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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:42 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney 4:42 pm, 17th February 1997

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?"