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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:54 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , North Cornwall 4:54 pm, 17th February 1997

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—