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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare 7:15 pm, 17th February 1997

I shall begin by apologising to the House for having to be absent for a few minutes, but the progress of Government business is such that it was necessary to take action on tomorrow's rather unpleasant experience, and we shall have to deal with that when it happens.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), but I fear that I may disappoint him about who to blame for what has taken place. Not enough has been said about the disastrous effect on this whole affair of the leak that appeared in the Daily Mirror on 19 March. It is unreasonable to ask Ministers to deal with such an important and vital crisis at the drop of a hat. A day or two's thought should have been given to how the case should have been presented. Some of the questions that were asked would have been asked behind the scenes and answers would have been available.

We seem to accept that putting in the public domain documents that have been taken—I prefer to use the word "stolen"—is good for the British public, and that by keeping them secret we are harming some unknown freedom. I doubt whether many countries would have deliberately rushed to publish such bad news or to put Ministers so severely on the spot.

The statement that was made nearly 12 months ago concerned just 10 cases that gave rise to some suspicion of a link between BSE and CJD. That link has not yet been proven. The good news is that that figure of 10 has risen to only 14 or 15, which is good evidence that there may not be a serious epidemic. Everyone is nervous about and frightened of an epidemic. When one considers that 11 or 12 people are killed on the roads every day, it puts this crisis in a different perspective. I wonder what would happen if we spent £3.5 billion on our road system.

The hon. Members for Peckham (Ms Harman) and for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) spent some time denying any responsibility for the panic that struck the nation when the announcement was made. Their actions at the time were grossly unhelpful. This situation is totally unprecedented. It is not in the best interests of the British nation for everyone to run around being critical. I do not have direct quotes in front of me, but those who were present will remember clearly the inferences that were drawn, the fear that was generated and the petrol that was poured on the fire by Opposition Front Benchers.

What happened? The position had been perfectly well understood in Europe since 1988. When the first evidence came to light, we went straight to the European veterinary and scientific committee. It accepted the science and never questioned it until 12 months ago when, inexcusably and unforgivably but carried along by public opinion and press and media panic, one after another Ministers in Germany, France and Italy suddenly starting to talk about banning British beef. Before we knew it, we were all on a roller coaster but, ironically, their own industries were damaged even more than ours. That is the current position.

We have heard much about promises and deals. Because the countries that imposed the ban acted illegally and because there is no machinery in place to deal with such a situation, we are at the mercy of the Europeans who have to say when and under what conditions they will lift the ban. It is not up to us. Those countries said that they would like us to do six things. We have done five and are about to do the sixth; we shall then be in a position to say that they must honour the spirit of the Florence agreement, which was no more than that—I do not think that hon. Members who have said that there was a condition attached and that there would definitely be reciprocal action have quite realised the true situation.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East could find little to criticise very strongly but mentioned sampling in slaughterhouses. I shall say a brief word about that because the issue was put to us when we first examined the problem—I think that the hon. Members for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who are both sitting on the Opposition Front Bench at the moment, were probably on the Select Committee on Agriculture at the time.

The proportion of cattle likely to be showing any clinical signs of BSE at any one time is less than 0.3 per cent. To have to dissect and inspect the brains of some 300 cattle to find one infected brain is simply not a good use of research resources, and Tyrrell said as much. I do not think that there is much point in our pursuing that line of thought.

We have successfully slaughtered 1.1 million cattle in under 12 months. Bearing in mind that the recommendation for that slaughter came within a few weeks—days, in fact—of the original announcement, the response has been pretty remarkable. I know that last summer there were criticisms and a feeling of desperation that the necessary facilities were not available, the cattle were backing up on the farms and so on, but the problems have been dealt with and we are proceeding correctly.

I do not believe for one second that the Government could have got a selective cull through the House last August. The absolutely firm view of the farming community was that the original over-30-months cull had to be completed first and that we could then consider the implications of a selective cull.

I deal briefly with the situation in Northern Ireland. I have very great sympathy for farmers in Northern Ireland for two reasons. First, there is evidence that grass-fed cattle that have not consumed animal protein are, as near as it is possible to say, 100 per cent. free from BSE. The same applies to a number of other beef producers in Scotland, Wales and the west country. There are also isolated examples all over the country of farmers who have never used animal protein in the feed. One dairy farmer in my constituency has always made up his own feedstuffs using fishmeal. He has never had a case of BSE on his farm but he happens to be a dairy farmer. I can see a legitimate case for treating such farniers differently.

The Ulster situation is better than most because Ulster has for many years had a cattle-tracing system. We recommended way back in 1990 that the whole country should have that system. It provides a second reason for Ulster to suggest that it should perhaps be put at the head of the queue for the ban being lifted.

As I understand it, the complaint at the moment is that the Government are not seeking to start negotiations and put Northern Ireland at the head of the queue. I do not know whether that is so, but it has certainly not been publicised if it is. I believe that, certainly once the selective cull is under way, there is a very good case for our telling Europe that it must be sensible; we have done everything that was necessary and our special cases should be put to the head of the queue. That is well justifiable. I think it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) who said that farmers are a touch jealous from time to time, but I do not believe that they would be when the case was as good as it is. Incidentally, my right hon. Friend mentioned most of the other hon. Members from Somerset but forgot that Weston-super-Mare is glad to back in Somerset, and has been for the past 12 months.

I am not sure that I would refer to the committee of the European Parliament in the same terms as did the hon. Member for West Lancashire. We were disappointed that the rapporteur, although in this country, could not find the time to be with us. We answered pretty comprehensively the questions put to us.

There is a clear misunderstanding of BSE on the continent—