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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory , Wells 6:44 pm, 17th February 1997

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.