and a quarter of the debate. If is he going to interfere in debates in that way, I hope that he will do us the courtesy of listening to the debate before telling us what has been left out. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is off."] That just shows how interested he and the Liberal Democrats are in this topic. We shall manage very well without him.
I must begin by declaring an interest. I am part owner of a herd of beef cattle. The breeding animals are bought in, not bred at home, and we have had two cases of BSE, the last of which occurred a little more than four and a half years ago.
This debate and the events since 20 March last year are a classic case of parliamentary mischief-making. When the end of a Parliament is approaching and a Government have an uncertain majority, all Oppositions search and scratch around for any opportunity to squeeze the Government. We all understand that, but when the Opposition irresponsibly exploit a tragic catastrophe—where events beyond the experience of science have caused large financial losses and, more important, widespread apprehension—and thereby encourage even greater apprehension among the public, and when they let loose parliamentary hatchet men on the House. I must agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister's description of this debate as a political stunt. It is no more and no less.
I was intrigued when the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) complained that the early statement made on 20 March was inconclusive and needed more information and suggested that it led to uncertainty. The Opposition, of course, ignore the fact that, as I understand it, the statement was made on the day that the Government formally received the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee's advice. I can just imagine the tempest on the Opposition Benches if it had not been made. Opposition spokesmen really want to have it both ways, and they ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept one point: that the crisis was brought about by the Government's handling of the issue in the first 24 hours? Anyone involved in crisis management in large companies knows that if a crisis is not handled in the first 10 minutes, or at the latest 10 hours after it occurred, it will get out of control. In March, the Government introduced the crisis and failed to manage it.
I regard that as a total distortion of the events in March and of what has happened since. I do not recognise the facts from what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Was there not a leak on the morning to which my right hon. Friend has referred, which the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) was going to exploit? If a statement had not been made on that day, the hon. Lady was prepared to table a private notice question and expose the whole matter. To call for an alternative approach is ridiculous.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. There was a leak and Ministers had no option. They did the right and responsible thing at the time.
I think that this is only the second time that I have spoken in an agriculture debate since I left the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1987. It is necessary to make some points about the crisis and what has happened and deal with what I regard as important. I very much question the myth that has been encouraged by a number of Opposition Members over the past year, and previously—that, by feeding ruminant residues to ruminants, farmers were engaged in a new era of greed and avarice.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and I both have science degrees in agriculture, so he will know perfectly well—I am accusing not him but others—that all agriculture textbooks of the 1940s and 1950s, when I was a student, and all textbooks going back to the last century spoke of the regular, accepted agricultural practice of feeding, let us say, dried blood or bonemeal to animals. It was a standard practice and had been so for decades when I was first a student. That myth therefore ought to be put to bed.
I resent the way in which Opposition Members have also tried to spread the myth that beef is not safe. There is a raft of examples of that on the record. Many farmers have dismissed the myth and done their best to educate the public on the safety of beef by imparting one very simple fact. Scrapie, a kindred disease in sheep, has been known—I believe—for almost 200 years. Again, as a student, I remember learning about scrapie, yet, as far as I know, people have been eating sheepmeat with impunity all that time and, even though it is well known that scrapie was a widespread disease among the national sheep flock, there has never been a suggestion that it is not safe. The logic should therefore surely be that, if sheepmeat has been safe all these years, so is beef.
Perhaps none of us has taken scrapie seriously enough. I do not know whether scrapie has played a part in the BSE epidemic; the facts would suggest that it probably has. I remember, as might my hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs, that, back in the 1960s, a well-known northern livestock dealer from Darlington, Mr. Alan Metcalfe, came to the House of Commons with, I think, members of the National Sheepbreeders Association. He certainly saw the Conservative and Labour Back-Bench agriculture committees. He told us that he believed that scrapie was potentially a very dangerous disease and that MAFF should start an eradication scheme. I guess—I remember the committee's impression distinctly—that he spoke mainly from instinct without too much scientific evidence. It just shows that we should not ignore the countryman's instincts.
No, I shall finish this point. I understand that Mr. Metcalfe also made recommendations to the Labour Minister of the day—I cannot remember whether it was Fred Peart or Cledwyn Hughes—and I am sure they are still somewhere in a cubbyhole in the Ministry. To be honest, neither we as parliamentarians nor MAFF took him very seriously, and perhaps we have all lived to regret it.
I want to follow very much what my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) said about my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister. When a Minister is confronted with something new, reaching into areas that are new to science, by the very nature of such events he is a sitting duck for a malicious Opposition seeking to score cheap points in the run-up to an election. It is easy to misunderstand the role of a Minister. Ministers have to take decisions on matters in which they are not experts, especially on advice from scientists and lawyers. A Minister rejects their advice at his peril. If he rejects the advice, uses his instincts and gets the decision wrong, he will be in trouble. Overturning the advice of scientists and lawyers is one of the surest ways for a Minister to get into trouble. In the case of BSE, no Minister from either party would have tried to second-guess the scientists.
New scientific evidence was coming forward all the time, which left Ministers hugely exposed. Much of the subject area is largely unknown to science. Policies needed to be changed because the scientific information had changed. New statements had to be made as new scientific evidence emerged. That was all grist to the malicious actions of the Opposition.
The other European states, the Commission and the Council of Ministers behaved unreasonably when they imposed the ban. I have no doubt that they were egged on by reading the statement, reported in the British press, made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East on 22 March 1996. He said that a ban would be prudent and Europe was able to repeat that to the Minister. The Opposition disastrously pulled the rug on the Minister and they should be ashamed of themselves.
The Government and Ministers have done their best, but everyone knows that they do not have the power to lift the ban. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister also had an added difficulty in Brussels because his European colleagues were understandably irritated by the growing stridency of Euro-scepticism in the United Kingdom.
Farmers are not usually backward in making their complaints known to Members of Parliament. All through this saga, I have been amazed by the small number of letters I have received from farmers. I represent probably one of this country's most distinguished areas for sheep and cattle—the south of the Lake district. I met my local National Farmers Union in January and, although BSE was top of the agenda, there was little rancour over the Government's handling of the situation. The Minister reacted speedily and undertook a huge operation, against a background of evolving scientific knowledge and advice that made matters doubly difficult, and it would be preposterous to condemn him tonight.
The Minister of Agriculture must be getting desperate if he has to wheel out a former Foreign Secretary and a former Chief Whip to defend him.
I had hoped, when the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) rose to speak, that he would throw some light on his part in this sorry saga, because I thought that he was the Minister of Agriculture when BSE was first identified. What advice did he get and what did he do to contain this evil crisis? Could he have nipped it in the bud? He did not tell us. Instead, he told us that my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) was responsible. She is an important and distinguished Opposition Front Bencher, but it is infantile to suggest that she could influence the beef market on mainland Europe to that extent.
I have read a parliamentary answer which stated that Ministers were first told about the BSE situation in June 1987. That was a week or two after I left the Ministry, which was fortuitous timing from my point of view.
The right hon. Gentleman is playing the part of the third wise monkey. I understand that BSE had been heard of in 1985—certainly in 1986—and perhaps he should have paid more attention to the papers circulating in his Ministry at that time.
I have to declare an interest in the subject. Only this morning, I was out in the rain feeding cattle. Many other people have an interest—some 600,000 jobs are directly involved in the production and processing of beef, ranging from farm workers, through hauliers and butchers, to caterers. Of course, we all, as consumers, also have an interest in British beef. The purpose of the debate is to make the point that the Government have abdicated their responsibility to all those interests in the past few years. The Government's response to BSE has been characterised by waste, incompetence and prevarication.
The Government's response has been characterised by waste, because £3.5 billion has been spent dealing with the crisis. I do not complain that the money has been spent, but it has not been spent effectively. The crisis is still here even after all that money has been spent. The resources should have been applied more prudently and effectively.
The Government's response has been characterised by incompetence, because Ministers have repeatedly failed to ensure that their stated policies are implemented properly. For example, the feed ban was introduced and then it was discovered, again and again, that the feed mills and merchants were not sticking to the rules. It has also taken far too long to ensure that the standards for slaughterhouses were applied and enforced effectively.
The Government's response has also been characterised by prevarication. For example, we saw a six-month delay in the accelerated cull agreed by the Prime Minister in Florence in June. From June to December, nothing was done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said, the Government could have started to identify the cattle. In Northern Ireland, it would have been a straightforward matter to identify the 1,700 cattle that might have to be slaughtered under an accelerated cull scheme, because proper records are kept.
In Scotland, it is estimated that some 4,300 cattle will have to be culled, but they have started to be identified only in the past few weeks. In England and Wales, some 121,000 cattle need to be identified—heaven help us.
The hon. Gentleman has roots in the farming community. Does he not understand the situation faced by farmers in my constituency? For example, the chairman of the local NFU had 103 cattle waiting to be culled at the end of September. What would his reaction have been if someone had said that his cattle needed to be checked, and that he would be given a list of the ones that had to be slaughtered? The chap would have been suicidal. The idea is ridiculous.
The hon. Gentleman underlines the fact that the over-30-months scheme was not operating well at that time. But it would have been perfectly straightforward to begin the process of identifying the cattle to be dealt with under a selective cull in those areas where there was no backlog, such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and some parts of England and Wales. Prevarication has been the name of the game for the Minister, the Government and the Minister's predecessors, who thought that they could contain the problem. They hoped that it would go away, and they were under the illusion that consumers at home and abroad would be satisfied with bland assurances. Goodness knows, we have heard plenty of them over the years.
The Government could not recognise the threat of a multiple crisis when it hit them between the eyes. There was a crisis of animal health, a potentially serious risk to human health and a massive economic crisis. This crisis did not start last year, but has been bubbling away and threatening to explode since 1986–87. They have had time enough to consider it, but they have prevaricated. We can compare that with the reaction in other countries. The French, Germans and others in mainland Europe immediately introduced drastic eradication policies—slaughtering all contacts with BSE cases and offering full compensation to the farmers concerned. In that way, they have been able to keep the situation under control.
I had an informal conversation with the former Finance Minister of the Irish Republic, Michael O'Kennedy, who told me that he sought advice from his officials on what to do about cases of BSE in Ireland when cases were identified early on in the Republic. The advice was that eradication would be expensive, but that failure to eradicate would be a great deal more expensive. Unfortunately, this Government thought that they could get away with trying to contain it in the hope that it would fizzle out. Plainly, that was not going to happen.
We do not know what advice has been provided to Ministers by civil servants in MAFF, the Northern Ireland Office and the Scottish Office since 1987, and it will be interesting reading for historians when that material is published in the distant future. But my guess is that officials will have offered alternatives to Ministers, ranging from expensive plans to eradicate the disease and to research its causes, through to minimalist measures to try to fob off the public. Inevitably, the Minister and his predecessors chose the low-cost, high-risk options, which have led to a high-cost crisis. They must stand condemned, and that is what this debate is about.
I have mentioned that I am personally involved in beef farming, and I represent a lot of beef farmers in and around the Lammermuir hills in East Lothian. I know a little about beef production, which is now just about ticking over, after a fashion. But it is depressing—to put it mildly—for farmers and everybody else working in the industry to breed, feed, keep and try to finish specialist beef cattle when there is no market for them in many cases. There is a risk that they will end up in incinerators at the taxpayers' expense. We cannot go on like this.
I read a report a couple of months ago in the farming press in Scotland about a specialist producer of Galloway cattle. The report was concerned with a pure beef breed which—because they are slow-maturing cattle—could not be finished within 30 months. Therefore, the producer is considering putting all his calves from that pedigree herd of Galloway cattle into what is euphemistically described as a calf processing scheme—slaughtering the little things at birth. What is the sense in allowing that obscenity to continue in the agriculture industry?
It is absurd that this particular sector has become the focus of a major health scare, as beef farming is overwhelmingly extensive. I have only seen cattle grazed traditionally, and wintered on hay, silage and cereals in straw-bedded housing with appropriate minerals and protein supplements—when necessary—in winter only. Antibiotics are used only on specific veterinary advice when a beast gets ill. That is in marked contrast to other sectors in agriculture, such as the dairy, pig or poultry industries, where the livestock are housed intensively and fed on artificial compound feeds. No doubt that is perfectly safe, and I am not criticising those involved, but I find it extraordinary that the most extensive section of the industry has become the focus of such a health scare. It is bizarre that the beef sector has been branded as unnatural and unhealthy as a result of the BSE shambles.
The Government stand condemned for allowing such an absurd and damaging image of the industry to develop at home and in mainland Europe. The beef industry—from production to processing and marketing—is now in a state of collapse. The home market may have recovered well, but the hills and uplands of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England cannot remain in production for the United Kingdom market alone. We must have access to export markets, and that is what is so stupid about the car stickers of Eurosceptics, which say "Stuff the EU—eat British beef'. This is one sector where we depend almost totally on the mainland European market, which the Government have allowed to be destroyed by a full-scale food scare as a result of their awful relationships with our European Union partners.
It is important to recognise that the scare—both at home and, above all, in Germany—started long before the ban, and that the ban was a result of the scare, rather than the other way around. We must find a way out of this that will involve better relations with our European partners, and that will start only when this Minister has gone and a Labour Minister takes over. We need to look to bring British beef back on to the market in mainland Europe.
I should like to ask some specific questions of the Minister, as it is not clear how that can be done under present circumstances. When a case of BSE is discovered in the rest of the EU, it is the herd associated with the animal concerned that is flagged up as possibly infected with BSE. Here in the UK, it is the farm that is flagged up as irrevocably infected, and there is no way out of it. We have heard about the United Kingdom certified herd scheme and the beef assurance scheme. One of the main principles of the certified herd scheme refers to herd history, and states:
the animal was born in a herd which had never had a case of BSE and in which no suspect BSE case is under investigation; and the animal had not entered or moved through any herd in which a case of BSE had been confirmed in the six years before the animal's slaughter.
The beef assurance scheme, which may explain this more clearly, states:
The herd must not contain animals originating from dairy herds, including bulls and first cross dairy animals.
As I understand it, that will cover practically every beef herd in the United Kingdom, because most commercial beef herds work with cows that have been bred out of the dairy herd—Hereford Friesian, Angus Friesian and Limousin Friesian cross suckler cows. A high proportion of cattle come from the dairy herd, so how on earth can Northern Ireland farms or Scottish farms which fall into that category satisfy these criteria? The Minister must explain that.
The time has come for a fresh approach to this whole area of policy in the United Kingdom. To do that, we need a fresh start in our dealings with the EU. For a kick-off, that means that this Minister has to go, and this Government must go also—the sooner the better.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), because he is an unusual person. He is a Labour Member who knows something about agriculture, and takes some interest in it. That highlights the purely opportunistic nature of this debate—that, of all parties, the Labour party should seek to use an agricultural issue in this way. I pay tribute to certain Labour Members, who are regular attenders, but the average attendance of Labour Members in agriculture debates is pretty low. Some of us are veterans of these BSE debates and can see that in perspective.
The more recent speeches have significantly raised the tone of this debate. We are talking about serious issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) made a point that those of us who take an interest in the subject and care about agriculture would support: this crucial matter should not have been turned to narrow party political advantage as is being done at the moment.
My right hon. Friend spoke of the difficulties of having to stand at all times on scientific advice. When I was a Minister in the Department of the Environment, dealing with radioactive waste management, I had to deal with the current conventional advice—it has changed significantly—and with the problems of getting accurate scientific advice. That is one reason why I wonder whether the scientific advice given to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister—which I accept that he has no alternative but to accept—is right.
I have been pestering my right hon. and learned Friend for a proper consideration of the theories that have been advanced for a considerable time by my constituent, Mark Purdey, and by Dr. King from Oxford, who has conducted exhaustive research into the possible implication of organophosphate pesticides in a complicated and involved way.
We do not yet know whether there is a link between CJD and BSE or whether scrapie-infected feed is the cause. We are dealing with probabilities. That is the awful uncertainty of the present situation. Faced with that, and with my right hon. and learned Friend's difficulties in dealing with all the issues, it is wonderfully easy to approach the problems with hindsight. Several Opposition Front Benchers, and the hon. Member for East Lothian, completely overrode the problems and the issues about whether we could have embarked on a selective cull earlier.
As I remember it, every slaughterhouse was full, there was a huge waiting list of people who were seriously concerned to move animals out of the over-30-months scheme, and my right hon. and learned Friend was engaged in trying to agree with Europe a basis on which a selective cull could go ahead, with some understanding from Europe that, if we went ahead on that basis, it would be possible to lift the export ban. The hon. Member for East Lothian ignored that point.
Nothing would have been sillier than to embark, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) suggested, on our own scheme, which might have led to the slaughter of many extra cattle, and then to be told by Europe that that was nothing to do with the basis on which it would agree to the lifting of the ban. It would have been fatuous to proceed without a measure of agreement from Europe.
The debate has been put in context for me by a farmer from East Antrim, I believe, who was interviewed on Radio 4. He was one of that wonderful breed of Ulster farmers whom I knew well: staunch, high-quality, committed, serious farmers. He saw the debate for what it was. He was asked whether he thought that the Minister should be condemned and censured for what he had done. He made it quite clear that he was much more concerned about treating the matter as a serious agricultural issue, and that he was not impressed by party games of the kind that are being played here.
I was not at all surprised when my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) said that a representative of the National Farmers Union in Somerset said that we needed this debate like a hole in the head. Labour Members such as the hon. Member for East Lothian complain about the market and ask how we can rebuild public confidence and why we cannot get more outlets for our beef, yet they support their Front Benchers who are launching yet another damaging and destructive attack, the only effect of which will be to revive concerns about beef nationally.
The right hon. Gentleman has problems understanding what the Government undertook to do at Florence in June. The presidency conclusions state:
The framework stipulates the action which the United Kingdom is taking, and is committed to take in the future, in order to accelerate the disappearance of the disease.
The details are there; the agreement was made. I appreciate the difficulties that there may have been in parts of England, but why on earth could not the accelerated cull have gone ahead in Northern Ireland and Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the framework was agreed but we had yet to get agreement with Europe on the details; the silliest thing would have been to go ahead without that agreement.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East said on the radio this morning, and repeated in the Chamber, that the crisis had been handled disastrously and was costing us £4 million a day. Labour Members like to give that impression, but one cannot pin them down. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) asked how much money Labour would be prepared to spend, and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East said that he was coming to that. He made a brief comment about slaughterhouses, saying that they overcharged, and that point was dealt with by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister, who pointed out that the original charges proposed were subject to revision and, as I understand it, that people were paid at that revised rate.
As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East made no further comment, I take it that Labour would have spent every penny that the Government spent, other than the excess slaughterhouse charges. Perhaps the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) would like to comment on that. We have had no response to that point. Labour Members give the impression that they would not have wasted the money, but when challenged they make only the minor point about the slaughterhouses.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to a person in Northern Ireland whom he heard speaking on the radio. Perhaps that person should reflect on one fact: he and his herd will get through the hoop because of traceability, because at some time in the past some enlightened person decided to develop a scheme in Northern Ireland that will take it through what will prove to be an obstacle for the rest of the United Kingdom.
Perhaps that person would like to know that we in the United Kingdom debated that very scheme in 1990—seven years ago. It was argued about in Parliament and was the recommendation of a Select Committee that had heard plenty of evidence, yet the Government rejected it. The right hon. Gentleman talks about savings: that is where the savings would have been. A few tens of millions of pounds spent in 1991–92 would have saved thousands of millions today.
That is another wonderful example of the hindsight that is introduced into these matters. I do not need any coaching from the hon. Gentleman on the situation in Northern Ireland; I am somewhat familiar with it.
It is no secret that I have been critical of some of the aspects of the way in which the schemes and the problems that we have encountered on the way have been managed, but I hope that I can distinguish between criticisms of the handling of a genuinely difficult and complicated situation and the ludicrous attempt to blow up the matter into the charge made against my right hon. and learned Friend.
There is a serious point that those of us who are concerned about the workings of government should consider. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is a small Ministry, and it has been tested in its systems and procedures by some of the challenges that have been posed to it by having to implement European policies and agreements, such as price arrangements, which are often extremely complicated and arrived at extremely late, while farmers clamour for information. That has been a problem for it, and I have not been an unqualified admirer of some of its communication skills in that respect. That was also the case with the difficulties in the introduction of the integrated administration and control system.
It is unrealistic to expect a Department such as MAFF to take a crisis of the scale of BSE in its stride. My comment is not particularly directed to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture but to Sir Robin Butler as head of the civil service. If MAFF had been able to deal with the crisis in its stride, it would have invited serious questions about its previous staffing levels. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney rightly mentioned how such challenges can emerge much faster now, and present greater difficulties. For efficient administration, the operation of the civil service must be flexible enough to bring into play the resources that are needed to provide the service and response that the industry and the public are entitled to expect. That posed major problems. It was bound to be difficult.
I lived through the experience of the Ministry of Defence during the Gulf war. I saw how a sudden extra challenge can impose completely different work loads on people. It was different in the MOD, which is huge. It can cope, because there is more flexibility. MAFF did not have that, and I do not think it got the support from outside that could have helped.
Another lesson needed to be learned. I did not think that the industry covered itself with roses. Reference has been made to the profits made by people in different parts of the industry. Undoubtedly, some people exploited the situation against the interests of their fellows in the industry—against some of the people with whom they work. I hope that there will be a proper investigation of the conduct of some people involved in the industry.
I am following the right hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest, because I have much sympathy with it. Will he join me in requesting that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee examine what has happened with the over-30-months cull? I share his concern that it seems that huge sums of money have been made through profiteering, while his and my farmers have suffered.
I have no doubt that the matter will be investigated under normal audit procedures. The key to dealing with this crisis was taking action to save the industry. That was the objective set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and achieved by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister. Substantial sums of money were put in and there was an enthusiastic response, but we must ensure that public money is responsibly spent.
I look at this debate against that background. If we are to believe reports in the newspapers, the Opposition have a problem about the number of seats available in any Cabinet that they might form. It is suggested that, under a Labour Government, the Minister of Agriculture would be downgraded to a Minister of State, and would not be in the Cabinet. [Interruption.] Opposition Members need not complain. That is an honest appreciation by the Leader of the Opposition of the standing of agriculture in the Labour party. It is the standing it has always had in the Labour party.
The other remarkable thing, which may send a shiver down the spines of my farmers—it certainly sent one down mine—was the presence of the deputy Leader of the Opposition.
His brief presence. I understand that the deputy Leader of the Opposition is looking for a job, but is not clear what job he will get. The awful thought suddenly came to me, "My God, is it possible that this is to be his new assignment?" If there was no humour in our political life, this would be a sad place. I understand that he is to be given a task force of 25 Labour Members who will go to marginal Conservative agricultural seats and terrify sitting Conservative Members by talking straight to the farmers about what a Labour Government might do. As the Duke of Wellington said, I do not know what they will do to the enemy, but my God, they frighten me. I would welcome such a visit, because I have never counted more than five or six Labour Members in an agriculture debate. I would love to see them turn out 25 and come to my constituency, to show how little the Labour party knows about farming.
The challenge to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister in this outrageous motion is met by one simple, direct answer. My right Friend the Prime Minister said, faced with this appallingly difficult challenge and crisis, that we would save the industry. I look straight into the eyes of Opposition Members and ask them whether they honestly believe that a Labour Government would have been prepared to make the funds available to meet the challenge and save the industry.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) gave it away when he talked about schools, hospitals and alternative uses for the money. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister played a crucial part in securing the funds that have enabled the industry to continue and to have a chance of recovering from this terrible crisis. That is why the motion should be treated with contempt.
Thank you for calling me early in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) mentioned the cost of the catastrophe, which was £3.3 billion. A parliamentary reply that I received last week showed that only £546 million of that has gone in compensation to farmers—only one sixth of the total. Where has the rest of the money gone?
I am surprised that so many Conservative Members, including the Minister of Agriculture, felt that it was improper for us to call a debate on the handling of the BSE crisis and table a vote of censure. Over the past 20 years, the Government have created a unique catastrophe. I can think of no parallel where a Government have at every stage been responsible for creating such a unique British problem—a unique Conservative Government problem. They changed the rules and brought about BSE, which, so far, has cost us £3 billion. That is a fair and proper subject for debate. If we did not continually raise it on the Floor, we would be failing in our duty as an Opposition.
The roots of the problem go back to 1980 and the change in conditions for rendering. Lower temperatures were allowed and the scrapie prion went through the processes, producing the BSE prion. It was identified in 1986 and investigated. The Government were slow to pay proper compensation to farmers. That led to many BSE cases going unreported and into the food chain. For a year or 18 months, the Opposition argued for 100 per cent. compensation. The Government took at least that time before they finally agreed. Eventually, when they realised the seriousness of the problem, they introduced a feed ban in 1988, hut, incredibly, they did not police it. It was May last year before we could finally have confidence in the ban being properly implemented. The so-called party of law and order failed to implement its orders for the agricultural industry.
Many comments have been made about whether we were following good science. I followed the matter in the late 1980s and into the 1990s and I have attended virtually every BSE debate. I promise the House that no scientist throughout that time ruled out the connection between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. It was always possible—it could never have been ruled out—yet the Government continued to maintain that beef was perfectly safe. In December 1995. the Secretary of State for Health said that it was "inconceivable" that CJD could be caused by BSE. Ministers were corrupting scientific advice; no scientist said that the link was inconceivable—it was Ministers who used that word.
Just three months later, on 20 March 1996, Ministers had to come to the House and make those extraordinary statements—extraordinary because of the complete denial of previous years. There should never have been those absolute, categorical and complete denials. When those statements were made, it was obvious that they would shake the confidence of British and European consumers. It would have been prudent—if I can use that word again—for the Minister of Agriculture to have had informal discussions with his European counterparts before making his statement to the House. There had been an Agriculture Council just three days previously, to which the Minister sent as his deputy the Minister of State in his capacity as Fisheries Minister. Surely, over a meal or drinks or coffee at that summit meeting, it would have been possible to have warned our continental colleagues that there was a problem that would have to be announced to the House.
We have heard several comments about the statement on 22 March by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang). I remember well seeing in the newspapers and other media the following Sunday the Minister talking about a cull of 4 million cattle. What was the effect of that? Throughout the debate, we have been told that we should blame my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, East and for Peckham (Ms Harman)—blame Labour—but what about the Minister himself talking about the slaughter of 4 million cattle? He was only stopped by the Chancellor, who pointed out the cost of such a programme in a special Cabinet meeting. I blame the Minister for being one of the catalysts in multiplying the costs of the programme.
On the question of the Minister's competence in handling the crisis over the past 12 months it must be said that the over-30-months slaughter programme ran into massive logistical problems and a backlog built up. I have a rural constituency with a scattered population and I probably represent more farmers than any other Member of Parliament, because farms in my area are small. Relative to those in England, my farmers are poor and I promise that, in the past 12 months, they have experienced the worst nightmare of their lives. The over-30-months slaughter programme ran into serious problems and the Government should have acted much more decisively and intervened more vigorously. Only large abattoirs were used, when there was a plethora of small abattoirs—some in my constituency have been closed recently—which could have been brought into use for that scheme.
I now turn to the policy of non co-operation with the European Community during May and June, leading up to the Florence summit. With hindsight it can be seen that that was a catastrophic error in terms of our relations with the European Community. These were the people with whom we had to negotiate to get the ban lifted, yet we vetoed every measure during those six weeks to two months. At the Florence summit, we at least found our way out of that silly non co-operation policy. Like many other hon. Members, I was present in the House when the Prime Minister made his extraordinary statement, dissembling the results of the Florence agreement. He said that a framework was in place for lifting the ban and that that would happen progressively between October and November. He said that the
timetable is essentially in our hands."—[Official Report, 24 June 1996; Vol. 280, c. 22.]
It was simply a matter of introducing the accelerated slaughter programme.
I do not accept the logistical problems hinted at by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare and others. There were severe problems with the over-30-months scheme, but those problems did not exist in Northern Ireland and Scotland or in certain parts of the United Kingdom and the accelerated slaughter programme could have gone ahead much earlier. The problem was that the Minister, having signed the agreement, simply did not believe in it himself. He and the Government lost six months for all our beef farmers in the fight to remove the ban. I am glad that the order eventually passed through the House in January and that the programme is now under way, but as we speak—eight months after Florence—not a single animal has been killed under the programme.
As for the certified herds scheme that was part of that agreement, there has still been no discussion. The detailed documents have not reached the European Community and the Minister's refusal to appear before a Select Committee of the European Parliament was absolutely absurd and unwise in the extreme. These are the people who are responsible for the ban and with whom we have to negotiate, so—even if only as a gesture of good will—we should have gone to put our case to them.
I have had regular meetings with farmers in my constituency during the past 12 months—we have met at least nine or 10 times. Three weeks ago, I spent two and a half hours in discussion with the National Farmers Union on various issues, but at least a third of that meeting consisted of discussing the BSE problem. Farmers in my area and elsewhere have almost lost hope of ever seeing the ban lifted under the present Minister of Agriculture. They realise that, if there is a Labour Government, the ban will be lifted much earlier than any Conservative Government can ever achieve.
There is deep mistrust of the Minister among his counterparts in Europe and a lack of good will towards Britain—we are now isolated in Europe. The Conservative party is now campaigning on an anti-European platform—not only a Eurosceptic platform but a highly destructive one. Farmers realise that the common agricultural policy is fundamental to the running of agriculture and that good will from Brussels is vital, but we have destroyed that, chunk by chunk, over the past few months of this crisis.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what extra steps he thinks a Labour Government would take in order to get the ban lifted—what magic would a Labour Government have?
I am moving on to talk about Northern Ireland, which is crucial in tonight's debate for political reasons, but which also points to the way ahead in the BSE crisis. I shall address the hon. Gentleman's question in that part of my speech.
The incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland is only around 2,000 cases—about 1 per cent. of the total in Britain. That is because, generally, agriculture in Northern Ireland is not intensive and is far more natural, so the cattle are grass-fed. About 96 per cent. of Northern Ireland's herds are unaffected by BSE and half of its beef is for export. Under the certified herds scheme that was agreed in Florence we are required to bring forward detailed documents for discussion. We had a debate on BSE on 13 November 1996 during which there were several references to the certified herds scheme. The hon. Members for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) asked about the progress of the scheme. I think that they were all quite taken aback when they found that the papers had not even been presented to Brussels at that stage.
We sought a promise from the Minister of Agriculture in that 13 November debate, but he told us:
We have not yet submitted detailed working papers".
Later in the debate, he said:
The Commission and the commissioners have not had those formal working papers."—[Official Report, 13 November 1996; Vol. 285, c. 368–71.]
The impression that we were given, however, was that the papers were on their way.
We had another debate on the subject on 21 January, when we discussed the accelerated slaughter regulations. This time, it was the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) who raised the progress of discussions about the certified herds scheme. The Minister said:
We are ready with a proposal for a certified herds scheme to submit to the Commission. I anticipate submitting our proposals early next month."—[Official Report, 21 January 1997; Vol. 288, c. 849.]
"Early next month" meant early February, but, on 17 February—three months after the November debate, and a month after that last statement—we are still waiting. Why have the proposals still not gone to Brussels?
What worries me—I am sure that it also worries Northern Ireland Members, and it certainly worries farmers in my constituency—is that, whenever it comes to discussions about the certified herds scheme, our colleagues in Europe simply will not listen to the British Government. I fear that, whatever deal the Government may try to strike with Northern Ireland Members today, they will not be able to hold to their side of the bargain. The matter is beyond their control, owing to the current bad faith between the Minister of Agriculture and our colleagues in Europe.
Let me return to what was said by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson). I think that a certified herds scheme is unquestionably the answer. Although it is clear that Northern Ireland will be most involved initially, its involvement will be closely followed by that of Scotland and, over a period, other parts of the United Kingdom. After three years, or perhaps five, as BSE recedes, all our cows will qualify.
Let me say something to Ulster Members. Tonight's vote will be important to their farmers, who want the ban lifted as soon as possible. If the Government win votes this week, the election will be on 1 May, but if they are defeated the lifting of the ban will be potentially six weeks closer. The Government are thoroughly discredited among the public, and the BSE problem constitutes an appropriate long-term tribute to what they have managed to do in the past 20 years.
A few days ago, Labour party briefing was saying that this was the debate that would shake the Government to their foundations, but this morning the briefing had changed. Labour Members ought to listen to this so that they are "on message", as the new spin doctors say. Labour's briefing changed: this was the debate that would be out to wound rather than kill.
I came to the debate expecting passion, decisiveness and enthusiasm, but instead I heard the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang). I heard him stumble; I heard him unable to explain what magic ingredient Labour would bring to the problem if it were ever trusted with it; I heard him unable to take interventions. Looking behind him, I saw that fewer than 50 Labour Members had come to support him. They obviously knew how bad he was going to be.
Even worse for the hon. Gentleman, I noticed that the Labour leader was not present. And, even worse than that, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson)—the puppet master of the shadow Cabinet; the man who writes the lines that the others have to say; the man who briefs against those who do not say the right lines—was not present. He clearly knew that this would not be a cracking good speech. It would, however, be unfair to blame the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East. Nowadays, Labour policy and Labour approaches are governed on a soundbite-a-day basis, the soundbites being strictly rationed by Mr. Campbell and the hon. Member for Hartlepool. They fashion the soundbites, and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East attempts to translate them into Scottish and to deliver on the Floor of the House.
The BSE problem presents new Labour with an especially difficult conundrum. New Labour wants to be loved by everyone. On the one hand, it wants to be loved by the farmers. It is strange that new Labour now thinks that the deputy leader of the Labour party might help to win the love of the farmers, and is targeting him in their constituencies. On the other hand, it wants to be loved by the consumers, the food pressure groups and all the journalists who took a different line at the outset of the problem.
What do you do if you want to be loved by two groups who are potentially opposed to each other, if you have never knowingly stood up to an opinion poll in your life and said that it might be wrong, and if you have never knowingly stood up to a focus group in your life and said that that might be wrong? You have to agree with all sides at the same time—or at different times—and hope that no one notices that you are saying different things.
I have a piece of advice for the member of the shadow Cabinet who is cursed with the agricultural task. If he wishes to have real influence over the leadership—the leadership that spurned his speeches, and does not seem to give him much backing—he should resign from the shadow Cabinet and join a focus group, or the press office of the Leader of the Opposition. That is the way in which things are done, and changed, in the modern Labour party; that is the way in which any shadow Cabinet member must proceed if he becomes serious about wanting to influence policy and affect the daily soundbite.
A far more important question, however, lies at the kernel of the issue that we are discussing—a question that has affected livelihoods throughout the country, and matters very much to farmers and all in the meat trade. What have our European Government been doing to help solve the problem? Did not that Government—the Commission and its supporters—turn a problem for British agriculture into a mighty crisis? Was it not their ban that cut off, overnight, a £500 million export market for this country? Was it not their ban that stopped British farmers selling high-quality British beef that was perfectly safe to eat, except in the British marketplace? Was that not what undermined confidence on the continent of Europe?
What undermined confidence more than anything else, surely, was a failure to reinforce the rules and regulations that would have made the meat that was coming out of abattoirs safe.
The problem with the European Government's action is that they have accepted that our beef is safe enough for British people to eat. How, then, can they say that it is not safe enough for people in other countries to eat? That is the essential illogicality. Our European Government—the Commission and all its staff—did not make the allegation that the hon. Gentleman has just made, that the regulations were not properly enforced; they have been saying that British beef is safe for British people to eat, but not safe for anyone else to eat. How can they say that if they truly care about Britain, her trade and her businesses? Why do they not have the courage to recognise that, if British beef is safe enough to eat here, it is safe enough to eat in the Commonwealth and—although perhaps the Germans will not want to buy it—in all those countries throughout the world where people would like to buy our beef and should be free to do so.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that what caused maximum offence in this country, especially in farming communities, was, first, the fact that the European ban applies not only to European markets but to every market in the world and, secondly, the fact that, if this country were minded—as it might have been—to stabilise the situation by applying a temporary ban on import of beef from Europe, that would be ruled illegal by the various machinations in Brussels and Luxembourg.
My hon. Friend has made two very powerful points. Indeed, his second point was to be the next point of my speech.
My second question to our European Government is, by what right—by what legal means—have you banned the export of our beef to non European Community countries?
I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Commissioner said that he would be delighted to eat English beef. If he could eat it, surely the rest of the people of Europe could eat it—except that he has a different Dutch stomach from the rest.
I am very grateful for that point as well. Unfortunately, the Commissioner cannot be with us tonight, like the leader of the Labour party in the earlier part of our proceedings, but I hope that a copy of Hansard will be sent to the Commission so that the Commissioners can read that and other powerful points.
The British Government were right to contest the legality of the beef ban. The judgment of the European Court of Justice says that the beef ban will have to stay in place; I find that very curious. That appears to be the implication of the noises coming from the European Court of Justice.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, when I looked into this matter some months ago, I discovered that the beef ban that the EC has enforced on our exports is based on an assumption that, having gone to a third country, such as Sri Lanka or South Africa, the beef would be re-exported back to EU countries? I find that inconceivable.
It would be an unlikely journey for such meat and it would be possible to prevent that by proper controls of shipments and at ports of entry into the European Community.
I believe that we must address this issue again in the intergovernmental conference. For me it is further proof, if any were needed, that we need a different relationship with the European Court of Justice from the one that we currently have. We demand fairness and a court of justice that puts justice first and is not political in its decisions. This court is too politicised, and it has now decided that its main task is to advance the federal power of the European Community, rather than to give justice to the British Government, in cases such as this.
My third question to the European Government is, will you consider the evidence of BSE in herds outside the United Kingdom? There is evidence of BSE cases in the Republic of Ireland, Portugal, France and probably other European Community countries. Surely, if the Community is primarily worried about this issue and not about something else, it would want to enforce the rules throughout the Union, and it should want a system for dealing with BSE that is fair to us and to countries that are starting to report cases.
It defies logic to suggest that we can have a BSE problem in this country and that there can be no problem elsewhere in the European Community. There has been so much trade in cattle and feedstuffs, and there was so much common practice in the agriculture on the continent and that on the mainland of the United Kingdom, that there must be a problem elsewhere in the European Community—one which the European Government should address with equal strength and equal purpose.
While the right hon. Gentleman is apportioning blame, would he care to comment on the fact that, the year after the Government announced the Bovine Offal (Prohibition) Regulations to the House of Commons in 1988, contaminated ruminant feed exports to the European Union doubled in 1989 and, five years later, in 1994, we were still exporting that contaminated feed to the European Union?
It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman is making my point. He is saying that the European Government were not vigilant enough and were not controlling that trade, which affected the entire European Community; that is his charge. I am saying very clearly that it is the responsibility of the European Union to take sufficient action across the Union—not to single out one country, but to ensure that it has common rules that apply in every member state which are up to the job at the time when there is believed to be a problem.
It is most important that we go on from this debate to Amsterdam and beyond to get a better relationship with the European Community, so that it can address the problem—in this case, BSE and the quality of herds and cattle throughout the European Community—rather than pursuing a political agenda and using a specific proposal to do so.
It is the wish of members of the Opposition to cut the salary of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I do not begrudge him his money and I shall vote accordingly tonight, but I have one piece of advice for him. He has become used to appearing in the cartoons. Perhaps some of the £1,000 that we shall try to keep in his pocket might go towards a new hat, to give them even greater delight.
No one would deny the tragedy of BSE for the farming community, but as ever in these debates we are too quick to forget the tragedy it has been for many thousands of other ordinary men and women who have lost their jobs and those in the meat processing industries who have even lost their homes as a result. We should spare a thought for them and deeply regret the fact that, so far, the Government have been unable to find a way of helping that large section of the community which has suffered; it has not been helped by any government money or taxpayers' money. I am sorry for the people in many of the sad cases of which we have all heard—not only the ordinary men and women who have lost their weekly wages, but those who have lost their very homes as a result.
Northern Ireland has figured very largely tonight—not for the first time in such debates. Northern Ireland figures in them because of the very high standards of health that we enjoy in both animals and crops, largely brought about by the long-term objectives of the Northern Ireland Government—indeed, of the Government in Dublin—who have capitalised on the very high health standards that were possible because of the double water barrier between ourselves and the continent of Europe. I fear that, to some extent, that quality has been eroded as a result of common market levelling down rather than trying to level up throughout the Community.
We have the tremendous advantage of traceability in the Northern Ireland herd, which is now standing us in good stead. It is that which sets Northern Ireland apart in Europe more than anything else, and it is that which gives Northern Ireland the tremendous advantage which it enjoys in regard to breaking the ban—getting the ban lifted on Northern Ireland beef in Europe, or rather on United Kingdom beef being sold in Europe.
I listened carefully to the Minister and I felt a measure of hope arising from his words. I hope that perhaps someone can go a bit further later in the debate and say what the chances actually are of getting the ban lifted throughout the United Kingdom. If we wait until every suspected animal is slaughtered, there will never be a chance of getting the ban lifted. The first approaches to Europe to have the ban lifted must be made as soon as the slaughter scheme begins.
I see the Minister nodding agreement with that.
It is likely that a few cases of BSE will continue to turn up every year for quite a long time ahead, and we do not want the European nations always to be in a position to say, "There was another case last week, so we shall delay." That would be unacceptable to any hon. Member. We must start to make progress as soon as the accelerated slaughter scheme starts.
One thing that is baffling and mystifying to a layman like me is why there seems to be so much more BSE in Northern Ireland than in the Republic of Ireland. To follow the hon. Gentleman's point, if there is the occasional case of BSE in Northern Ireland in the future, will there not also be the occasional case in the Republic of Ireland in the future? If beef from the Republic of Ireland is allowed to go anywhere in Europe, why should not Northern Ireland beef also do so?
The Republic escaped the initial ban and had a different way of dealing with the problem. As the Minister pointed out earlier, there have been more cases in the Republic over the past month or two than in Northern Ireland. I do not want to pursue that, as I am dealing particularly with the situation in the United Kingdom and our hopes for having the ban on UK beef lifted.
The Minister should push very hard for Northern Ireland as soon as he possibly can. If Europe is not prepared to accept Northern Ireland beef, there is scant chance of it accepting beef from any other part of the United Kingdom. As I have said from the onset of the debates and negotiations, Northern Ireland is the key. We should use the high quality and traceability of its beef to force the door open. It should act as a litmus test of the good faith of those in Europe who demand that we must be completely clear to their standards, rather than to a reasonable standard that would be acceptable to anyone else.
Will the hon. Gentleman take on board the fact that in November, during the first debate on BSE, all the matters that the hon. Gentleman is drawing to the Minister's attention were forcefully underlined by several Northern Ireland Members? The papers had not been presented then and they have not been presented now. There is absolutely no evidence that the Minister has done anything that would afford any joy whatever to Ulster Unionist Members.
I am concerned about whether the Minister's actions are giving hope to the farmers of Northern Ireland, rather than to politicians in the House. The needs of the farming community should be paramount—rather than pleasing political figures. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) will get a chance to make his own speech later in his own way, and no doubt he will seize the opportunity, should he catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
In the welter of figures that have been presented, one or two small items seem to have escaped some people. Twice today, hon. Members—one from each side of the House—said that Northern Ireland exported half its beef. That is incorrect. Northern Ireland exports some 80 per cent. of its beef, and it accounted for half the United Kingdom exports of beef. That is a considerable figure, which is bound to be having a depressing effect on the overall UK beef price. The sooner the market is opened up and the beef is exported, the better for the whole country.
The fears that have been voiced in Scotland and at high political levels for Scotland that Northern Ireland will steal the Scottish market are entirely misplaced. We have always provided a different product to a different market. We would not have the productive capacity to undermine the Scottish market in any case, so the fears are sadly misplaced.
I want to raise with the Minister a problem with which he is familiar—the type of beef that Northern Ireland has been encouraged to produce. As I said in my last speech on the matter in the House, we have been producing a large, heavy animal for the European market. Those animals are still on the farm in Northern Ireland; they are in the pipeline and will be there for some time, because farming practice—and, above all, beef production—cannot be changed in a matter of months. It takes several years to do that.
All the time, we find that the intervention weight is dropping—being forced down—and the farmers are being caught with those large animals. There are only two outlets for those animals: into the continental market or into intervention. The farmers have been badly caught. I hope that the Minister will take the matter on board and do something about it. If we could get the weight for intervention up from 370 kg to 390 kg or 400 kg, a large part of the problem would disappear overnight. Unless the problem is addressed, the farmers will go on suffering grievously. This morning, I spoke to one farmer who produces that type of beef exclusively, and he says that he is taking £300 a head less this year, even with intervention, than he was taking last year. Neither he nor anyone else can survive on such figures.
We still have the problem of flagged holdings in Northern Ireland. I understand that efforts are being made in that direction. I hope that we shall have some good news—if not tonight, then in the near future.
I am happy to follow the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), and would support any application by Northern Ireland for the certified herd scheme to be applied to the Province. I say that as a representative of a county that would not benefit, at least initially, from the certified herd scheme.
Jealousy is an emotion from which farmers are not wholly immune. They are often sensitive to privileges being granted to another country or another part of the country that they feel that they are denied. It is widely recognised, however, that the grass-fed herds in Northern Ireland and the great dependence of the Province on the export of beef put Northern Ireland into a particular category. I believe that the farmers whom we represent in England would be happy to see a successful outcome to any such application, and I was glad that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister said that he would support an early application that might help the Province.
I have part-ownership of a farm, which is a registered agricultural interest on the Register of Members' Interests. I am not personally much affected by the BSE crisis, but I am certainly affected politically by what has happened over the past 11 months.
I represent one of the biggest concentrations of dairy farmers in the country. That is one reason why Somerset is so well represented in the debate: it is the second biggest dairy county, after Cheshire. My hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) are in their places, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has already spoken and we even had a five-minute visitation from the leader of the Liberal party, all of which shows that Somerset has been particularly—I will not say uniquely—badly hit by the BSE crisis.
It has been a depressing and, at times, traumatic year for the people whom we represent. Nevertheless, we can begin to see the BSE issue on a broader canvas and assess the wider implications. I do not believe that many of the criticisms levelled by Opposition Members during the debate have been justified. Many of them have been disproportionate to the evidence available.
It was a tremendous blow to British farming when, on 20 March last year, the Government had to announce a crisis, without announcing how to deal with it. We know the reason for that. There was a newspaper leak, which would have been shamelessly exploited by the Opposition to raise a food scare to score a party political point, as we know from their actions since then. That meant that, for an unfortunate period of a few weeks, farmers did not know how the crisis was to be addressed. When it became clear that large numbers of animals faced slaughter, the Department was administratively overwhelmed. That point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater.
Agriculture is one of the smaller Whitehall Departments, and it was inevitable that it could not cope initially with the huge task before it. A further difficulty, which has been alluded to in the debate, is that the laudable aim of making science our guide overlooked the fact that scientific opinion on the issue was shifting. We still do not know the precise connection between the animal and the human forms of the disease, and we may only estimate the real risks to humans. Those points were made powerfully in an earlier contribution by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), who explained that science and the politicians could not provide the certainty and the assurances that the rather hysterical press were seeking.
Against that background, it is hardly surprising that it proved extremely difficult to devise a comprehensive scheme to deal conclusively with the problem. I took up many of the issues on behalf of my farming constituents, and I occasionally criticised Ministers and their decisions about the direction and pace of the recovery programme. I hope that I also used the expertise of local farmers to improve procedures nationally.
What is the balance sheet 11 months later? It was never going to be easy to kill more than 1 million cattle in the space of a few months and dispose of the carcases safely. Technically, commercially and administratively, it was a colossal undertaking without precedent in farming history. The only other big crisis that I faced as a Member of Parliament was the introduction of milk quotas in 1984. That measure created a great deal of unhappiness, but it pales into insignificance beside the problems caused by BSE.
My right hon. and learned Friend has naturally attracted some criticism. Agriculture is a highly politicised industry: farmers know that their incomes are affected by Ministers' actions at least as much as by other factors, such as the weather and even their own efforts. The issue was bound to generate great heat and anger, and it was inevitable that much of that anger should be directed personally at my right hon. and learned Friend. As he has remarked on occasion, we are all volunteers in politics. I believe that he showed a great deal of courage, resilience and persistence in supporting farming interests in the Cabinet, and more widely within the Government, and in extracting large sums of money from the Treasury. As an ex-Treasury Minister, I assure hon. Members that that is no mean achievement.
Some £3.5 billion has been committed to the industry as a result of BSE, most of which has come from the British taxpayer. When the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) spoke on behalf of the Opposition, it is significant that he criticised that sum several times. The clear implication is that a future Labour Government would not back their words with the cash and the resources that the scale of the crisis merits.
I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend has assembled a package of measures which, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister promised, has saved the industry. I judge my right hon. and learned Friend on those actions rather than on any supposed deficiency in his telegenic skills. My right hon. and learned Friend has occasionally become impatient—that is his nature. He had my sympathy and support when his impatience was directed at the European Parliament.
We do not know what the final report of that self-serving body will say. However, the European Parliament is motivated almost entirely by a desire to increase its own powers and importance. If the final report is anything like an earlier draft, it may be safely dismissed as vengeful, biased and inaccurate. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will continue to resist any calls to appear before it or the European Court.
I was rather charmed by the innocence of the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams). He suggested that, if we were nice to the European institutions, they would be nice to us and that, on that ground alone, a Labour Government would be able to lift the export ban. That is a colossal misunderstanding of the nature of European diplomacy—and I speak with some knowledge derived from an earlier political incarnation.
I hope that I have interpreted the right hon. Gentleman's remarks correctly. Does he believe that a better negotiating tactic is to put the other side's back up, which is what the Agriculture Minister does every time he goes to Europe?
I support putting a few backs up within the European institutions if we have to. It is a tough old world, and standing up for British interests is not simply a matter of being nice to everyone in the hope that everyone will be nice to us. We have too many scars to believe that is anything more than wishful thinking.
If the European institutions want to repair some of the damage to their reputations, they should move towards lifting the worldwide ban on British beef. I understand that a number of other member states reacted in response to a consumer crisis in those countries. BSE had perhaps a bigger effect on consumer confidence on the continent than in this country. It is one of the oddities of history that arguably the most martial race in Europe—the Germans—have become a race of hypochondriacs. That is a fact with which both they and we must live.
However, it is inexcusable that the apparatus of the European Union should be used to impose a ban not only on the import of beef in European countries but on the import of British beef in third-world countries that might wish to exercise their own judgment and buy it. I have noticed that, in good times, the European Union talks of partnership, co-operation and solidarity: it will certainly lend you an umbrella when it is not raining. However, in difficult times, the EU retreats not into nationalism—I could understand that—but into isolationism, which is the equivalent of taking back the umbrella during a rain shower when one needs to use it. I could recognise national self-interest and perhaps sympathise with it. However, using the apparatus of a supranational institution to impose a wider ban on British beef ensures that we get the worst of all possible worlds. It is particularly baffling in view of the fact that independent and impartial observers generally concede that British beef is the safest in Europe.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some Opposition Members share his view about the federalism of Europe and its rather waspish attitude to the United Kingdom? However, that is not the issue. The issue is the incompetence of a Government who permitted such people, with their antagonisms, to take advantage of the problem.
I do not accept that point. This Government have ensured that British beef is among the safest in Europe. I am complaining about a European system that not only prevents us from selling beef to other member states—although I do not accept or approve of that position, I can at least understand it—but uses the apparatus of the Union to impose an unjustified worldwide ban in defiance of the scientific evidence.
It is in defiance not just of the science but of European law. That is the problem. European law says that a ban can be placed on British beef or any other British foodstuff if it is a severe hazard to human health. British beef under 30 months with the spinal column removed is not a severe hazard to human health, so the law says that it should not be banned, but political imperatives have superimposed themselves on the whole system of European justice. There is no system of European justice. That is the problem with which we are confronted.
My hon. Friend's views are widely shared among farmers in my constituency, who believe that the bans are driven by commercial and political considerations in defiance of known science.
Farmers also know that, over many years, we have exported a good many animals to other member states. If the animals that we exported were infected with BSE, what happened to them on the continent? Were they mysteriously and magically cured of their BSE when they set foot on German or French soil? They are certainly not showing up in the official statistics.
We also know that British slaughterhouse procedures are now more rigorous and safe than most of those on the continent. British farmers are understandably cynical about the way in which their livelihoods are manipulated by some continental institutions. I ask the hon. Member for Carmarthen, who spoke in favour of the European Parliament and other institutions, to bear that in mind before he speaks about this again.
I very much regret that, despite the scientific evidence, it appears that we will have to undertake a further selective cull, but I defer to my right hon. and learned Friend's judgment on its importance if we are to have any chance of lifting the ban. The selective or accelerated cull is supported by the NFU and most of the farmers I represent, but I issue a cautionary warning: it will be extremely difficult to implement in practice.
From now on, the Ministry will have to select animals that have not reached the end of their useful lives, and in a dairy herd that breeds its own replacements it will be very difficult to persuade a farmer to give up a productive animal that he strongly believes to be entirely healthy simply to be part of a selective cull, which, on all the available evidence, is unnecessary.
In any case, we all know that the animals would, at the end of their useful lives, be caught by the existing cull of over-30-months-old beasts. There will be severe practical difficulties. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to deal sympathetically with the farmers concerned, because they have co-operated well so far in an extremely difficult matter. It has affected their livelihoods and the lives of their animals, which they regard not as simply milk-producing or beef-producing machines but animals that they look after every day of their lives.
I return to the terms of the motion. I have explained how my right hon. and learned Friend retains my full confidence. Over the year, both major Opposition parties have never really shown the slightest understanding of the needs of rural Britain. That is exemplified in the county that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and I represent by the crass activities of Liberal Democrat-led Somerset county council, which spent many hundreds of thousands of pounds in a completely fruitless attempt to ban hunting on a narrow strip of common land on the Quantocks, thereby annoying all the farmers in my constituency, wasting a great deal of ratepayers' money and not even succeeding in the ban. All they have done during the past few years is to make many lawyers very rich. To my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and me, that shows the underlying attitude of the Liberal Democrats to the needs of rural Britain, which has been brought out in today's debate.
The comments of Labour Front Benchers have exacerbated the BSE crisis throughout. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East made a great deal of noise, but his speech was almost entirely empty. When farmers face a choice at the forthcoming general election, they will see, if only from this debate, that the Labour party is willing to turn an agricultural crisis to party advantage. Farmers will have been shown that Labour would—as they already know—sacrifice them to other interests.
My right hon. and learned Friend—the subject, perhaps, of today's debate—will not only survive the debate but emerge from it stronger.
I have to inform the House that Madam Speaker has placed a limit of 10 minutes on speeches made between 7 pm and 9 pm.
There is something amazingly pompous about Tory Members of Parliament saying that Opposition Members, from whatever party, do not know anything about rural affairs and therefore should not be entitled to speak on them, which was the burden of much of what the right hon. Members for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said. By the same token, we shall expect Conservative Members to keep quiet on urban affairs in future. I represent a rural constituency.
I remind Conservative Members, including the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, that all our constituents eat food. The Government and Conservative Members ignore that fact at their peril.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) referred to farmers and consumers as opposing groups. He said that Labour was trying to be friends with farmers and consumers, but they are not opposing groups; they represent a locked-together interest. I am sure that farmers understand that, even if Conservative Members do not.
It is a privilege to speak in a debate with the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), who is a novelist, as well as being a politician. I am writing a political novel, although I am sure that it will not be of quite the same quality as his. This is its scenario. It is March 1996 and the French Minister for Health announces in the French Parliament that a possible new variant of CJD has been discovered, probably linked to BSE. Public outcry follows in France and sales of beef go into free fall.
In the United Kingdom, of course, the panic is held in check by the Conservative Government's famous sangfroid. The Prime Minister announces that we must support our French partners by importing their beef. The right hon. Member for Wokingham, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and others from the Back Benches warn the European Commission not to act against exports of French beef to Britain. The Secretary of State for the Environment is filmed force feeding his family with French beefburgers, and early-day motions are tabled asking the House of Commons catering department to include steak tartare made from French beef on all menus.
This little fantasy results from my contemplating what the Conservative Government's reaction would be to any EC country with the same record on BSE as theirs. It would be little short of hysteria. However, in their desperate search for someone else to blame—having tried my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman)—they latched on to Europe and roped in their Europhobe Back Benchers to fuel a clear attempt to divert the British press and the public from the fact that this catastrophe began, blossomed and climaxed under the Tory Government, and that the bulk of the bills will probably be paid by the next Labour Government.
So pervasive has the "blame stinking Europe" strategy become, that, when it visited Britain last year, the Minister refused to meet the temporary committee set up by the Commission to seek a solution to the deadlock. For that crass rudeness alone, he should be sacked. The Select Committee on Agriculture met members of the committee. Its Chairman is present, and I am sure that he will confirm that we were not summoned. Knowing him, I am sure that had he been summoned he would not have attended. The temporary committee was positive and it expressed its desire to be constructive. The United Kingdom's representatives on it were Sir Henry Plumb and Phillip Whitehead, who are hardly unsympathetic to the British cause.
Even if we leave aside the political complacency of the 1980s and early 1990s, it is clear that from last March onwards the Tory Government and Tory Back Benchers failed to understand or to respond to public unease. Their response has been to leap unquestioningly to the defence of the producer, the processor and the retailer. In the manic and absurd way in which they have done that, they have probably achieved the reverse of what they intended, and have further damaged the beef industry.
There is something particularly insidious about the feeling that one's food may be contaminated. That feeling is compounded into fear when one learns that the prion involved in BSE is extremely hard to destroy, and it becomes panic when the horrible finality of CJD is publicised. The Government's insistence on countering those fears simply by repeating the fact that the risk is low verges on the irrelevant. For whoever gets CJD, the risk is 100 per cent. The Government conjure up other risks, such as smoking or driving. That is also irrelevant: those risks are known and well understood, however foolish it may be to ignore them.
When we discovered that beef products appear in foods as varied as sweets, chicken soup, lamb mince and baby food, we were right to be alarmed, and so were the public. What ordinary consumers required was tough, quick action—over-drastic perhaps, and over-cautious perhaps—and full, honest information. What they got was a long, blustering denial of their fears, and that is what they are still getting.
Over and again, the Government repeat the same mantra—we heard it again a moment ago. We are told that British beef is the best in the world: that is a fact, it is in the Bible somewhere. We are told that British beef is the safest in Europe and, no doubt, in the universe. Tory Back Benchers have told us that their visiting grandchildren would be fed British beef, whether they wanted it or not, and that they would increase their own beef consumption. Anyone who asks questions about BSE is automatically branded unpatriotic and is accused of doing Britain down. One is reminded of the famous phrase,
The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.
That attitude would be silly if it were not so tragic for the beef industry, and so contemptuous of the consumer. Furthermore, the Government have searched for someone else to blame: it was the Labour party, but today it is the Liberal Democrats. Tory Members on the joint Committee that met after the 20 March announcement heaped scorn on the press for scaremongering, but did not at any point that I can discover, having just read the report again, consider what had provoked those scares and whether they were justified. Predictably, we have ended up with two extreme attitudes facing each other and baying across the void.
Almost everything that the Government have done has served to undermine trust. The public's mistrust is no longer confined to beef, but is spreading insidiously to other foods, particularly meats. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has come to be seen as the Ministry for producers, not for consumers. The creation of an independent food standards agency has become not just a desirable project, but an absolute necessity for the future of the food industry. Slaughtered cattle are piled up in their thousands in storage, awaiting destruction. No one can be certain that at least some of them will not find their way into food chains or into landfill.
Simple, common-sense questions go unanswered, such as those about the residues of the slaughtering and deboning process being washed into drains. When I asked the Chief Veterinary Officer, Mr. Meldrum, about maternal transmission, he said:
We have no evidence of maternal transmission… if it is occurring it is at a rate of less than five per cent.
What sort of reassurance was that? Questions have been asked about whether the contamination of pasture is a danger. The answer given in the same report was that
pasture has never been and never will be tested. Questions have been asked about the relatively high incidence of CJD in dairy farmers—across Europe, admittedly—and the answer has been that the numbers are not significant.
Through all this, the Minister has repeated over and again that he is following the science. That is reasonable enough, but important caveats have been included this evening. He does not tell us that the Ministry chooses which science to follow. Any scientist who asks an awkward question or poses an alternative view is automatically dismissed as barmy.
The expansion of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee to include public health experts, and the arrival in the chair of Professor Pattison, undoubtedly improved the position last year with regard to public information.
I shall begin by apologising to the House for having to be absent for a few minutes, but the progress of Government business is such that it was necessary to take action on tomorrow's rather unpleasant experience, and we shall have to deal with that when it happens.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), but I fear that I may disappoint him about who to blame for what has taken place. Not enough has been said about the disastrous effect on this whole affair of the leak that appeared in the Daily Mirror on 19 March. It is unreasonable to ask Ministers to deal with such an important and vital crisis at the drop of a hat. A day or two's thought should have been given to how the case should have been presented. Some of the questions that were asked would have been asked behind the scenes and answers would have been available.
We seem to accept that putting in the public domain documents that have been taken—I prefer to use the word "stolen"—is good for the British public, and that by keeping them secret we are harming some unknown freedom. I doubt whether many countries would have deliberately rushed to publish such bad news or to put Ministers so severely on the spot.
The statement that was made nearly 12 months ago concerned just 10 cases that gave rise to some suspicion of a link between BSE and CJD. That link has not yet been proven. The good news is that that figure of 10 has risen to only 14 or 15, which is good evidence that there may not be a serious epidemic. Everyone is nervous about and frightened of an epidemic. When one considers that 11 or 12 people are killed on the roads every day, it puts this crisis in a different perspective. I wonder what would happen if we spent £3.5 billion on our road system.
The hon. Members for Peckham (Ms Harman) and for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) spent some time denying any responsibility for the panic that struck the nation when the announcement was made. Their actions at the time were grossly unhelpful. This situation is totally unprecedented. It is not in the best interests of the British nation for everyone to run around being critical. I do not have direct quotes in front of me, but those who were present will remember clearly the inferences that were drawn, the fear that was generated and the petrol that was poured on the fire by Opposition Front Benchers.
What happened? The position had been perfectly well understood in Europe since 1988. When the first evidence came to light, we went straight to the European veterinary and scientific committee. It accepted the science and never questioned it until 12 months ago when, inexcusably and unforgivably but carried along by public opinion and press and media panic, one after another Ministers in Germany, France and Italy suddenly starting to talk about banning British beef. Before we knew it, we were all on a roller coaster but, ironically, their own industries were damaged even more than ours. That is the current position.
We have heard much about promises and deals. Because the countries that imposed the ban acted illegally and because there is no machinery in place to deal with such a situation, we are at the mercy of the Europeans who have to say when and under what conditions they will lift the ban. It is not up to us. Those countries said that they would like us to do six things. We have done five and are about to do the sixth; we shall then be in a position to say that they must honour the spirit of the Florence agreement, which was no more than that—I do not think that hon. Members who have said that there was a condition attached and that there would definitely be reciprocal action have quite realised the true situation.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East could find little to criticise very strongly but mentioned sampling in slaughterhouses. I shall say a brief word about that because the issue was put to us when we first examined the problem—I think that the hon. Members for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who are both sitting on the Opposition Front Bench at the moment, were probably on the Select Committee on Agriculture at the time.
The proportion of cattle likely to be showing any clinical signs of BSE at any one time is less than 0.3 per cent. To have to dissect and inspect the brains of some 300 cattle to find one infected brain is simply not a good use of research resources, and Tyrrell said as much. I do not think that there is much point in our pursuing that line of thought.
We have successfully slaughtered 1.1 million cattle in under 12 months. Bearing in mind that the recommendation for that slaughter came within a few weeks—days, in fact—of the original announcement, the response has been pretty remarkable. I know that last summer there were criticisms and a feeling of desperation that the necessary facilities were not available, the cattle were backing up on the farms and so on, but the problems have been dealt with and we are proceeding correctly.
I do not believe for one second that the Government could have got a selective cull through the House last August. The absolutely firm view of the farming community was that the original over-30-months cull had to be completed first and that we could then consider the implications of a selective cull.
I deal briefly with the situation in Northern Ireland. I have very great sympathy for farmers in Northern Ireland for two reasons. First, there is evidence that grass-fed cattle that have not consumed animal protein are, as near as it is possible to say, 100 per cent. free from BSE. The same applies to a number of other beef producers in Scotland, Wales and the west country. There are also isolated examples all over the country of farmers who have never used animal protein in the feed. One dairy farmer in my constituency has always made up his own feedstuffs using fishmeal. He has never had a case of BSE on his farm but he happens to be a dairy farmer. I can see a legitimate case for treating such farniers differently.
The Ulster situation is better than most because Ulster has for many years had a cattle-tracing system. We recommended way back in 1990 that the whole country should have that system. It provides a second reason for Ulster to suggest that it should perhaps be put at the head of the queue for the ban being lifted.
As I understand it, the complaint at the moment is that the Government are not seeking to start negotiations and put Northern Ireland at the head of the queue. I do not know whether that is so, but it has certainly not been publicised if it is. I believe that, certainly once the selective cull is under way, there is a very good case for our telling Europe that it must be sensible; we have done everything that was necessary and our special cases should be put to the head of the queue. That is well justifiable. I think it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) who said that farmers are a touch jealous from time to time, but I do not believe that they would be when the case was as good as it is. Incidentally, my right hon. Friend mentioned most of the other hon. Members from Somerset but forgot that Weston-super-Mare is glad to back in Somerset, and has been for the past 12 months.
I am not sure that I would refer to the committee of the European Parliament in the same terms as did the hon. Member for West Lancashire. We were disappointed that the rapporteur, although in this country, could not find the time to be with us. We answered pretty comprehensively the questions put to us.
There is a clear misunderstanding of BSE on the continent—
I shall follow on from what the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture, said about the incidence of new variant CJD. He said that he thought that there were about 14 or 15 cases. There could be very many more because of the long incubation period of BSE and CJD. The damage has been done. We could eat untainted beef from now on, but there could still be an epidemic involving millions of people with new variant CJD. In fact, Steven Dealer, a medical microbiologist at Burnley general hospital, puts the figure at up to 35 million with new variant CJD. I am not being alarmist, but that is the extent of the catastrophe that has already befallen us.
Conservative Members talk about the cost. Yes, the BSE blunder has cost us £3.5 billion, but in terms of the health of the nation, the cost is incalculable. Beef is safe only if the controls are in place and working. That is the reality that so many hon. Members seem to have overlooked.
Conservatives have been portraying this debate as the Opposition parties—primarily the Labour party—ganging up quite unfairly on the beleaguered Conservatives. They claim that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has done his best in very difficult circumstances and that the whole debate has been contrived. That is nonsense.
I have here a copy of Farmers Weekly from October 1996. The editorial is called "Farmersweekly Opinion" and calls for "Hogg's Head". It states:
Farm minister Douglas Hogg never fails to disappoint. He is reliable in that regard if nothing else. But even by his own lacklustre standards, Mr. Hogg's speech to the Tory party conference in Bournemouth on Tuesday was a masterpiece of under-achievement.
What he did at Bournemouth he did again today. The same editorial states:
Carefully skimming over his own contribution to the BSE catastrophe, Mr Hogg apportioned blame equally between Opposition MPs and tabloid press journalists".
The following week, Farmers Weekly contained a form to cut out. A journalist wanted farmers across the country to snip it out and send it to the Prime Minister, which they probably did in their thousands. This is what the Farmers Weekly was advising farmers to sign:
Dear Prime Minister,
We believe that:
Farm Minister Douglas Hogg has forfeited the confidence of the farming industry. He should be replaced by someone with the stature to defend British interests abroad and to devise and implement successful policies at home to lead us out of the BSE crisis.
We have not manufactured the issue; the Agriculture Minister has been a complete, unmitigated disaster.
Year zero for BSE was not 1996, although Conservative Members seem to suggest that the ground trembled under our feet on 20 March 1996 and nothing had occurred before then. BSE was identified a decade before that date, and the specified bovine offal ban was introduced in November 1989. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) and other hon. Members have said, that ban was never adequately policed. That is why our colleagues in continental Europe became so aerated.
Another reason why our continental colleagues became aerated is that, after we banned contaminated feed in Britain, we were shipping it to continental Europe. We were telling them, "You shouldn't feed it to bovine animals, but you can feed it to your pigs or to your poultry." We did not label the sacks of feed, so the French farmers, for example, who received them did not know whether it could be fed to their cattle, pigs or poultry. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—who is not in the Chamber—seemed to suggest that the European Commission failed in its duty by not stopping us sending that poisonous feed to continental Europe.
The matter goes beyond contaminated feed, although such feed was on our farms until 1 August 1996—only a few months ago—when it became illegal for British farmers to have it on their holdings. There were also manifest failures in slaughterhouses. As late as September 1995, 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses were not complying with specified offal controls. In March 1996—the month when the matter broke open, and storms raged—4 per cent. of our slaughterhouses were still not adhering to the specified bovine offal ban that would render our beef safe to eat. It is laughable that Conservative Members should blow hot and cold about Labour Members trying to whip up feelings and fright among the public.
On 16 December 1996, I received a letter from the Agriculture Minister on the selective cull, about which we have heard so much in this debate. In it, he told all hon. Members that
The rules … are being enforced with great rigour.
The reality is that the rules were not enforced with great rigour before then. He went on to say:
More than 450 additional inspectors have been taken on
to police slaughterhouses.
In his letter, the Agriculture Minister did not say—no Conservative Member has ever had the guts to say it—that the number of authorised meat hygiene inspectors fell by 34 per cent. in the five years before the Meat Hygiene Service was established, in 1995. The number was cut from 1,026 to 677. If we add the 400 new inspectors who the Government trumpeted last December, the number of meat inspectors now is the same as it was in 1990. Between 1990 and 1995, there was also a 17 per cent. decrease in the number of environmental health officers—who also had some responsibility before the Meat Hygiene Service was established. Those figures are from the Library. The number of student environmental health officers decreased by 18 per cent.
A few weeks ago, the Minister told the House that he had established a "food supremo", who will ensure that the food that we eat is safe, but the Conservative party has been presiding over a disastrous decline in the number of people whose job is to ensure that the food that we eat is safe. What has happened in that period? Deaths from food poisoning have doubled; there were 90 deaths in 1990, and 202 in 1995. In that period, we have had to deal with listeria, salmonella, E. coli and—crowning it all—the disaster of BSE.
I think that it is quite right that we should bring the matter to public attention. The facts speak for themselves. The Conservative party has forfeited the respect of the House and the respect of the nation.
If ever I heard a speech in which a Labour Member has cried for the return of the nanny state, the speech of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) was it. It is a cry for ever more regulation and ever more cost. I only hope that he cleared that speech with the shadow Chancellor.
There is absolutely no doubt that the Labour party has demonstrated in this debate that it cares nothing for farmers and seeks only to crank up fear in consumers' minds. As for quoting Farmers Weekly editorials, I remember very well when the House was attempting to introduce milk quotas—which are now one of dairy farmers' most valuable assets—and farmers and Farmers Weekly objected. Quoting back issues of Farmers Weekly does not cut much ice on the Conservative Benches.
Echoing in a sense what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said about the heavy representation of Somerset in the House, I do not want hon. Members to think that I am speaking only for myself. As neither my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton—Brown) nor my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) is eligible to speak in the debate because of their duties, I am also voicing their opinions, and therefore represent 75 per cent. of Gloucestershire Members of Parliament.
Dream on. I am happy for the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) to dream on and to think of better things, but he will be very disappointed.
BSE is undoubtedly the biggest crisis that has ever hit the UK food industry. More people and sectors in the industry have been involved in this crisis than in any previous one, and hindsight is a very cheap commodity. We are sick to death of carping by the Labour and Liberal parties about what should have been done, and of hearing about how much better they might have handled the situation—with the benefit of hindsight. Hindsight always was and always will be a cheap commodity.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Agriculture Minister—who has been masterminding the difficulties—has always, and quite rightly, taken the best available scientific advice. He appointed the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, under Professor Pattison, and has taken its advice. As other hon. Members have said, imagine the uproar in the House if a Minister had attempted to act on his own gut feeling rather than on the best available scientific advice.
There is no doubt that the demand for slaughtering under the 30-months scheme far exceeded any possible forecast. There is also no doubt that, to some extent, farmers regarded the scheme as an opportunity to upgrade their herds, and they took advantage of it. I do not cast one iota of blame on them for that. However, once it was realised that a backlog was building up and that farmers were facing difficulties keeping their cattle, what did my right hon. and learned Friend the Agriculture Minister do? He did not turn his back on farmers, but offered them payment in advance for cattle that were to be slaughtered.
I accept that there was some difficulty getting cattle to slaughterhouses on time because such a colossal number of animals were being killed. As other hon. Members have said, 1.25 million cattle have been killed under the scheme. Of course there were difficulties getting all those cattle to slaughterhouses on time.
I maintain close contacts with Gloucester market, as have my hon. Friends from Gloucestershire, and we were disturbed to hear about the difficulties faced by many farmers there. To be fair to Mike Credland, the manager of the market, he did the very best that he could and speeded the animals to the slaughter as quickly as he could without showing fear or favour to anyone.
Another difficulty that was slowing down the slaughter was the lack of rendering capacity. My right hon. and learned Friend did not sit back and do nothing about that either. He sought to take advantage of and arrange a lot of extra cold storage throughout the country so that we could speed up the slaughter of cattle, and due credit should be given to him for taking that initiative. Such measures take time, are not easy to arrange and cost money, but my right hon. and learned Friend got on with the job and concluded the over-30-months scheme considerably in advance of what had been expected.
Soon, we will have fulfilled six of the six conditions laid down by the Florence summit in order that the European ban on the export of British beef may be lifted. I hope that, once the cattle have been identified and the selective slaughter has gone ahead, we shall manage to persuade our European partners to look seriously at the possibility of lifting the ban. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, it is perfectly fair and reasonable that we should start in Ulster because of the special circumstances relating to Northern Ireland. I shall not go over them all again, but it would be a gesture of good will on behalf of our European partners if they embraced that suggestion and allowed the export of beef from Northern Ireland.
The Labour party is using this debate to kick British farmers in the teeth. Like other hon. Members, I have been talking to farmers over the weekend. I had a number of telephone calls from Gloucestershire farmers who, as a result of this debate, want to stick pins into the Opposition agriculture spokesman for causing waves and making difficulties for them just when things were beginning to settle down again. The Labour party is exploiting BSE for its own ends by creating unfavourable publicity about the disease.
You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may be interested to know that a little while ago, McDonald's, the hamburger people, came to see members of the Back Bench committee. We have had two or three meetings with them during this period and, as usual, we were trying to press them to reintroduce British beef to their restaurants. They said that they were looking favourably at the matter but that their only concern was unfavourable media coverage of BSE and British beef.
Opposition spokesmen are guilty of generating further unfavourable publicity for British beef. We should hang that round their necks and bury them in the vote at 10 o'clock.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate, however briefly.
As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said, the effect of the BSE crisis in Northern Ireland has been much more dramatic than in Great Britain. Not only have the farming community, the downstream industries, their employees and the other manufacturing processes been dramatically affected; the whole economy has been subjected to the possibility of disaster because beef is a base industry.
We had hoped that the Florence agreement last June would be quickly implemented. The practical farmers of Northern Ireland had no idea that it could be renegotiated. At the beginning, we knew that it was the base on which the door could be opened, so we were extremely disappointed when, on 19 September, the Government decided not to proceed with the selective cull. That bad decision has held us back for 11 months—from March to February.
Some parts of the beef industry in Northern Ireland depend on intervention. I do not want to rehearse the beneficial attributes of the Northern Ireland beef industry because they have already been rehearsed well this evening and on previous occasions. Northern Ireland farmers do not seek privilege in this matter; they simply seek an acknowledgement of the circumstances—traceability, and so on—and that, once the new submission is agreed, further selective culls will take only three weeks to complete. Shortly after the Government submit their terms to Brussels, therefore, Northern Ireland would be ready to take advantage of whatever is agreed.
In the Northern Ireland Committee, which discussed BSE last week, the Under-Secretary of State, Baroness Denton of Wakefield, and her heads of Department were somewhat ambivalent, although not maliciously so, when they heard that we had not had a clear message on two fronts. First, when the Government submit their detailed response, there will be a further period in which to negotiate that response. That has worried farmers in Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole. We were under the impression that the submission would open the door immediately, so what is this talk about further negotiation of the terms?
Secondly, the point about Northern Ireland's unique position is not that Northern Ireland should be accorded privilege but that it should, as has already been said, be used as the key by which to unlock the ban imposed on us in Europe and more widely. We know from our contacts in Europe—I am sure that this view will be supported by the other Northern Ireland Members here this evening—that Commissioner Fischler and the chairman of the EU agriculture committee are receptive to the suggestion that that is the means by which the ban can be unlocked.
There is, however, one major proviso, which is why the hon. Member for East Londonderry, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and I asked the Minister when he was at the Dispatch Box earlier to be absolutely explicit. I must say again that I did not get a definite answer on whether the Commission will require the Government specifically to ask for the Northern Ireland option to be implemented. Unless the Government ask, it will not be in the reckoning. That is the answer that the three of us were trying to elicit from the Minister in his "defence", if I may call it that, this evening, but no clear answer came through to me.
I hope that the Minister who responds to the debate will deal with that point specifically. We require almost a "yes or no" answer, but that might be too much to expect in a parliamentary debate. It would, however, be beneficial. It is the key to where the Northern Ireland farming industry is going; it is also the key by which the entire UK beef industry can have access to European and world markets once again.
In the meantime—I do not yet know what time frame we are in—I wish to draw the House's attention to one or two other matters. The agriculture community was heartened and gladdened by the announcement in October at the Agriculture Council meeting of £52 million to aid the industry. Some £9.25 million of that relates to Northern Ireland. Strangely, that announcement had a mixed reception in Northern Ireland, not because of the amount but because of the proposed distribution. It was felt that more attention should have been paid to beasts that went through the slaughter programme after 5 August last year. Owners of those beasts suffered from the cut in prices, delivered in spite of promises made as early as April that the price then pertaining would continue throughout the slaughter programme.
The flagged herd seems not to have had the attention that it should have had in the distribution of that £9.25 million. It is a small section of the industry, representing only 3 or 4 per cent., but it is in a dead end and needs additional sustenance to keep it alive over the winter.
My second point on continuing support relates to the intervention contract mentioned by the hon. Member for East Londonderry. I have two points to make about that. Northern Irish beef producers are inordinately dependent on the intervention price. The industry was always geared to producing a heavy beast. The intervention weight limits have been restricted from 390 kg to 370 kg. I understand that there are proposals to reduce it to as low as 360 kg next month, and eventually down to 340 kg. The situation is disastrous for the type of animal that has been produced on Northern Ireland's farms. That cannot be turned round in one season or five. I should like the Minister to take on board that point about alleviation.
The second point on intervention relates to price reporting. Price reporting is across the board of all prices. Logically, intervention price reporting should reflect only the intervention prices, not the lower downmarket prices of other animals not in intervention.
To summarise, we need the lifting of the ban as a first point of entry—someone said the first ship in the convoy. We also need an adjustment of the compensation distribution and an early increase in the permissible intervention weight.
I open with a brief remark to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). On these occasions, he is very much the lone ranger. He holds up the Liberal cause to the best of his ability. I ask him to go out, be the lone ranger and deal with the leaders of councils, in the west country in particular, who imposed a ban on beef long before there was a European ban. He needs to crack a whip or use a pistol on them. Will he start with the leader of Dorset county council? That would be extremely helpful.
One remark by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) tonight found an echo with many hon. Members. He said what a pity it was that we did not have co-operation, and that, rather than opposing, the Opposition had not come forward at a time of crisis with an offer of working together to find a solution. That has been done before. During the foot and mouth outbreak in the 1960s, the Conservative Opposition went to the then Minister of Agriculture and said, "How can we help? Let's go together on this."
If the Opposition had come to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister at the start of this dreadful crisis and said that they wanted to work with him, he would have welcomed them on board, and they would have been part of the crisis committee that has done so much over the past 11 or 12 months to get the crisis under control. It is now under control. The way in which the Labour party has brought the issue forward tonight is obscene.
I have been proud to represent West Dorset for the past 23 years. This past year has been the proudest, because I have seen the fortitude of my farmers at a time of great crisis for them and their industry. Dorset was, and still is, the county hardest hit by BSE, and West Dorset has been in the eye of the storm throughout. We have all known about BSE for many years, but the reality is that farmers have had to live with the problem, waking up to confront it every morning. When it finally burst open in March, what happened? It was leaked by the Daily Mirror and played up by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). The precipitate problem need not have been built up into a crisis.
The European member states reacted in the same way as the Labour party, going for short-term political gain. They have inflicted a wound on themselves, just as the Labour party will tonight.
Last Thursday, we saw the start of the new Labour weekend spin. The Leader of the Opposition got up and focused on BSE, saying that spending £3 billion on BSE was a disgraceful waste of money. I have one or two questions for him and others in his team. They are important questions to which farmers in my constituency would like answers. Would he have initiated the 30-month cull and slaughtered more than 1 million animals? That task was carried out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister and all those in his team. They carried out that crisis operation to the best of their ability, with the support of the farming community and everyone else.
Would Labour have given such positive support to our farming community? Would they have completed that 30-month cull successfully in the first week of December, and then, at the behest of the NFU—I have said this several times to the hon. Member for North Cornwall—embarked on the accelerated cull, as the Government have done? That would not have been authorised if the farming community had not been fully behind it.
Does the Labour team understand that my farmers in West Dorset welcome the Government's measured approach and the way in which they are dealing with the selective cull? There will be full discussion between farmers and officials before the cull. Even after that, farmers will have some say in when their cattle will be disposed of, so that it can fit in with their proper business plan.
Those on the Labour Front Bench do not understand any of that. They do not understand the countryside—Labour is not a countryside party.
I have only 10 minutes, and I have already used six.
In total contrast is the approach of our team. I remember with great pride 8 October last year in Bournemouth, when nine members of the NFU, led by Sir David Naish, with the support of Ben Gill, my county chairman John Hoskin and representatives from Wales—sadly, there were no representatives from Scotland and Ulster—came to see the Prime Minister. We had a full and frank exchange of views. We know that of course mistakes are made in a crisis of this sort. I am the first to admit that, and so is my right hon. and learned Friend. We are not all paragons, like Opposition Members.
I remember the summing-up by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the end of that two-hour meeting. He said:
I will do all in my power to see that this iniquitous ban is lifted, but whatever happens in that respect, my main aim and that of my Government will be to ensure that when BSE is finally eradicated, British agriculture will be in good heart and in a position to take on all comers.
That pledge carries us through the life of the next Conservative Government.
Sadly, I shall not be here to see that Government in action, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister, with all his team, will live up to that pledge. In the past year, they have carried a burden that few in the House or outside can understand. I thank them for all they have done, and I thank those in our party who have given them such splendid and sterling support during a crisis year for agriculture.
This debate has been called not long after the annual conference of the National Farmers Union, where the bungling record of the Minister of Agriculture yet again received its annual drubbing. To farmers in my constituency and elsewhere, after nearly two years as Agriculture Minister, Mr. Hogg has been an unquestioned failure. As we have heard, Government bungling has cost the taxpayer £3.5 billion, which is equivalent to 2p on income tax. To be completely fair to the Minister, he inherited the catalogue of errors that have been made since 1986. If there was ever anything worthy of a motion of censure, this issue is it.
It pains me that, after years of waiting for the Government to sort out the beef mess, we are still waiting. It seems that all along, as I have said before, Mr. Hogg's only method for solving the beef mess has been to recruit Old Father Time and take the best scientific advice—where the definition of "best" is what is best for the Government at the time. I am angry that Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English farmers still have no idea when things will change. No wonder Mr. Hogg was voted the 1996 loser of the year in The Guardian, beating off strong competition from his colleagues. Incompetence has been raised to the level of an art by his Government.
Farmers and consumers alike have been given little indication of Government policy and when to expect things to change for the better. It is a sad joke that is getting sadder. The recent edition of New Ground, the journal of the Socialist, Environment and Resources Association made the observation:
The Tory leadership seems to think that if it closes its eyes and hides in bed, the world and its problems will disappear.
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, the world is standing around looking at a pathetic lump crouching under the blankets of political incompetence.
That recent critical assessment is sadly even more true of the Minister's miserable performance, which has been abysmal.
Admittedly, the matter has not been helped by the Prime Minister's ludicrous antics to pacify his Euro-sceptics, but I fear that even my pet cat could have done a better and more competent job—and still could, unless he came down with feline spongiform encephalopathy and was no longer able to travel. That point may be sarcastic, but I made it because in my anger I am reminded that people have died as a result of the Government's bungling.
Why did the Government not introduce random testing? Why did they not introduce tagging sooner? Why did not Mr. Hogg listen when the Opposition and farmers called for immediate action to certify herds? The Opposition have constantly suggested the certification of herds since the late 1980s, yet the Ministry of Agriculture is only just looking at it now. If it had acted when we asked, there would have been no need for the extra cull of the selective slaughter scheme.
Apart from the Tory-inflicted environmental and economic disaster, I see from the selective slaughter programme that the Government cannot even organise the clear-up operation of their own mess. My farmers tell me that there are still inconsistencies and problems with the scheme all over the place, including compensation, the definition of a herd, and the additional chaos of the inconsistency of figures on exactly how many cattle are to be slaughtered. It seems that the yo-yo-ing of the figure is dependent on how Mr. Hogg is feeling that morning, which is pathetic and deeply damaging to farmers' businesses.
Order. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman keeps quoting the name of the Minister. If he is, that is all right, but if he is referring to him, I am sure that he knows that he should not use the Minister's name.
I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise.
Refusal to admit mistake after mistake has caused the Government to make even more errors—wasting billions of pounds and leaving farmers in ruin.
Conservative Members have accused the Opposition of using hindsight. Seven years ago, I demanded in the House that certain measures be taken. I demanded that the Government make Creutzfeld-Jakob disease notifiable; ensure that abattoir practice be examined; ensure that cattle brains be used for no purposes, and be burned and destroyed; stop offal such as brain, spleen and lymph glands being used in any animal foods; stop offal feeding to all animals immediately; create a genuinely independent food standards agency; instigate random testing at abattoirs; prevent the possibility of vertical transmission in cattle by culling calves and infected cattle with full compensation; and increase research on transmission.
That is on the record, in Hansard, in 1990. There is no use of hindsight. Years have passed, and despite denial and resistance, one by one many of those demands have, to the Government's embarrassment, been introduced—some too late, others half-heartedly. Amazingly, some are yet to be acted on.
The Opposition, of all political shades, have been proven consistently and entirely correct on BSE. Now, beef is safe, as we have acknowledged several times on the Opposition Benches. We are not trying to create another scare. Many people were, however, exposed to the agent in the 1980s, before the Government made beef safe. They could have made it safe earlier.
In my recent speech on BSE in November, I regaled the House with a joke that farmers tell in north Wales. The only safe meat is hog—but it is spelt H-O-G-G—as it is spineless, brainless, and gutless, and therefore contains no specified offal. There was a time when I thought that that was perhaps a little unkind, but that time has passed. In a previous debate on BSE, the Minister inspired me to coin the phrase, "to MAFF it up". For this debate, I had considered coining the phrase, "to make a Hogg of it", but in view of your reminding me of the conventions of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not do so. "To make a pig's ear" is an acceptable alternative.
In referring to north Wales farmers and their cutting humour, I used the word "spineless". I fear that that may now be said of hon. Members on the Government Benches, especially those who represent farmers but are not likely to vote for the motion. They must know that their farmers have no confidence in the ability of the Minister. Tory Members know too well that their farmers are correct in that assumption, yet they do not have the guts to stand up for what is right, vote down the Minister's performance or speak for their constituents. Their constituents will undoubtedly speak for themselves at the election.
I realise that hon. Members from Northern Ireland, who have in the past backed the Tory line, will not want to feel pushed into voting with the Opposition, but I fail to understand how they can be continuously pushed—or possibly bribed—by the Conservatives into voting with the Government or abstaining, against the wishes of their farmers. Additionally, I doubt very much that any Tory deals that they might squeeze out of them have the backing of reality.
If anyone is under the illusion that Conservative Ministers have any credibility in Europe, they are sadly deluded, and only fooling themselves. Any such Tory deal would be a worthless hand. Europe is waiting for change, and promises by the Conservatives on Europe are meaningless. We are indeed seeing a tired fag end of a Government. They have only weeks to go, with "go" the operative word. British people, like European Ministers, await that day. There is already evidence of tiredness on the Government Front Bench.
As I said at the outset, the Minister's handling of the crisis has cost £3.5 billion. If anything is worthy of a motion of censure, that is it. I ask that Members who represent Northern Ireland recognise the Minister's early replies on putting the case for a separate deal for Northern Ireland for what they were. I believe that they were just dissembling. Northern Ireland Members should do the best for their farmers and vote for the motion. Hon. Members know how their farmers would vote if they had the chance to do so. They should represent their farmers and support the motion.
In the previous debate on this issue, the question of what Europe has promised came up. It was asked whether, if we did all the six things demanded, the ban would be lifted. We have no such promise from Europe—let no one be deceived about that.
I put the case—I am glad to hear from both sides of the House that hon. Members now agree—that Northern Ireland should be treated as a special entity. I suggested that we tested Europe and allowed the accelerated cull to be carried out in Northern Ireland. Then we could say, "Look, here is part of the United Kingdom that has done everything you have asked. Will you raise the ban?" If Europe did not raise the ban then, the House would have known and proved that the United Kingdom could do everything that Europe was asking on the six points, but the ban would not be lifted.
The hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer) gave us some spice tonight. He used to sit with me in Strasbourg, and he knows how the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission work. To hear some pro-Europeans speak tonight, one would think that the European Union was at peace, but the European Parliament will be torn asunder this week. A motion will be tabled to sack the entire Commission for its actions on BSE, and another will be tabled to censure the British Government and the Council of Europe. It is not paradise, or even purgatory, in Europe at the moment: hell itself will be let loose in the European Parliament this week. I am even looking forward to going to Europe, and I do not often do that. Our debate tonight is orderly in comparison with the Babel of languages that we will hear in Europe this week.
I have been told by right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House that Northern Ireland should be treated differently, but only the Minister of Agriculture can start the ball rolling. With the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and Mr. Jim Nicholson, a former Member of the House and now a Member of the European Parliament, I went to see Commissioner Fischler. We asked him what Northern Ireland had to do to get the ban lifted. He told us that Northern Ireland was already far ahead of many parts of Europe, but the Minister of Agriculture had to make an application for Northern Ireland to be treated as a special case. Commissioner Fischler told us what happened in Germany when it had an outbreak of swine fever. Regions of Germany were removed from the scheme because they were free of the disease, and he added that there was no reason why that could not be done for Northern Ireland.
We also went to see the President of the Council of Ministers, when Ireland held the presidency. He said that he would be prepared to back an application for Northern Ireland to be treated as a special case. I also received a letter from a friend of the German Minister of Agriculture, which I took with me when I went to see the Prime Minister with the hon. Member for Foyle. The letter said that the German Minister of Agriculture would look favourably on any application to treat Northern Ireland differently.
Earlier today in the House, I asked the Minister of Agriculture the question put to me by the Ulster Farmers Union. I asked him whether, when all the requirements of the Florence agreement had been met, he would formally request that the export ban be lifted for Northern Ireland. I did not get an answer to that question. The Minister said that he would make a general application, which I welcome, but he did not answer my question. We in Northern Ireland do not want to thumb our nose at any other part of the United Kingdom. We want to be the key: we want to lead the way in the lifting of the ban.
The Commissioner is on our side, as is the former President of the Council of Ministers, and the German Agriculture Minister would favour an application. Why will the Government not agree to make the application? They should say tonight that they will. This is not the first time I have asked the question, and it will not be the last, but I fear that it will not be answered tonight.
Our beef industry faces extinction. The situation in Northern Ireland is worse than anywhere else, because we need an export market: without it we perish. Those are not my words, but those of the Ulster Farmers' Union. As everyone knows, I do not share its politics, but it wrote to me to say:
The lack of progress made by the Government on the implementation of this agreement has been inexcusable. In the meantime, the Northern Irish beef industry remains very heavily dependent on the EU's Beef Intervention Scheme as a market for our beef and, to add insult to injury"—
the UFU is usually very polite—
despite our lack of alternative markets, the access to this scheme is continually being restricted. While we remain so dependent on European political decisions, our beef industry faces extinction.
I ask the Government to think again; I hope that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will say tonight that the Government have decided to make an application to treat Northern Ireland as a special case.
I support the motion. My only disagreement is that it should include the name of the Secretary of State for Scotland. I tabled an amendment to that effect, but it was not selected. The Secretary of State for Scotland is as culpable as, if not more culpable than, the Minister of Agriculture.
I shall make some particular points about Scotland and BSE. The Government's position on BSE is totally untenable. First, the Government denied that there was a problem with BSE, despite the hundreds of thousands of cases. I remember when the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), was a junior Minister of State for Agriculture. Whenever hon. Members mentioned BSE, he greeted them with the same logic behind his response to beggars on the streets of London. He roared at them and claimed that they were undermining the industry.
Next, the Government panicked. Almost a year ago, when the consequences of BSE for human health became known, the Minister of Agriculture panicked. I remember the "On the Record" interview when the Minister speculated about the total slaughter of the entire British beef herd. Then the Government blustered and tried to blame someone else. When the beef ban was imposed, the Secretary of State for Scotland hauled down the European flag, the beef war was declared, and the Prime Minister talked of beef in our times.
After the Florence agreement, the Government prevaricated. The Prime Minister gave us a timetable, but he would not embark on the action that was needed to meet it. The November deadline came and went, and we still had no progress. Now we have total immobility from the Government on the problem of BSE.
I visited Brussels a few weeks ago and spoke to Commission officials. Their message was clear: we are not about to have a breakthrough on BSE. If anything, we are further back than we were six months ago. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) was right to say that there was a time last summer when key European figures had lined up behind a zonal approach to the problem, starting with Northern Ireland and Scotland. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the politics in Europe have now changed and the Commission is under attack for being too lenient on the British beef industry.
Instead of seizing that window of opportunity and taking the offers on the table last year, the attitude of the Minister—and, worse still, the Secretary of State for Scotland—was to have nothing to do with the only positive proposals that were coming forward. That window of opportunity occurred when Commissioner Fischler said in The Herald on 22 May last year that he favoured a zonal approach to the problem. The failure of the Government to make progress when progress could have been made is one of the indictments hanging over them this evening.
The Scottish beef industry has enormous strengths. We have a quality assurance scheme, a low rate of BSE and a reputation for quality meat that is known across Europe. Many producers in my constituency and my area of
Scotland tell me that much of their market could be restored if the ban were lifted, such is the quality and reputation of Scottish beef. But we do not have the same system of traceability as exists in the north of Ireland. What I want to charge the Secretary of State for Scotland with this evening is that Aberdeen and Northern Marts has had on the shelf for two years a working model of how to introduce traceability into the Scottish market. Brian Pack, the chief executive of Aberdeen and Northern Marts—the largest meat company in Scotland—said in The Herald on 9 November last year:
Our total frustration is that we should have had a scheme in place now. If we had started eight months ago, it would have been.
In other words, the traceability scheme that is on the shelf in that company—which has had feasibility studies carried out—could have been introduced within six months. Although that scheme was offered to the Scottish Office, the Scottish Office expressed little or no interest, preferring to bungle through with the position adopted by the Government. Even now, there is little confidence in the industry in the system of traceability that the Government want to introduce in mainland Britain. It has been called "a paper chase" by those in the know in the National Farmers Union for Scotland.
The second failure of the Secretary of State for Scotland was in not realising that traceability was going to be important and not taking the opportunity to put that last cog into the wheel of a Scottish application. His third area of culpability is in the selective cull. Because of the low ratio of BSE cases in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, the selective cull was not a difficult administrative matter. Relatively few beasts had to be slaughtered under the selective cull, and yet because of the political resistance that emerged last year, the Government delayed, prevaricated and refused to go forward with the cull—despite the fact that there was unanimous support across political interests in Scotland and Northern Ireland for hastening the achievement of that prerequisite for lifting the ban.
I do not speak tonight with wisdom after the event. Along with many hon. Members from Northern Ireland, and a number of Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, I signed an early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) on 23 April 1996. The early-day motion put forward the argument that I am enunciating this evening, and which has been reflected in the speeches of many hon. Members. However, the Minister and the Scottish Secretary said that our proposals would have been a disastrous argument to put forward. The Scottish Secretary accused us of
stabbing the industry in the back.
Almost a year later, it is clear who was stabbing the Scottish beef industry in the back. It is the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who stand indicted of the most serious charges.
I regret the way in which the motion has been tabled, as it could have united all the Opposition parties because of the combination of interests on the subject. It would have been sensible on those grounds for the Labour Front Bench to consult on the issue before they tabled the motion, and it was foolish and inept not to do so. None the less, we have to judge the issue on its merits and, on its merits, the Minister deserves to have his salary cut by £1,000. Beef producers in my constituency would think that £1,000 is nowhere near enough. He would be lucky to be left with £1,000 if there was a vote among the farmers and producers in my constituency.
The crisis affects more than the primary producers, and we need more than the Minister saying that compensation has been paid. In both Northern Ireland and Scotland, no amount of compensation will compensate for the loss of the best-price market—the export market—which pays prices that no one else will pay for Scottish and Northern Irish beef. The industry cannot be supported indefinitely by compensation, and stories from the industry make us well aware of that.
In addition, the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland held a meeting last weekend at Thainstone house hotel in Inverurie at which reference was made to cases of haulier companies which are under severe financial pressure. This matter affects businesses in all parts of the food industry. Unless something is done, I have no reason to believe that the original forecast of 6,000 job losses in Scotland, made by TSB economists, will be wide of the mark. The people responsible for that crisis and disaster sit on the Treasury Bench.
The timing of this debate is wrong. The BSE crisis has been the most serious for the British farming industry that working farmers can remember. To trivialise it in this way and at this time will achieve no purpose—except perhaps to show that although the Liberal Democrats disagree with the official Opposition on the timing of this debate, they will go where their leader tells them to go. Their leader, it appears, is the Leader of the Opposition.
Labour has promised spending constraints, but what would its attitude be if it was in government and was asked to spend £3.3 billion to deal with this crisis? Would Labour stump up the money? I do not believe so, and nor do British farmers. Would Labour listen to hon. Members from agricultural constituencies—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister has done—asking for help for farmers in their constituencies? Labour would not listen to those voices because I do not believe that, at heart, it represents countryside and agricultural interests.
Would Labour work every hour—as my right hon. and learned Friend, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and other MAFF colleagues have done—to resolve this crisis? Would Labour Members trail the length and breadth of this land—often at the request of individual Members—to see for themselves the problems and difficulties faced by farmers, often in the most confrontational circumstances? I do not believe so. When we come down to it, the Labour party is not the party of the countryside. When farmers start to think about the general election, they will realise that that is the case.
It is interesting that this is the first BSE debate that we have had since the crisis began for which a delegation of farmers has not come from Somerset to get their points across to Members of Parliament. I expect the same is true of farmers from across the country. The debate is ill-judged, ill-timed and not about BSE. It is about raw politics, and is an attempt to embarrass the Government. The farmers of this country will see through that stunt.
Relationships between farmers and rural Members of Parliament are extremely strong. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) said that he had not been besieged by a great mailbag during the crisis; it was not necessary to have a great mailbag, because our farmers were in touch with us—we have regular liaison—the moment that the crisis broke. Despite many angry words, that relationship has strengthened.
That is not only my view: when Somerset had its annual National Farmers Union dinner at the time of the NFU conference, I was struck by what representatives said about the way in which we had been able to work together in a difficult and confrontational crisis. We will continue to work together.
An attack was launched against the Government today for not getting the accelerated scheme going earlier. When we had the great backlog in the lead-up to Christmas, farmers did not want the accelerated scheme; they wanted the backlog dealt with by Christmas. In their hearts they did not believe that we would deliver; but we did, and that was extremely important to them. That is recognised as the dialogue continues about the way forward.
The way forward is the priority of getting the British beef ban lifted. That is why, often against their better judgment. members of the NFU have come round to the need to go ahead with the accelerated cull. Certainly, my constituent who is the NFU chairman in Somerset was until recently totally opposed to the accelerated cull, but he recognises the need for it, because he knows that above all else we need to get Europe to lift the ban.
I listened with great sympathy to what Ulster Members said on the subject. We should try to find the key—if there is one—to unlock the ban. I hope that the Minister will listen to what Ulster Members have said. We all have common cause on the issue. Farmers in my constituency—a beef-producing constituency—want to get their export markets back, and if it means somebody else getting theirs back first, they do not care, provided that it sets a path that they will be able to follow. I would say the same about Scotland. If the key to unlocking the ban is to move selectively, we must consider that option.
I want to say a word about the resilience of the British consumer. I have been struck by the way in which the beef market has collapsed in countries such as France and Germany and by the way in which it has held up here, despite all the tabloid stories and scares. As I go around my constituency, I see signs saying, "Eat British Beef", in fields and in cars; and when I talk to butchers, they say, "Yes, I've even had people coming into my shop and saying, 'We might not have bought beef this week, but we're going to now.'"
I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer) said: schools operating a ban on beef through their county councils should bring it to an end at once. British beef is the safest in the world. There is no doubt about that. It is perfectly safe, and let us make sure that it is eaten at every opportunity.
I want to say a word about the Minister who is the subject of the motion. We may have had our arguments and difficulties, but nobody can doubt his dedication to trying to get the crisis resolved. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, for the way in which he visited Somerset and Devon at the height of the crisis and listened to what our farmers had to say.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), has been praised in many farming quarters in the south-west and has developed a reputation throughout the crisis as the listening Minister. Farmers have wanted reassurance throughout; they have wanted to be heard, and to know that the Government were getting on and trying to resolve the crisis.
At the start of the crisis, no one realised that more than 1 million animals would have to be killed, but that turned out to be the scale of the problem; it was unprecedented, and of course there were serious hiccups and great frustration along the route. In the face of all the criticism and difficulties, our Ministers put their heads down and got on with the job. That is why we were able to meet the important deadline of finishing the cull before Christmas. I hope that the House will thoroughly reject the motion.
Not unnaturally, this has been a highly charged and highly partisan debate. The hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer) acknowledged that there had been some disagreements about BSE on the Government side, although he did not go into great detail, but the vast majority of the debate has been not about the BSE crisis but about the way in which the Government have handled it.
It is quite right for us to hold the Government to account, although I share some other Opposition Members' concerns about the way in which the Labour party tabled the motion without consulting us. Had we been able to offer some advice to Labour on the matter, the result of the vote tonight might have been different.
It is important to place it on record that Conservative Members have, by and large, failed to recognise the fiasco that took place in many parts of rural Wales during the operation of the over-30-months scheme. I remember the time, although the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) clearly does not, when thousands of farmers descended on Westminster because the Government had failed to get the scheme properly organised. Farmers asked them week after week to prepare a scheme to enable animals to be dealt with in an orderly fashion.
The problem was that dealers were going around the country offering deals to farmers to get their animals in through the back door, and for months the Government did nothing to stop it. The problem was compounded because at the time when Welsh beef was hitting the markets in great quantities, the Government cut the compensation price. The farmers most affected were not those who had got their animals in through the back door, but the honest farmers, who had waited in the queue, seen the market price fall and had the compensation cut imposed on them by the Government with no consultation whatever.
Those facts needed to be placed on the record tonight, because Welsh farmers were decidedly unhappy with the way in which both the Welsh Office and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food handled the whole affair.
There has been general support for the idea that we should move towards an accelerated cull, but several questions remain about the way in which the Government should handle the compensation. We know that this is a contrived debate; it is about BSE, but it must go wider than that, because the Government stand charged with failing to deliver on the issue. That is why we will be in the Lobby with the Labour party tonight. It is not because we do not have concerns about the way in which the debate has been handled or because we agree with everything that has been said by Opposition Members but because we believe that there should be a general election. This is a tired Government who have run out of ideas on BSE as on so many other issues.
On one of his rare visits to Wales last week, the Prime Minister told us that we were not entitled to look after our own affairs in any shape or form and that the Conservatives had looked after us in Wales. I know that my farmers will not buy that at the ballot box on 1 May or on any other date.
I want to challenge the Government on several issues relevant to the debate. First, there must be movement towards lifting the export ban. We know that the Government have moved towards the accelerated cull scheme; we must ensure that there is a firm timetable for lifting the ban.
I shall cut across some of the consensus that has built up in the House on the certified herd scheme. There is some unease—I put it no higher than that—in Wales about its operation. My farmers fear that it might lead to a two-tier industry. I have heard some powerful arguments about the situation in Northern Ireland and I hope that they are correct. If that is the way forward, the Government will have to consider it carefully. However, I must express the reservations felt by many beef farmers in Wales about whether the scheme would of itself lead to the lifting of the ban for all parts of the United Kingdom. I am sure that the Welsh Office Minister, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans), who is present, knows the reservations of both farming unions in Wales on the matter.
I ask the Government to recognise that far from their actions being responsible for maintaining the beef industry, it is the resilience of farmers and the good sense of many consumers who were not swayed by the tabloid press that has kept the industry going. It is remarkable that the industry has survived the crisis as well as it has. That says something for the way in which our farmers have operated.
It is important that the Welsh Office ensures that Welsh beef is properly marketed. One of the remarkable successes of recent years has been Welsh lamb, which is widely regarded as being of the highest quality not only in Wales and the other countries of the United Kingdom but across Europe. It is a branded product that has had remarkable success. Given that we need to restore confidence in the beef industry, I ask the Government to recognise the need to put further money into the marketing of Welsh beef as a branded product. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales knows of the paper presented by Professor Gareth Wyn Jones at a conference held by the Institute of Welsh Affairs Aberystwyth last year in which he set out conditions in which such a scheme could operate. A properly funded marketing and sales scheme, underpinned by Welsh Office support, would do much to support the beef industry in Wales.
In case my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster cannot deal with that point in his reply, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows of my announcement at the National Farmers Union annual general meeting about additional support for Welsh food promotion and specifically for a Welsh beef marketing campaign. The matter is at the forefront of the mind of the Welsh Office.
I am grateful for that intervention, but we want a much expanded and more comprehensive scheme similar to that which was so successful for Welsh lamb. However, I still indict the Government for their failure throughout the crisis fully to appreciate the context in which the dangers that face our farmers occurred. That is why we will vote with Labour tonight.
On personal grounds, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones). As he is aware, I know his constituency well. I do not agree with many of his points but I welcome his recognition that it is a contrived debate.
That point was also made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and other non-Labour Opposition Members. They disagree strongly with how the Labour party has approached this contrived debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), and my hon. Friends the Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson), for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer) and for West Gloucestershire (Mr. Marland), all noted that no gain can result from the hype about this debate but that there may well be damage to the beef industry. It may affect McDonalds' decision about whether to return to British beef and other matters.
I am surprised that the Opposition did not table a motion of censure last October when the farming community was much aggravated about what were, perhaps, episodes of maladministration in the handling of the over-30-months cull. As several Conservative Members have said, why move this artificial censure motion now? The matter has progressed satisfactorily over the past few months.
I am glad that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) is in his place because I tried to intervene on him. I shall read his speech carefully. I caution him—and he knows my concern on this—that whereas we have both worked with other hon. Members on the damage to human health caused by the use of organophosphate sheep dips, we must be careful about giving credence to the views of Mark Purdey about a possible link between OP dips and BSE because of the damage that could be done to the sheep industry, on which my constituency greatly depends.
Conservative Members are not complacent—I certainly am not—about the past handling of the matter or present prospects. I have known my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture for more than 30 years. Let us admit that he has not always behaved in accordance with the Mandelson school of public relations in being able to depict black as white and white as black. His Department has not always operated as effectively as we might have wished, in policy making, administration or in passing information or advice to farmers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater, who has direct experience of large Departments such as Defence, the Environment and Employment, noted that contrast. Those who are concerned with the machinery of Government need to take that on board because MAFF has had problems.
I welcome what has been said by Opposition Members, especially Northern Ireland Members, and by several Conservative Members about it being desirable for the Government to be more positive in getting accredited herd status and so lifting the ban in Northern Ireland. I will listen to what farmers in my Somerset constituency say about that, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome said, they are likely to welcome it as light at the end of the tunnel. At the moment there is complete darkness. If we can start the process in Northern Ireland, where the case is good, and move it on elsewhere, it will bring hope to farmers throughout the country.
The BSE crisis has been a great tragedy that has cost an enormous amount of money. Other hon. Members have talked about being in the business of accusing. I accuse those responsible for the original leak. I cannot think of a leak—even the work of a spy—that has done more damage in terms of cost to taxpayers, industry and businesses of all sorts than the leak to the Daily Mirror that prompted the crisis. I hope that every farm in the country has the front page from the Daily Mirror pinned up somewhere as a reminder of the way in which that newspaper exploited the evidence and printed the photograph of a dying patient on the front page. That was horrific.
Mention has also been made of the way in which, in those early days before more sober counsels took over in the Labour party, the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) fanned the flames, which played into the hands of those in Europe who, for a variety of reasons, wanted to ban our exports.
To those criticisms and to the list of those whom I accuse I would add the health mafia. We shall not know for 30 years what discussions took place within the Department of Health before the announcement of 20 March, but only a few days ago we saw evidence of the overreaction of the health mafia, when Professor Lacey criticised the promotion of eggs. Apparently some eggs were shown as being runny and he has warned us that that can have terrible effects. A little silence from Professor Lacey might be welcome.
Using written answers, I have done some research into the number of deaths from one or two fairly horrific diseases and the amount of money that has been spent on research and prevention. I give these figures for the purpose of comparison; I am not ramming home any stark conclusion. In recent years, we have come to fear meningitis considerably. In 1995, 196 people died from it and the provisional total for 1996 is 230 deaths. In 1995, 1,259 people died from AIDS in the United Kingdom; in 1996, the number was, mercifully, lower, with 802 deaths from the disease. Large sums are spent on dealing with those two diseases, but they are small compared with the sums mentioned in this debate. The Medical Research Council spends £1.5 million a year on meningitis research. Health authorities spent £186 million on treatment for AIDS in 1996–97 and £51 million on prevention.
Although I appreciate that we are dealing with wider industrial compensation, over the two or three years affected by this great BSE crisis, we will have spent £3.5 billion because of a possible link with certain types of CJD. Yet, according to the figures given to me, the total number of deaths attributed to definite or probable cases of CJD in the United Kingdom was 46 in 1995 and 39 in 1996, of which three deaths in 1995 and nine in 1996 were possibly from the new version. Those figures should be contrasted with the deaths from and research into other terrible diseases.
I join other hon. Members in complimenting the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), on her achievements during this dreadful crisis. I am glad to see my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster sitting next to her on the Treasury Bench. He came to Taunton last November and spoke to market people, auctioneers, farmer representatives and others about prospects for the cull and I compliment him on what he achieved in that respect.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the selective cull and some have suggested that MAFF should speed it up. A few weeks ago, before the House was being asked to approve the order for the selective cull, I received a letter from the chairman of the Taunton Vale NFU. He took a slightly different line, saying:
I hope that MAFF will proceed in such a manner that will disrupt farmers as little as it is possible and not use it"—
the selective cull—
as an exercise to show how quickly and efficiently it is able to carry out such an exercise regardless of the consequences to the farmer.
He went on to say that there should be
maximum flexibility on the timing of slaughter.
To take quickly will disrupt the farmers business greatly"—
I speak with some trepidation, because several hon. Members have been told that special qualifications are required to participate in this debate. If one represents a reasonably urban constituency as I do—although I represent half a dozen farms in Huddersfield—those qualifications are in doubt. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), the shadow spokesman on agriculture, despite being highly qualified as a scientist—he has a first degree from Edinburgh university and a masters specialist degree in agricultural science from Cambridge university—and being the son of a farmer, was told by a barrister that he is not competent to lead in the debate. That was astonishing.
We in this House have a long tradition—certainly under the Conservative Government—which we have witnessed tonight. When a Minister is under fire and he happens to be an old Etonian, there is only one qualification for speaking from the Conservative Benches and that is having been to Eton as well. It is a sign of the Minister's failure that only four ex-Etonians have rallied to the cause tonight, whereas there were seven or eight when the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) was in trouble. There is obviously some lack of confidence in the Minister, even among the old school.
I want to speak seriously about this tragedy. One does not have to be a farmer or represent a farming constituency to realise its enormity. BSE has been a tragedy for farmers, for consumers and for the animals that are being put down and burnt rather than living until the time when they would normally go to the market. We in this country have traditionally had a wonderful farming industry and it has come under tremendous pressure because of the inattentions of the Government.
We have always needed a well-regulated farming industry, especially when there are pressures arising from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries pushing different sorts of nitrate fertilisers or modern insecticides and weedkillers in the name of plant protection. We know that there are great pressures on the farming community and none is as great as that of the demand for cheap food, which Opposition Members believe often comes from rather dubious sources. We all share responsibility for that pressure, which arises from our desire to have cheap food. The pressure to do things on the cheap—to use anything that increases productivity and to go for quantity rather than quality—lies at the heart of the problems affecting the British farming industry. When that pressure continues over a period of years, it only needs certain elements to start going wrong before we have a crisis such as the current BSE crisis.
Although I have no great knowledge of farming, I have some knowledge of something called crisis management. I participate in seminars for industrialists who have to learn about it. That is a compulsory part of the training that must be undertaken by those who reach a certain rung of the career ladder in the large chemical and energy companies: they must learn how to handle a crisis. Such people will tell hon. Members what I have been told by many leading industrialists who have viewed the unfolding of this tragedy with dismay.
We know how the tragedy unfolded. We know that there was a leak—a leak that appeared in media other than the Daily Mirror. I understand that no attempt was made to recognise the seriousness of the impending disaster: the disaster that would ensue if matters got out of control and the crisis was not managed properly. No attempt was made to talk to the Opposition seriously, and to point out that such a major crisis could affect one of our most crucial industries and the welfare and jobs involved in that industry. No one said, "We must talk about this, and ensure that things do not get out of control and cause a crisis that will damage all our interests." If such an approach had been taken, at the proper level, Opposition Members would have agreed to adopt a shared, or more muted, stance.
No, I will not. I have only 10 minutes in which to speak.
Let us look at the way in which the crisis unfolded. As we all know, we have an agreement behind the scenes—behind the Speaker's Chair. We all know when it is going to be a quiet week, and the week of this crisis was scheduled to be a quiet week. The Prime Minister was going to make a major speech before a by-election that was crucial for his party. I was with the leader of our party when he launched our small firms policy in the City of London; it had been agreed that there would be nothing much on in the House on that day, and, indeed, during that part of the week.
The next thing we knew was that messages had come through about a statement not just from one Minister, but from two Secretaries of State. That is almost unheard of. Everyone, not only in the House but outside, knows that it means something if two Secretaries of State, including a senior Cabinet Minister—the Secretary of State for Health—run into the Chamber and say that there is a crisis. Two Secretaries of State came in and said that there was a crisis.
In the approach to a general election, we must all be partisan; but any fair-minded person reading the Hansard report of the Minister's statement and the Opposition response will realise that no other response could have been made by anyone. In fact, the Opposition's response was very muted. I thought that the most outrageous response came from a Conservative Member—the hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), who is not present now but who asked the Minister an interesting and rather inflammatory question.
We are now in a global economy. Most people who run banks or other big financial institutions know that something careless that they say at a dinner party or over the weekend can change the whole structure of a financial market. That can be gathered from any of the leading American industrialists who saw the value of their shares drop by 5 per cent. overnight following a careless remark made only a few weeks before. I spoke to someone—this is a comment on that global economy—who was in CNN's headquarters in Atlanta, and saw those two Secretaries of State come in. He commented: "We knew immediately"—in Atlanta!—"that something serious was up, because we saw the shaking hands of the Secretary of State for Health. He did not even have to say anything; we saw the picture, transmitted all those thousands of miles, instantly."
In crisis management, people are told, "You have 10 minutes or 10 hours, but if you do not manage a crisis in that time you can forget it." That is acknowledged by Shell, and by all the big energy companies. British Gas knows it only too well. In this instance, we had a crisis that was spiralling out of control; then, making matters even worse, the Government said, "There is a crisis—there is a problem—but we are not going to do all that much about it. Indeed, we will tell you about the most sensitive issue, our children's health, next Monday." No sensible person involved in crisis management would allow a weekend to pass, featuring comment from the Sunday press. The Sunday press is the worst in terms of speculation, tabloid circulation and the building up of stories—and we all knew that that story would go through the roof. Then it was out of control.
That is where we are now. I lack confidence not only in the Minister of Agriculture, who has hardly been present throughout the evening, but in the Secretary of State for Health, because of his complicity in what has been a disaster for agriculture and for farming.
The crisis could have been avoided, but every man, woman and child in this country is now lumbered with even more debt—2p on income tax to pay the £3.5 billion cost of the crisis. If we, as a loyal Opposition, had not called this debate, we would have been failing in our duty. It is not only a crisis but a sad comment on a Government who cannot govern.
The hon. Member for Taunton said rightly—it is the only thing he said that was quite right—that the BSE crisis should have been debated on the Floor—[HON. MEMBERS: "The hon. Member for Huddersfield."] The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said that the BSE crisis should have been debated on the Floor of the House, and he is right, but what an inopportune moment to do so. I listened to his rambles. I thought that they were a preamble, but the preamble went on for 10 minutes. I can only think that he lives very close to the Emley Moor transmitter and that his brain has been partly microwaved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), however, made a valid point when he said that the timing and choice of the debate have been inept. Why? My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should have been in Brussels today because today is the day that the Council of Ministers debates this very issue, and what is on the agenda but the British beef crisis? Instead we have a debate today that was chosen to fit in—so it was thought—with the forthcoming general election.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield spoke about crisis management, but how well have the Labour team organised the crisis that they have engineered today? All last week, we heard the Opposition Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), telling everyone that the debate would lead to a vote of no confidence. We were told that there would be a general election in three or four weeks and that we would have to gird our loins. He was not mealy-mouthed about it; he openly admitted on "Newsnight" and other programmes that this was an opportunistic moment because it would be the time to get rid of the present Government.
Labour could not even manage that properly, could it? It has bungled that. It could not even liaise with the minority parties, so the matter will die like a damp squib in about 54 minutes from now, when the Opposition lose the vote.
To put matters into perspective, excluding the beef sector, agriculture has been enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity, despite the Labour party, whose members have never been known as friends of agriculturists. Since when have farmers ever said, "We welcome the idea of the Labour party getting into office because the Labour party cares"?
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman because time is limited.
We should remember that since 1992—five years ago—total income from farming has increased by 85 per cent. in real terms. The industry's assets are eight times greater than its liabilities. The 1996 harvest was the second largest in Britain's history. The beef assurance scheme has been introduced by the Government to register beef herds that have never been exposed to BSE. We must all welcome that.
I have considerable sympathy, however, with those Members representing Northern Ireland who have spoken in the debate. I worked in Northern Ireland for a short time and I am very conscious of the fact that the management of herds in Northern Ireland differs markedly from that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Not only are most beef herds fed on natural grass but, as has been said, there is a system of tagging or passporting, which I believe that the rest of the country would do well to emulate. I understand that we are starting to do just that.
Opposition Members have spoken about the fact that BSE has cost us £3.5 billion so far. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), the agriculture spokesman of the Labour party, which is so caring of our farmers, is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. He criticised the fact that we have spent £3.5 billion on the crisis. Is he saying that we should be spending less? Although I did not give way earlier to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), I should be happy to give way now to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East if he will tell us whether the Labour party would not be spending £3.5 billion on the beef crisis. All he does is sit there, shrug his shoulders, close his eyes and smile to himself. He has no answer. When he attacked the Government for spending £3.5 billion, it was no more than empty rhetoric. It is always empty rhetoric from the Opposition.
What does the Labour party, which claims to care so much about the beef crisis, do? The shadow Health Secretary, the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), sounded such a trivial note at this time of crisis, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield called it. What question did she ask the Secretary of State for Health? Was is a question that could help the farmers, as Labour cares so much for them? She asked:
Will the Secretary of State confirm that SEAC members who are parents or grandparents are not giving beef to their children or grandchildren?"—[Official Report, 20 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 377.]
That was the intellectual question that she asked the Secretary of State.
Now the Opposition say, "Mea non culpa—we are not responsible for causing a crisis." What are they doing today? They are attempting to put the fear of eating beef into people's minds, with the sole object of trying to bring about a general election. As I said previously, they bungled that.
The debate was born out of opportunism. It is not a debate born out of love of farming. It is not a debate to enable Labour to put forward solutions of its own, because none has been forthcoming. It has been an ill-timed debate, preventing the Minister of Agriculture from arguing our corner in Brussels today. It has shown new Labour at its worst—a red dwarf with a hindsight chip plugged into a soundbite machine, with no forward vision and no solutions to our farming future.
It does not give me a great deal of pleasure to follow the epitome of a soundbite machine that we have just heard.
Let us remember that the debate is about competence—or rather, incompetence. Like me, many Opposition Members represent constituencies where there are large numbers of beef farmers, none of whom believed that the Minister's performance with regard to the over-30-months cull was competent.
I have been amazed by statements from Conservative Members, and especially from the Minister when he referred to the over-30-months scheme as being completed. That is an extraordinary thing to say, when a mere 4 per cent. of that cull has been destroyed. The rest is in cold storage and warehouses all over the country, costing £250,000 a week. I understand that 50,000 tonnes of beef carcase and rendered bone meal are in eight cold stores and warehouses in Northern Ireland. That is symptomatic of the incompetence surrounding the entire programme.
I shall focus briefly on the disposal aspect. The Minister should recognise how moderate the motion is, as it simply asks him to give up in one year what his failure is costing in storage alone half an hour of every day of every week of the year—a small amount.
The debate may be an opportunity to ask some relevant questions about disposal. Has any plan or programme detailing the disposal of at least a million slaughtered cattle been drawn up and put in the public domain? No one denies the magnitude of that operation. If such a plan exists, who approved it and when? How many times has it been revised? Which Department will take the lead in implementing it? Is it the Ministry of Agriculture or the Department of the Environment? If it is the latter, we shall call for another debate and bring it to account. Was it suggested that the rendered remains could go to landfill? There seems to be total confusion as to whether that is likely to happen.
The Environmental Services Association has expressed its gratitude, and the chief executive, Peter Neill, said that the waste industry is pleased to have obtained contracts not only for incineration but for landfill. Yet answers to parliamentary questions have made it clear that high-temperature incineration is the only option for disposing of rendered remains. When was the policy revised and when did it change? There are huge differences in the cost: £40 per tonne for landfill and £315 per tonne for incinerating rendered material. If the landfill option has been rejected, the public should know what the incineration proposal involves.
If the Government are considering using power stations, cement kilns or any other incinerator operation in this country to dispose of the remains, the public must know where those operations will be sited and what tests will be conducted. For example, this weekend people in the Selby area of Yorkshire responded angrily to the news that the Drax power station is to be allowed to use pet coke as a cheap substitute for Yorkshire coal. People living in the vicinity of any such plant must be consulted and should be told in advance of any tests and advised of their results.
The Minister has said that no incineration plant has failed its emission level tests. I am surprised to hear that, as the Environment Agency in the Yorkshire and north-east region has advised me that the Leeds incinerator plant failed those tests. Parliamentary questions have elicited totally contradictory answers on the subject. I suggested that the Environment Select Committee, of which I am privileged to be a member, conduct an inquiry into the issue. However, because I raised the issue formally and put my suggestion in writing to the Committee Chairman, no fewer than six Conservative Members attended the Committee meeting in order to turn down my request. I was told that the issue was too politically sensitive before the election.
Does that suggest that Conservative Members have total confidence in the Minister and in his performance on one aspect of the crisis, which epitomises the disposal chaos? I believe that it is a serious issue. If the scrutiny processes of this House are not allowed to work properly on sensitive issues, it brings the role of parliamentary scrutiny into disrepute.
This debate is the beginning, not the end, of the issue. It is quite wrong for hon. Members to suggest that this is the end of the crisis. Only 4 per cent. of carcases have been destroyed; 96 per cent. still have to be dealt with. Every hon. Member is likely to have in his or her constituency a cold store full of dead cattle; or a warehouse full of rendered bonemeal and meat from the cull; or a power station incinerating the remains; or a landfill site that may have already been used to dump BSE waste.
The Minister has consistently underplayed the scale of the crisis. He has miscalculated the importance of being seen to undertake an effective cull swiftly and smoothly in trying to get the export ban lifted. By wishing the problem away, he has failed to set in place an effective disposal programme. He believed that rendered remains could be disposed of through landfill, despite concerns about the risk of contaminants. He has delayed putting in place a safe programme of incineration and disposal, but allowed the programme to be dictated by a group of rendering companies and slaughterers that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) mentioned. I suspect that the Minister had a hand in pressurising the Environment Select Committee not to undertake an inquiry into the disposal aspects of BSE.
My belief is that the Minister is out of his depth and he knows that he is. His failure to manage the crisis is plain for all to see. I hope that Conservative Members will consider tabling a further amendment to the very modest Opposition amendment, and that they will propose that the Minister relinquishes his post as soon as possible.
The debate has outlined the catalogue of incompetence in the Government's handling of the BSE crisis. It is just not good enough to try to hide behind the argument that to raise these issues jeopardises the beef industry. We on the Labour Benches have been very measured in our criticism of the Government because of our concern about the beef industry.
Some of the comments in the debate were utterly pathetic. Attacks were made on my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), who was criticised as urban-based. It was pathetic to criticise someone who is a son of a farmer; who is an agricultural scientist; who was a former Agriculture Minister; and who has better qualifications than anyone currently on the Conservative Benches. It was pathetic that a tasteless joke was directed against my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). Compared to the popularity of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East, the Minister is about as popular as a rattlesnake in a lucky dip, and that is just with the farmers, let alone the public.
From the very beginning of this whole sorry episode, the Government's mania for deregulation added to the problems, going right back to 1979, when they failed to implement the protein processing order proposed by the 1979 Labour Government. Deregulation added to the problems of cross-contamination of feed which came later.
Throughout this whole sorry tale, as was made clear by my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams), for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) and for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), the Government have been slow to react, and were incompetent when they did so. Even when, in June 1987, they were made aware that there was a problem, they did not take any action until June 1988. They waited a year, even though they recognised that BSE was a problem.
The Government did not implement all the recommendations of the Southwood report or the Tyrrell report. To save cash, when the Government introduced a compensation scheme, they offered only 50 per cent. for affected cattle—a failure accepted by Lord Lindsay as contributing to the problem in terms of cattle that may have got into the food chain at that time.
The Government also refused to implement Labour's call for a traceability scheme in 1990. That was also reflected in the Agriculture Select Committee's report. They also cut the number of meat inspectors and environmental health inspectors. Although the specified offal ban was introduced in 1990, in 1995 the state veterinary service found failings in 48 per cent. of the slaughterhouses it visited. The extension of BSE cases was also linked to cross-contamination of feed at feed mills as a result of the Government's failure to implement proper regulation.
In March 1996, the Government accepted that there was a potential link between BSE and CJD. From that moment, much of the discussion in the House was focused on that problem, because of its dramatic effect on the beef industry. The Government failed to establish a contingency plan to deal with the crisis. Their complacency on this issue over the years was highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) and for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who mentioned the Government's lack of credibility on crisis management.
The lack of a contingency plan led to delays in establishing the over-30-months scheme. There was confusion about a slaughter scheme that excluded many slaughterhouses, and was extremely generous—too generous—to those that took part. The way in which the scheme was implemented smacked of haste and incompetence. That is also the view of the agriculture industry.
Although the motion censures the current Minister, it would be unfair not to mention that much of the incompetence was due to the irresponsibility of his predecessors. Few hon. Members can forget the sight of poor little Cordelia being force-fed a hamburger by the former Minister of Agriculture. Although it is fair to defend the British beef industry, it is not good enough to be complacent and to attack anyone who makes the mildest criticism or suggests ways in which the Government could handle the problem better. That is what happened over the years leading up to the present crisis.
That brings us to the current Minister and his Cabinet colleagues. It would be unfair to exclude collective responsibility. This crisis is the responsibility not of one Minister but of the whole Cabinet.
Since the joint announcement in March 1996, 10,000 jobs in the beef industry have been lost, and 20,000 workers are on short time. Apart from the incompetence shown when the scheme was set up, we have had the fiasco of the European ban and the Government's attempt to lift it: the so-called beef war. What a fiasco that was. We had weeks of sabre-rattling and insults. It ended in the Florence agreement, which the Prime Minister hailed as a victory. It was a climbdown. The Commission got what it wanted, and the Prime Minister promised the House that the ban would be lifted in November 1996. We are still waiting.
Hon. Members have attempted to blame Europe. That is a bit rich coming from a Government who are guilty of incompetence, and who are responsible for the BSE crisis and for destroying the European beef industry. The European Commission's committee which looked into this problem said:
The Agriculture Council's silence between June 1990 and July 1994, the period when the number of cases of BSE was reaching its peak in the UK, is an indictment of its inability or, at least, of its lack of determination to manage this issue.
Far from European countries colluding with each other against the British beef industry, the Council of Ministers was doing its best to keep the issue quiet, and, some would say, to defend the industry against the interests of consumers.
It is a bit difficult to blame the European Union, given that the Government, after banning the affected feed in this country, allowed it to be exported to Europe. In 1989, the amount of contaminated feed exported to European Union countries doubled. There was no labelling on those sacks, and although the Government advised that it should not be fed to cattle, there was no way in which many European farmers could identify that feed. It was clear that many of the BSE outbreaks in Europe were related to that problem.
It is fair to say that the procedures are now in place to justify a lifting of the ban. That point was made by several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). But the Government must deal with the problem of their credibility. After agreeing to a selective cull in September, they decided that it would not be implemented. After announcing that the cull would not be implemented, they climbed down and said that the cull would be introduced.
The conditions of the Florence agreement have still not been met, and the quality assurance scheme on traceability has still not been presented to the Commission. Of course, this has implications for Northern Ireland, as we have heard, and for Scotland. There is no doubt that those areas are well placed and would certainly be in the vanguard—[Interruption.]
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but there is a undercurrent of private conversations, not confined to one side of the House. It would be courteous to listen to the hon. Gentleman.
As we have heard today, the certification scheme is important to Northern Ireland and to Scotland, and many other herds in England and Wales would meet the criteria laid down in the agreement.
We have heard it said tonight that farmers support the Government and back what they have done, but that does not appear to be true of those who voted in the NFU to censure the Minister—and very few Ministers have been censured. If Conservatives want to hear the views of a farmer, not just those of the Labour party, I happen to have here a letter chosen at random from the farming press.
It is from a Mr. Cateaux of Pembrokeshire, and appeared in Farming News. It appears under the heading, "Catalogue of Tory incompetence"—I could not have put it better myself—and states that the Government have
Caused the crisis by crass irresponsibility/stupidity.
Done nothing to compensate specialist beef farmers for the huge cuts in our incomes.
Ensured that most of the compensation is going to those who already get the bulk of other farm support.
Invented the calf destruction scheme on the excuse that it would mean less surplus beef to dispose of—most of the calves are useless for beef production.
Given free rein to slaughterhouse owners and their dealer agents to cream off a lot of money that is supposed to be supporting farmers.
Exploited those who had to sell over 30 month beasts dirt cheap. Because there is no official rationing of placement of cattle into the OTMS, all farmers would have had some cattle taken.
Left the running of the scheme to an old boy network so that the Mr. Bigs got preferential treatment and all their cattle taken at the highest price.
Given most of the slaughter contracts to a handful of large companies, apparently paying them rates for beasts that are far higher than normal.
Given them millions in excess profits plus the value of the skins at about £15 each.
Refused small operators contracts on the excuse they had to have EU export licences. The Commission has said this is not true.
Used the crisis … to lift import bans so that meat traders/supermarkets can import cheap beef from anywhere in the world.
That letter reflects the view widely held in the farming community about the impact of the Government's policy on farmers' livelihoods.
The question is whether the Government have lost confidence. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), has been appointed to front the BSE issue, making him the Minister for the Minister of Agriculture—the first such Minister in history to have a minder to go around with him. That suggests to me that his own Government do not have much confidence in him.
The final straw in this debate, and what made it clear that the motion must be supported, was the Minister's performance at the recent NFU annual general meeting. Far from being contrite and apologetic for this disaster, he and his colleagues used the opportunity deliberately to distort and misrepresent Labour party policy, and to boast about the £3.5 billion cost of the BSE package.
Some hon. Members have asked whether Labour would make that money available to agriculture. To them I would say that, had the Government implemented the measures which the Labour party has been arguing for since 1989, we would not be facing a bill for £3.5 billion, which represents 2p in the pound for every taxpayer in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Conservatives party sometimes accuses the Labour party of levying various taxes. We have been accused of levying a windfall tax and a tartan tax, but at least we have never been accused of levying an incompetence tax, which is what this Government have levied on the people of this country.
The future of the beef sector, of course, lies in the lifting of the European and worldwide ban. However, that will involve making progress on the certification scheme, which will require agreements with the Commission.
We recognise the case for Northern Ireland, and hon. Members from Northern Ireland have told us tonight how important lifting the ban is for their industry. In many ways, Northern Ireland is a special case—as are some Scottish producers—because its herds have been free from BSE. Moreover, Northern Ireland has maintained a traceability scheme, which is a very important part of any certification scheme.
However, I ask hon. Members from minority parties, and particularly those from Northern Ireland, to consider whether the Government—who have so little credibility in the European Union—will be able to make progress in gaining acceptance of a certification scheme or in lifting the European and worldwide ban. Ministers who waged the beef war seemed to think that they could get the European Union's co-operation by insulting it, and by blaming it for a crisis that was very much of their own making. We need a fresh approach to Europe to make any progress, and that will come only with a fresh Government who have a more positive and more determined approach to the issue.
Although the BSE issue is in itself worthy of discussion—as Ministers must answer some questions on it—we make no excuse for taking every opportunity to bring down the Government and to bring on a general election. Regardless of whether we succeed or fail in those objectives today, it will not alter the Government's handling of the crisis. They have damaged the industry and retarded progress in lifting the ban.
We also make no apology for having tabled today's censure motion. The Government have presided over a catalogue of incompetence and bungling which has cost farmers and taxpayers dear. For all those reasons, hon. Members should join us in the Lobby and vote against a tired, rudderless and incompetent Government. They are hanging on for no other reason than fear of presenting their record for the verdict of the British people.
I start by paying tribute to those of my right hon. and hon. Friends who will be retiring at the next general election, and who have probably participated in their last agriculture debate. For their very positive support today, I particularly single out my right hon. Friends the Members for Witney (Mr. Hurd) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) and for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer). We thank them for their strong support.
On behalf of Conservative Members, I also pay tribute to the ministerial team at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which is led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister, and to my hon. Friends the Minister of State and the two Parliamentary Secretaries. They have pursued the matter with determination and robustness. They have put up with a lot of abuse, and they have succeeded.
I am sure that I speak for both sides of the House when I say that I do not think that any hon. Member underestimates the scale of the impact of the BSE crisis on the families affected by the new strain of Creurtfeldt-Jacob disease—15 cases have now been identified—on farmers, on the industry or on the taxpayer. The Government maintain four key principles in dealing with the crisis: to protect public health; to eradicate BSE as quickly as possible—my right hon. and learned Friend the Agriculture Minister said that we will achieve that goal by 2001—to support the farming industry in achieving a balance in supply and demand; and to reopen world markets for British beef. Those are the principles on which we have been working.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), who opened the debate, questioned the timetable and the progress that we have made. As late as the middle of July, we forecast that, by the middle of October, we could meet the conditions and start the process of lifting the ban in stages; during the summer, dairy farmers in particular chose to put more than 250,000 extra dairy cows into the over-30-months scheme. No one forecast that, not even the Opposition. We therefore had to take urgent action to increase rendering capacity and the amount of cold storage, and we were able to clear the backlog in the over-30-months scheme with only two months' delay.
According to The Independent on Sunday, the deputy leader of the Labour party, with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), have suddenly discovered that we have been using cold storage. Given the sharp, deft, rapier-like thrusts of the deputy leader of the Labour party, I read:
So we face a choice of turning power stations into incinerators, creating mass graves in our countryside, or maintaining mountains of containerised carcasses—without spreading fear of disease being passed by air, land or water.
What a reasonable statement.
No, I shall not give way because I have a lot to get through. Let me tell the hon. Lady that we have not a million carcases in cold storage but 265,000, with 2,900 at Hull. That was a great success for the Ministry of Agriculture because it enabled us to increase the slaughter rate and deal with the backlog in the OTM scheme. There are no mass graves in our countryside and there is no fear of disease.
If the hon. Lady will resume her seat I shall answer the question that she raised. All the cattle remains must be either rendered, incinerated or both; we do not propose to use landfill. That is why it will take some time to take the carcases out of cold storage and render them properly. The Government should be congratulated on the steps that they have taken.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East argued that we should have started the selective cull earlier. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister said clearly that, during the summer, the National Farmers Union opposed a selective cull; it has now changed its mind and supports one. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should have started preparations for a selective cull by identifying the cattle in the autumn. That could not be achieved. One either starts the selective cull, identifies the cattle, agrees the compensation and puts restrictions on the movement of cattle—or not. We have not been in a position to do that until now. I am glad to confirm to the House that we are ready to start slaughtering under the selective cull scheme in about three weeks' time.
I am sorry, but I cannot give way. I must respond to the debate.
I confirm that we expect the selective cull in Northern Ireland to start on 3 March, about the same time as in the rest of the United Kingdom.
We shall shortly have met all the Florence conditions. We have cleaned up feed at mills and on farms, and banned contaminated feed from 1 August. We have begun the process of tracing cattle and my right hon. and learned Friend has introduced a passport scheme from 1 July. We now have some of the best slaughterhouse standards in the world. We have cleared the backlog in the over-30-months scheme and we shall shortly implement the cull. We shall then formally submit to the European Commission the certified herd scheme and we hope and expect a good and full response from the Commission. As the House will understand, that must follow the detailed process laid down in the Florence agreement.
I come now to the points raised by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). Quite properly, I have visited Ulster twice in the past few months. I know full well that the beef industry there relies on exports and has been particularly hard hit. My right hon. and learned Friend has made it clear that the scheme that we shall put forward to the Commission applies to the whole United Kingdom, but as it is based on good traceability and the absence of BSE from herds, it will be of direct and immediate benefit to Northern Irish farmers. That was very much in our minds when we devised the scheme.
My right hon. and learned Friend has said today that the case for direct and immediate relief for Northern Ireland is very strong—indeed, unanswerable. So it is. He has said that he will urge the case of Northern Ireland. So he will. For the avoidance of doubt, let me make it clear that while other parts of the United Kingdom may have producers who qualify too—I think of Scotland and the west country in particular; the scheme is designed to be open to all parts of the country—it is certain that none will have a stronger or more immediate claim for relief than Northern Ireland. That is the case for Northern Ireland that my right hon. and learned Friend will urge in the coming negotiations.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry raised a second point about the additional EC support for the beef industry, and in particular for Northern Ireland. I am glad to be able to tell the House that my noble Friend Baroness Denton, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, having consulted the farming unions in Northern Ireland, has decided on the distribution of the additional EC support for the beef industry. Besides £250,000 for beef promotion, £9.4 million will be available for suckler cow herds. All suckler herd owners will receive a £25 per head top-up to the suckler cow premium, but in recognition of the unique problems faced by the flagged suckler herd owners, and with the support of the representative organisations, those herd owners will receive an additional £135 to £145 per animal. [Interruption.]
Order. There are far too many conversations going on in the House. The House must come to order to listen to what the Minister has to say.
Order. That is a most serious accusation. Will the hon. Lady raise a point of order so that I know what I can do about it?
I have evidence that contracts have been let that involve the landfilling of rendered waste from the over-30-months cull. I have just been told that that is not true. Either this evidence is not true, or what the Minister has said is not true. I want to raise the issue because it needs clearing up.
I understand what the hon. Lady is saying. It is not really a point of order, it is a point of argument. I am sure that the Minister is able to cope with it.
Order. I want the House to listen. This is very important. The House must listen to what the Minister has to say on this important issue.
I confirm to the hon. Lady and to the House that, for the over-30-months scheme, there will be no landfill of carcases or rendered material. All material is to be rendered and incinerated. If the hon. Lady has any evidence, I should be delighted to receive it. I have stated the Government's policy clearly.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) sought to exaggerate greatly the impact of the selective cull on the dairy herd. He said that he expected between a third and a half of the dairy herd to be affected by the selective cull. That is a gross exaggeration that he has repeated on a number of occasions. I am pleased to confirm to the House that what he has said is not the case. The total number of animals to be culled under the scheme will be, at most, 128,000. We expect the figure to be much lower. The total number of animals in the UK dairy herd is about 2.5 million, so the proportion to be culled is, at most, 5 per cent. I agree with hon. Members on both sides of the House who said that they expect the selective cull to be handled in a sympathetic, sensitive fashion. Indeed it will. It will take up to six months to slaughter all the additional cattle involved.
My right hon. Friends the Members for Witney and for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) accurately summed up the purpose of the debate. They both said that the Labour
party was turning an agricultural crisis into narrow party advantage. On 26 May 1996, the News of the World said—[Interruption.] I would be grateful if the Labour Front Bench team would listen. The paper said:
Whatever criticisms we have of the Government's performance so far, this is now a national crisis and Labour's response will be governed by the need to promote the national interest.
Labour Members have deserted the national interest in their behaviour—not only tonight, but consistently.
I lay three specific charges against the Labour party concerning what has been said during the past few months, and repeated again tonight. The first charge, repeated by the hon. Members for Edinburgh, East and for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), is that the regulations that the Labour party would have laid in the late 1970s—and if they had become effective—would have stopped BSE. That is the argument and it is wholly without foundation.
Yes it is.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East was a junior Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the late 1970s and he will know that the charge is untrue. He will know what Keith Meldrum, the chief veterinary officer, said in giving evidence to the Agriculture Committee on 27 March 1996. [Interruption.] Perhaps the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East would listen to me. When Mr. Meldrum was questioned on whether the controls proposed by the last Labour Government on animal feed—which were of course aimed at tackling salmonella, and other bacteria in feed, and not of course enacted because the Conservative Government achieved the same purpose by introducing goal-based, non-prescriptive regulations—would have protected the country against BSE, he said:
I was involved in policy advice at that time"—
the late 1970s—
so I was involved in those discussions"—
on Labour's draft regulations—
I am getting on with it. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not want to listen to what I have to say. The chief veterinary officer said:
I can confirm, from memory, that the timed temperatures that we were then talking about that might have been incorporated into the protocol for an individual plant would not have been sufficient to destroy the agent for scrapie or BSE.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, who was a Minister at the time, should have known that. The charge is entirely without foundation.
The second charge is more serious. It relates to the failure of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and the Labour party to condemn the ban on the export of beef and support the non co-operation movement. The hon. Gentleman sought to evade the point because he said in his press release of 22 March on the ban imposed by France:
Instead of talking about the French Government acting illegally by halting imports of beef and cattle from the UK, Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg should understand that they were acting prudently.
The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. There was no difference between the action of the French Government and the inevitable action of the European Union, because its ban was based on the individual national bans. The Labour party failed to condemn the ban and failed to support the Government's policy of non-co-operation. Who stands up better for Britain's interests?
The Labour party wants to be at the heart of Europe, but it would sell out British interests to suit its narrow party advantage. The Government promptly condemned the French action: the Opposition accepted it, and it led inevitably to the European Union ban.
It is not rubbish, it is true.
The third charge against the Opposition is by far the most serious. I do not see the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) in her place tonight. After the measured statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Lady, in a hysterical and shrill response, said:
Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that public confidence on this issue is hanging by a thread?"—[Official Report, 20 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 376.]
She helped to snap it. I invite the House to read her response.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) spoke a few moments ago and suggested that if there had been an offer of co-operation from the Government, the opposition from the Labour party since March last year would have been more muted. The response of the hon. Member for Peckham was immediate and wrong and she must bear a heavy responsibility for having precipitated the crisis.
The Labour party must also accept responsibility. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee recommended on 20 March 1996 that meat from cattle over the age of 30 months should be deboned. Within eight days, we had moved, because of the hysterical reaction of the media and the irresponsible statements of some politicians, to implement the most expensive scheme for culling cattle over the age of 30 months. That is what cost £3.3 billion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) was right when he singled out the Daily Mirror for criticism. On 20 March, it reported:
We've already eaten 1,000,000 mad cows".
It said that the Government were going to admit that eating mad cows could kill. That is sheer irresponsibility from that Labour newspaper. This is the first debate on BSE when the NFU has not been here to lobby the Government. The Labour party has lost the argument and has taken narrow political advantage of the crisis. It should be ashamed of itself.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. No reference in this House can be made either to the visitors or to the Press Gallery.
Order. Then I would expect the hon. Gentleman's colleagues not to point at or to refer to them.
|Division No. 77]||[9.59 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Cunningham, Ms Roseanna (Perth Kinross)|
|Adams, Mrs Irene|
|Ainger, Nick||Dafis, Cynog|
|Allen, Graham||Dalyell, Tam|
|Alton, David||Darling, Alistair|
|Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)||Davies, Bryan (Oldham C)|
|Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)||Davies, Chris (Littleborough)|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)|
|Ashton, Joseph||Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)|
|Austin-Walker, John||Denham, John|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Dewar, Rt Hon Donald|
|Barnes, Harry||Dixon, Rt Hon Don|
|Barron, Kevin||Dobson, Frank|
|Battle, John||Donohoe, Brian H|
|Bayley, Hugh||Dowd, Jim|
|Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret||Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Eagle, Ms Angela|
|Bell, Stuart||Eastham, Ken|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Ennis, Jeff|
|Bennett, Andrew F||Etherington, Bill|
|Benton, Joe||Evans, John (St Helens N)|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Ewing, Mrs Margaret|
|Berry, Roger||Fatchett, Derek|
|Betts, Clive||Faulds, Andrew|
|Blair, Rt Hon Tony||Field, Frank (Birkenhead)|
|Blunkett, David||Fisher, Mark|
|Boateng, Paul||Flynn, Paul|
|Boyes, Roland||Foster, Rt Hon Derek|
|Bradley, Keith||Foster, Don (Bath)|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Foulkes, George|
|Brown, Rt Hon Gordon (Dunfermline E)||Fraser, John|
|Fyfe, Mrs Maria|
|Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)||Galloway, George|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Gapes, Mike|
|Burden, Richard||Garrett, John|
|Byers, Stephen||George, Bruce|
|Caborn, Richard||Gerrard, Neil|
|Callaghan, Jim||Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John|
|Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)||Godman, Dr Norman A|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Godsiff, Roger|
|Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Campbell-Savours, D N||Gordon, Ms Mildred|
|Canavan, Dennis||Graham, Thomas|
|Cann, Jamie||Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)|
|Carlile, Alex (Montgomery)||Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)|
|Chidgey, David||Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Grocott, Bruce|
|Church, Ms Judith||Gunnell, John|
|Clapham, Michael||Hain, Peter|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Hall, Mike|
|Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)||Hanson, David|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||Hardy, Peter|
|Clelland, David||Harman, Ms Harriet|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Harvey, Nick|
|Coffey, Ms Ann||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy|
|Cohen, Harry||Henderson, Doug|
|Connarty, Michael||Hendron, Dr Joe|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Heppell, John|
|Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston)||Hill, Keith (Streatham)|
|Corbett, Robin||Hinchliffe, David|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Hodge, Ms Margaret|
|Corston, Ms Jean||Hoey, Kate|
|Cousins, Jim||Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)|
|Cox, Tom||Home Robertson, John|
|Cummings, John||Hood, Jimmy|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Hoon, Geoffrey|
|Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try SE)||Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)|
|Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John||Howarth, George (Knowsley N)|
|Howells, Dr Kim||Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe)|
|Hoyle, Doug||Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)|
|Hughes, Robert (Ab'd'n N)||Mowlam, Ms Marjorie|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport E)||Mudie, George|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Mullin, Chris|
|Hume, John||Murphy, Paul|
|Hutton, John||Nicholson, Miss Emma (W Devon)|
|Illsley, Eric||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Ingram, Adam||O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)|
|Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampst'd)||O'Brien, William (Normanton)|
|Jackson, Mrs Helen (Hillsborough)||O'Hara, Edward|
|Jamieson, David||Olner, Bill|
|Janner, Greville||O'Neill, Martin|
|Jenkins, Brian D (SE Staffs)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Johnston, Sir Russell||Paisley, Rev Ian|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & D'side)||Parry, Robert|
|Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)||Pearson, Ian|
|Jones, Dr Lynne (B'ham Selly Oak)||Pendry, Tom|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd SW)||Pike, Peter L|
|Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)||Pope, Greg|
|Jowell, Ms Tessa||Powell, Sir Raymond (Ogmore)|
|Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Prentice, Mrs Bridget (Lewisham E)|
|Kennedy, Charles (Ross C & S)||Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)|
|Kennedy, Mrs Jane (Broadgreen)||Prescott, Rt Hon John|
|Khabra, Piara S||Primarolo, Ms Dawn|
|Kilfoyle, Peter||Purchase, Ken|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Lestor, Miss Joan (Eccles)||Radice, Giles|
|Lewis, Terry||Randall, Stuart|
|Liddell, Mrs Helen||Raynsford, Nick|
|Litherland, Robert||Reid, Dr John|
|Livingstone, Ken||Rendel, David|
|Lloyd, Tony (Stretf'd)||Robertson, George (Hamilton)|
|Llwyd, Elfyn||Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)|
|Loyden, Eddie||Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)|
|Lynne, Ms Liz||Roche, Mrs Barbara|
|McAllion, John||Rogers, Allan|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Rooker, Jeff|
|McCartney, Ian (Makerf'ld)||Rooney, Terry|
|McCartney, Robert (N Down)||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Macdonald, Calum||Rowlands, Ted|
|McFall, John||Ruddock, Ms Joan|
|McGrady, Eddie||Salmond, Alex|
|McKelvey, William||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Mackinlay, Andrew||Sheerman, Barry|
|McLeish, Henry||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Maclennan, Robert||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|McMaster, Gordon||Short, Clare|
|McNamara, Kevin||Simpson, Alan|
|MacShane, Denis||Skinner, Dennis|
|McWilliam, John||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Madden, Max||Smith, Chris (Islington S)|
|Maddock, Mrs Diana||Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)|
|Mahon, Mrs Alice||Snape, Peter|
|Mallon, Seamus||Soley, Clive|
|Mandelson, Peter||Spearing, Nigel|
|Marek, Dr John||Spellar, John|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Squire, Ms Rachel (Dunfermline W)|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Martin, Michael J (Springburn)||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|Martlew, Eric||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Maxton, John||Stevenson, George|
|Meacher, Michael||Stott, Roger|
|Meale, Alan||Strang, Dr Gavin|
|Michael, Alun||Straw, Jack|
|Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)||Sutcliffe, Gerry|
|Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Milburn, Alan||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Miller, Andrew||Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)|
|Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)||Thurnham, Peter|
|Moonie, Dr Lewis||Timms, Stephen|
|Morgan, Rhodri||Tipping, Paddy|
|Morley, Elliot||Touhig, Don|
|Trickett, Jon||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Tyler, Paul||Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)|
|Vaz, Keith||Wilson, Brian|
|Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold||Winnick, David|
|Wallace, James||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Walley, Ms Joan||Wray, Jimmy|
|Wardell, Gareth (Gower)||Wright, Dr Tony|
|Wareing, Robert N||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Welsh, Andrew||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Wicks, Malcolm||Mr. Robert Ainsworth and|
|Wigley, Dafydd||Mr. Jon Owen Jones.|
|Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)||Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey|
|Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan||Coe, Sebastian|
|Alexander, Richard||Colvin, Michael|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)||Congdon, David|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Conway, Derek|
|Amess, David||Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F)|
|Ancram, Rt Hon Michael||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Arbuthnot, James||Cope, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Cormack, Sir Patrick|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel G)||Couchman, James|
|Ashby, David||Cran, James|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Critchley, Sir Julian|
|Atkins, Rt Hon Robert||Currie, Mrs Edwina|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)||Curry, Rt Hon David|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Davies, Quentin (Stamf'd)|
|Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V)||Davis, Rt Hon David (Boothferry)|
|Baker, Sir Nicholas (N Dorset)||Day, Stephen|
|Baldry, Tony||Deva, Nirj Joseph|
|Banks, Matthew (Southport)||Devlin, Tim|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Dicks, Terry|
|Bates, Michael||Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen|
|Batiste, Spencer||Douglas-Hamilton, Rt Hon Lord James|
|Bendall, Vivian||Dover, Den|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Duncan, Alan|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Duncan Smith, Iain|
|Body, Sir Richard||Dunn, Bob|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Durant, Sir Anthony|
|Booth, Hartley||Dykes, Hugh|
|Boswell, Tim||Eggar, Rt Hon Tim|
|Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)||Elletson, Harold|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia||Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Bowden, Sir Andrew||Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'ld)|
|Bowis, John||Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes||Evans, Nigel (Ribble V)|
|Brandreth, Gyles||Evans, Roger (Monmouth)|
|Brazier, Julian||Evennett, David|
|Bright, Sir Graham||Faber, David|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||Fabricant, Michael|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg Cl'thorpes)||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)|
|Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)||Fishburn, Dudley|
|Budgen, Nicholas||Forman, Nigel|
|Burns, Simon||Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)|
|Burt, Alistair||Forth, Rt Hon Eric|
|Butcher, John||Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman|
|Butler, Peter||Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)|
|Butterfill, John||Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley)|
|Carlisle, John (Luton N)||Freeman, Rt Hon Roger|
|Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Linc'n)||French, Douglas|
|Carrington, Matthew||Fry, Sir Peter|
|Carttiss, Michael||Gale, Roger|
|Cash, William||Gallie, Phil|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Gardiner, Sir George|
|Chapman, Sir Sydney||Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan|
|Churchill, Mr||Garnier, Edward|
|Clappison, James||Gill, Christopher|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochf'd)||Gillan, Mrs Cheryl|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)|
|Gorst, Sir John||Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Grant, Sir Anthony (SW Cambs)||Knox, Sir David|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Kynoch, George|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Lait, Mrs Jacqui|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Lamont, Rt Hon Norman|
|Grylls, Sir Michael||Lang, Rt Hon Ian|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John||Lawrence, Sir Ivan|
|Hague, Rt Hon William||Legg, Barry|
|Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald||Leigh, Edward|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Lester, Sir Jim (Broxtowe)|
|Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy||Lidington, David|
|Hannam, Sir John||Lilley, Rt Hon Peter|
|Hargreaves, Andrew||Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)|
|Harris, David||Lord, Michael|
|Haselhurst, Sir Alan||Luff, Peter|
|Hawkins, Nick||Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Hawksley, Warren||MacGregor, Rt Hon John|
|Hayes, Jerry||MacKay, Andrew|
|Heald, Oliver||Maclean, Rt Hon David|
|Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward||McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick|
|Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David||Madel, Sir David|
|Hendry, Charles||Maitland, Lady Olga|
|Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael||Major, Rt Hon John|
|Hicks, Sir Robert||Malone, Gerald|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence||Mans, Keith|
|Hill, Sir James (Southampton Test)||Marland, Paul|
|Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (Grantham)||Marlow, Tony|
|Horam, John||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)|
|Howard, Rt Hon Michael||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Howell, Rt Hon David (Guildf'd)||Mates, Michael|
|Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)||Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian|
|Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)||Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick|
|Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)||Mellor, Rt Hon David|
|Hunt, Sir John (Ravensb'ne)||Merchant, Piers|
|Hunter, Andrew||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas||Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)|
|Jack, Rt Hon Michael||Moate, Sir Roger|
|Jackson, Robert (Wantage)||Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector|
|Jenkin, Bernard (Colchester N)||Montgomery, Sir Fergus|
|Jessel, Toby||Moss, Malcolm|
|Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Needham, Rt Hon Richard|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Jones, Robert B (W Herts)||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Key, Robert||Norris, Steve|
|King, Rt Hon Tom||Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)||Ottaway, Richard|
|Page, Richard||Stewart, Allan|
|Paice, James||Streeter, Gary|
|Patnick, Sir Irvine||Sumberg, David|
|Patten, Rt Hon John||Sweeney, Walter|
|Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Sykes, John|
|Pawsey, James||Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Pickles, Eric||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Porter, David||Taylor, Sir Teddy|
|Portillo, Rt Hon Michael||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Powell, William (Corby)||Thomason, Roy|
|Rathbone, Tim||Thompson, Sir Donald (Calder V)|
|Redwood, Rt Hon John||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Renton, Rt Hon Tim||Thornton, Sir Malcolm|
|Richards, Rod||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Riddick, Graham||Townsend, Sir Cyril (Bexl'yh'th)|
|Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm||Tracey, Richard|
|Robathan, Andrew||Tredinnick, David|
|Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn||Trend, Michael|
|Robertson, Raymond S (Ab'd'n S)||Trotter, Neville|
|Robinson, Mark (Somerton)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Rowe, Andrew||Viggers, Peter|
|Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela||Waldegrave, Rt Hon William|
|Ryder, Rt Hon Richard||Walden, George|
|Sackville, Tom||Walker, Bill (N Tayside)|
|Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy||Waller, Gary|
|Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas||Ward, John|
|Shaw, David (Dover)||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)||Waterson, Nigel|
|Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian||Watts, John|
|Shepherd, Sir Colin (Heref'd)||Wells, Bowen|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)||Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Shersby, Sir Michael||Whitney, Sir Raymond|
|Sims, Sir Roger||Whittingdale, John|
|Skeet, Sir Trevor||Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann|
|Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)||Wiggin, Sir Jerry|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsf'ld)||Wilkinson, John|
|Soames, Nicholas||Willetts, David|
|Speed, Sir Keith||Wilshire, David|
|Spencer, Sir Derek||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Spicer, Sir Jim (W Dorset)||Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesf'ld)|
|Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Spink, Dr Robert||Wood, Timothy|
|Spring, Richard||Yeo, Tim|
|Sproat, Iain||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)|
|Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Steen, Anthony||Mr. Patrick McLoughlin|
|Stern, Michael||Mr. Roger Knapman.|