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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:05 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall , West Lancashire 7:05 pm, 17th February 1997

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.