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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:54 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield 8:54 pm, 17th February 1997

No, I will not. I have only 10 minutes in which to speak.

Let us look at the way in which the crisis unfolded. As we all know, we have an agreement behind the scenes—behind the Speaker's Chair. We all know when it is going to be a quiet week, and the week of this crisis was scheduled to be a quiet week. The Prime Minister was going to make a major speech before a by-election that was crucial for his party. I was with the leader of our party when he launched our small firms policy in the City of London; it had been agreed that there would be nothing much on in the House on that day, and, indeed, during that part of the week.

The next thing we knew was that messages had come through about a statement not just from one Minister, but from two Secretaries of State. That is almost unheard of. Everyone, not only in the House but outside, knows that it means something if two Secretaries of State, including a senior Cabinet Minister—the Secretary of State for Health—run into the Chamber and say that there is a crisis. Two Secretaries of State came in and said that there was a crisis.

In the approach to a general election, we must all be partisan; but any fair-minded person reading the Hansard report of the Minister's statement and the Opposition response will realise that no other response could have been made by anyone. In fact, the Opposition's response was very muted. I thought that the most outrageous response came from a Conservative Member—the hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), who is not present now but who asked the Minister an interesting and rather inflammatory question.

We are now in a global economy. Most people who run banks or other big financial institutions know that something careless that they say at a dinner party or over the weekend can change the whole structure of a financial market. That can be gathered from any of the leading American industrialists who saw the value of their shares drop by 5 per cent. overnight following a careless remark made only a few weeks before. I spoke to someone—this is a comment on that global economy—who was in CNN's headquarters in Atlanta, and saw those two Secretaries of State come in. He commented: "We knew immediately"—in Atlanta!—"that something serious was up, because we saw the shaking hands of the Secretary of State for Health. He did not even have to say anything; we saw the picture, transmitted all those thousands of miles, instantly."

In crisis management, people are told, "You have 10 minutes or 10 hours, but if you do not manage a crisis in that time you can forget it." That is acknowledged by Shell, and by all the big energy companies. British Gas knows it only too well. In this instance, we had a crisis that was spiralling out of control; then, making matters even worse, the Government said, "There is a crisis—there is a problem—but we are not going to do all that much about it. Indeed, we will tell you about the most sensitive issue, our children's health, next Monday." No sensible person involved in crisis management would allow a weekend to pass, featuring comment from the Sunday press. The Sunday press is the worst in terms of speculation, tabloid circulation and the building up of stories—and we all knew that that story would go through the roof. Then it was out of control.

That is where we are now. I lack confidence not only in the Minister of Agriculture, who has hardly been present throughout the evening, but in the Secretary of State for Health, because of his complicity in what has been a disaster for agriculture and for farming.

The crisis could have been avoided, but every man, woman and child in this country is now lumbered with even more debt—2p on income tax to pay the £3.5 billion cost of the crisis. If we, as a loyal Opposition, had not called this debate, we would have been failing in our duty. It is not only a crisis but a sad comment on a Government who cannot govern.