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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:34 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of Mr Paul Marland Mr Paul Marland , Gloucestershire West 7:34 pm, 17th February 1997

Dream on. I am happy for the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) to dream on and to think of better things, but he will be very disappointed.

BSE is undoubtedly the biggest crisis that has ever hit the UK food industry. More people and sectors in the industry have been involved in this crisis than in any previous one, and hindsight is a very cheap commodity. We are sick to death of carping by the Labour and Liberal parties about what should have been done, and of hearing about how much better they might have handled the situation—with the benefit of hindsight. Hindsight always was and always will be a cheap commodity.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Agriculture Minister—who has been masterminding the difficulties—has always, and quite rightly, taken the best available scientific advice. He appointed the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, under Professor Pattison, and has taken its advice. As other hon. Members have said, imagine the uproar in the House if a Minister had attempted to act on his own gut feeling rather than on the best available scientific advice.

There is no doubt that the demand for slaughtering under the 30-months scheme far exceeded any possible forecast. There is also no doubt that, to some extent, farmers regarded the scheme as an opportunity to upgrade their herds, and they took advantage of it. I do not cast one iota of blame on them for that. However, once it was realised that a backlog was building up and that farmers were facing difficulties keeping their cattle, what did my right hon. and learned Friend the Agriculture Minister do? He did not turn his back on farmers, but offered them payment in advance for cattle that were to be slaughtered.

I accept that there was some difficulty getting cattle to slaughterhouses on time because such a colossal number of animals were being killed. As other hon. Members have said, 1.25 million cattle have been killed under the scheme. Of course there were difficulties getting all those cattle to slaughterhouses on time.

I maintain close contacts with Gloucester market, as have my hon. Friends from Gloucestershire, and we were disturbed to hear about the difficulties faced by many farmers there. To be fair to Mike Credland, the manager of the market, he did the very best that he could and speeded the animals to the slaughter as quickly as he could without showing fear or favour to anyone.

Another difficulty that was slowing down the slaughter was the lack of rendering capacity. My right hon. and learned Friend did not sit back and do nothing about that either. He sought to take advantage of and arrange a lot of extra cold storage throughout the country so that we could speed up the slaughter of cattle, and due credit should be given to him for taking that initiative. Such measures take time, are not easy to arrange and cost money, but my right hon. and learned Friend got on with the job and concluded the over-30-months scheme considerably in advance of what had been expected.

Soon, we will have fulfilled six of the six conditions laid down by the Florence summit in order that the European ban on the export of British beef may be lifted. I hope that, once the cattle have been identified and the selective slaughter has gone ahead, we shall manage to persuade our European partners to look seriously at the possibility of lifting the ban. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, it is perfectly fair and reasonable that we should start in Ulster because of the special circumstances relating to Northern Ireland. I shall not go over them all again, but it would be a gesture of good will on behalf of our European partners if they embraced that suggestion and allowed the export of beef from Northern Ireland.

The Labour party is using this debate to kick British farmers in the teeth. Like other hon. Members, I have been talking to farmers over the weekend. I had a number of telephone calls from Gloucestershire farmers who, as a result of this debate, want to stick pins into the Opposition agriculture spokesman for causing waves and making difficulties for them just when things were beginning to settle down again. The Labour party is exploiting BSE for its own ends by creating unfavourable publicity about the disease.

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may be interested to know that a little while ago, McDonald's, the hamburger people, came to see members of the Back Bench committee. We have had two or three meetings with them during this period and, as usual, we were trying to press them to reintroduce British beef to their restaurants. They said that they were looking favourably at the matter but that their only concern was unfavourable media coverage of BSE and British beef.

Opposition spokesmen are guilty of generating further unfavourable publicity for British beef. We should hang that round their necks and bury them in the vote at 10 o'clock.