Orders of the Day — BSE

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:16 pm on 22nd May 1997.

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Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 10:16 pm, 22nd May 1997

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) on securing this debate. Within a few hours of my appointment and my walking into the Department, I told my advisers that, when the House reassembled, BSE would be a top priority. Given the Adjournment debate prospects both on Wednesday mornings and at other times during the week, I would have been astonished if there had not been a brief debate on BSE.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a measured speech. If I cannot respond now to all the points he made, I shall do my best to cover them in correspondence.

I thank him sincerely for his kind remarks about me. It is true that I do not have an agricultural background, and that my constituents are not exactly versed in the ways of agriculture. However, everyone is a consumer. One does not need to be an expert in agricultural technology and procedures to understand that there has been a massive crisis of confidence in British food, not just beef.

That has had catastrophic implications for job prospects for many people who would not usually be associated with enterprise, including lorry drivers and shopkeepers. Therefore, I make no apology—nor does my right hon. Friend the Minister—for Members of Parliament who represent urban constituencies taking a broader view. Their constituency interests are the same as those of everyone else—safer food for all our people, and a restoration of confidence in our food production system.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned—it shows how efficient the system is—my right hon. Friend the Minister has today written to all right hon. and hon. Members telling them about our plans for BSE. It was important to do that, as we are about to start a short recess. I am pleased to have this opportunity to emphasise some of the points made by my right hon. Friend. I shall come in a minute to aspects of the ban mentioned by the hon. Member for Gordon.

The BSE inheritance is not a happy one. We inherited concerns about public health, a loss of confidence in beef, lingering animal health problems, a battered British beef industry, stores stacked high with cattle remains, a colossal bill for the taxpayer—which is rising daily—and antagonised, deeply suspicious, European partners. There are also a great many angry farmers. If I were a farmer, I would be angry, too.

We also inherited Administration failures. The previous Administration failed to enforce the rules properly, such as the offal controls in abattoirs to protect the public, and the controls on animal feed to eradicate BSE. They had a failed policy of non-co-operation in Europe. That did not bring any benefits to this country. They failed to deliver on their promise to get the beef ban lifted by last November.

The previous Government failed to get cracking with the selective cull. I was astonished at what I found when, within a day of coming to the Ministry, I asked about the figures on what had happened in the six weeks of the general election campaign, when there were still Ministers around who could have been asking questions and pressing ahead. The previous Government failed to reassure consumers. We have inherited a catalogue of failure, and much needs to be done.

I can assure the House that we shall do everything in our power to turn things around. We must have a safer food policy. We must make the point that our policing of the beef production system is second to none in Europe. We produce the finest and safest quality beef anywhere in Europe. That point must be repeated to our partners.

We also have to regain the trust of customers—a key way in which we shall do so is to set up a food standards agency. There has to be an independent element to help to restore confidence. We are consulting on that, and we hope to produce a draft Bill this Session for introduction in the next Session. Meanwhile, there is much that we can do to turn matters around.

We shall rebuild bridges across Europe—that process has already been begun by my right hon. Friends in the Cabinet, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We shall seek to restore hope to a battered industry. We shall work tirelessly to get the export ban lifted, although that will not be done overnight. Our action will consist not of one single measure, but of a range of measures. We shall continue to give more impetus to the selective cull. We shall move rapidly to create a computerised cattle tracking system.

Those are the Government's challenges and priorities. They will be my personal priorities, as well as those of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—and for which we shall account to the House.