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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:47 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 5:47 pm, 17th February 1997

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.