TSE (England) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Morley: It is mad.

Mr. Simpson: The Minister says from a sedentary position that the BVA's suggestion is ''mad''. I am

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sure that it will be pleased to hear the Minister's definition of mad.

Mr. Morley: I shall tell the BVA personally.

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Simpson: The Minister is in a frisky mood, but when one has been in the same job for five years, I imagine that one has little opportunity to be so frisky. A promotion to another Department, perhaps the Department for Transport, might do him the world of good.

The Minister and Lord Whitty have given the impression in the past that many of the points raised by Members of Parliament, noble Lords and outside interest groups were either fatuous or irrelevant. The Minister's problem is that on several occasions, many of the points that were made about DEFRA and, in the old days the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, were then overtaken by events. In some cases, although not all, it was proved that the points raised were perfectly legitimate and, in many cases, based on some element of fact.

The problem is that the scientific evidence is all too often inconclusive. A good example is the Food Standards Agency's comment about whether it is acceptable to continue to eat lamb. Like many other parliamentarians, I heard a presentation by the FSA several weeks ago and was somewhat alarmed when its chairman said that he was not advising the public not to eat lamb. That is a strange double negative and hardly a full endorsement. I accept that, given what happened with BSE, foot and mouth and swine fever, the public are concerned about animal health. However, one reaches a stage where a double negative endorsement is too easily read by many people as a statement that it is not safe to eat British lamb. The problem all too frequently is that it is safe to eat almost nothing, given the prospect of getting food poisoning of one sort or another. Alas, the Government's own pairing Whip was struck low last week with food poisoning.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire): No.

Mr. Simpson: Another Government Whip must have misled me. I hope that a frustrated Back Bencher did not give it to him.

As we discussed in many of our debates, there is a balance between maintaining public health and public confidence, and trying to maintain the viability of the markets of fundamental parts of the British food industry. As I said, the onus is on the Government, and I look forward to the Minister's reply. The Government helped to create many of their problems over the TSE regulations because of the way in which the regulations were drafted and presented. Many problems were also caused by the way in which Ministers answered, or failed to answer, some of the points raised in this House and another place. The Minister may be able to dismiss them as being based on myth or lack of information, but I urge him to make certain, when we discuss the regulations in

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future, that they are properly drafted and explained, and available electronically from the beginning, as has been promised. I also urge him to ensure that the onus is placed on the Government to make certain that the public, and especially the farming community, have confidence in his Department.

4.52 pm

Mr. Morley: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings, and I apologise for my comments from a sedentary position. The debate is frustrating, as it is based on misunderstandings and on allegations that lack any credibility. I understand some of the issues that independent Members in the other place are promoting. They are free to do what they want, but it is surprising to find the official Opposition picking up conspiracy theories and allegations that have no basis in fact. Bringing people here for a debate of this sort that is based on such nonsense is to be regretted. Hon. Members who have shown such loyal support on this Committee deserve better.

However, I will deal in some detail with the points made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), and I hope that Opposition Members take careful note. I am sorry to relate my remarks to him, as he does a good job on behalf of the Opposition. As he said, we have debated statutory instruments together many times. The greatest attention may not have been given to their detail, but they are all important and have a bearing. The statutory instrument under discussion is important because it relates to the protection of consumers. The idea of annulling the regulations is not only ludicrous in its misinterpretation but undermines confidence in existing protection for consumers. That was borne out by a letter from Sir John Krebs of the Food Standards Agency, who in no uncertain terms made clear the importance of the regulations. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman recognises that it would be a disaster for the regulations to fall, but that did not stop some hon. Members from his party voting for that in the other place.

Lester Firkin, chairman of the Human BSE Foundation, said:

    ''I suppose the thing I would say is if any Lords voted against this SI, I would invite them to come to our next family day—for people who have lost people through variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (vcjd), which takes place on July 27.''

The measure is about TSEs and protecting people from the risk of transferring new variant CJD, and has nothing to do with the Animal Health Bill. People's interpretations of these issues are completely wrong, and I shall demolish them one by one. In the meantime, however, I gladly give way.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): From his opening comments, the Minister seems to imply that there is a risk of getting new variant CJD from sheep, but that is not what Sir John Krebs said. What probability is there of contracting the disease?

Mr. Morley: It is not what John Krebs said, and it is not what I am saying. It is no secret, however, that there is a theoretical risk of BSE in the national flock. We have been open and transparent about that, we have informed consumers and we have followed Food

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Standards Agency guidance openly and transparently. We have explained that there is no evidence of BSE in the national sheep flock, and I am glad that there is not. We are, however, looking for evidence of the disease, rather than being complacent about it, unlike the previous Conservative Administration, whose actions ended in catastrophe for the beef industry. We will not let the sheep industry be affected in the same way. There has not been a drop in sheep meat sales, and the reason for that consumer confidence is that people can make informed judgments when they are given the necessary information. They have confidence in what the FSA says, in what DEFRA says and in the information that we put in the public domain.

I do not accept that a widespread lack of public confidence has led to concern about the regulations. As a constituency Member of Parliament, I have had no letters whatever about the issue, which is not to say that no one is interested in it. There is, however, a rich seam of paranoia and conspiracy theories on the margins of such issues. Change is also uncomfortable for some people, although that is a separate issue. Some people have an interest in fostering distrust in the Government and in organisations such as the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association, and I am surprised that the Opposition seem to be following that agenda.

Those who are concerned about the regulations are in no way representative. DEFRA recently produced its annual report, and is scrutinised by many groups. I would not, of course, expect them all to be completely uncritical, because criticism is a function of a democratic society. Generally speaking, however, the various stakeholders welcome the way in which DEFRA is operating and developing. That certainly seems to be the case from the response to our annual report.

I should repeat that the regulations have no connection whatever with the Animal Health Bill, and are not a way of bringing it in by the back door. That is simply a misunderstanding, which reflects ignorance of the issue. Incidentally, I make no apology for the Bill, which contains important disease control measures. Some people have an obsession and a fixation with culling, but the Bill is way ahead of them and provides powers in relation to vaccination and the taking of samples.

The Bill also deals with important biosecurity issues. We shall have to wait and see what the independent inquiries say about that, although I am sure that it will be interesting. The issue must, however, be dealt with, and the Bill does so. It deals with the minority of farmers who do not follow good biosecurity procedures. Why should the majority be put at risk by the actions of a minority? The Bill also contains powers to prosecute those who deliberately spread infection. We consider that an important issue, but the Opposition obviously do not.

The Bill was not defeated in the House of Lords, but postponed, and we intend to return with it. It was postponed in the light of the Anderson report, and the House of Lords accepted that. We shall follow the issue up in due course.

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By giving conspiracy theories credence, the Opposition put their credibility, not the Government's, at stake. It was said that people were concerned, but the Opposition seem not to be aware that the regulations were circulated to more than 1,000 groups and interested parties, none of whom raised the sort of concerns being expressed today. That does not suggest a lack of credibility in the Department or the regulations.

As for the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, it found five typing errors but expressed no concern about a single issue of substance. I apologise for the typing errors. The Committee made one or two helpful suggestions and explained some of the terms, which was perfectly reasonable, but none of that suggests that the regulations are defective or that the Joint Committee had any concerns about them.

The regulations were circulated for consultation in February, which is when they were put on the website. I cannot be held responsible for people being unable to work out how to look things up on websites. The regulations introduce only three new issues. I shall go through them in a moment.

The slaughter powers that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk queried go back to measures introduced in the 1980s under a Conservative Government: there is nothing new about the slaughter powers in relation to the TSE and BSE regulations. He said that people need to be careful about what they read in the newspapers—and I agree with and underline that point—but there is nothing new except for the three matters that I shall mention in a moment. In another place, an undertaking was given by Lord Whitty on appeals for slaughter. That matter is being considered, and thought is being given to how they might work. That will not be easy in relation to such measures, but the undertaking will be honoured.

There will be no change in the powers of entry from those in the BSE regulations, which were introduced by a Conservative Administration. The definition of livestock in relation to horses, too, is the same as in previous legislation—again, no change. It is used in the regulations only in the context of food controls. There are no TSE-related slaughter powers concerning equines in the regulations, and it is wrong for people to suggest that there are.

I begin by reinforcing the point that the legislation is there to protect consumers. It is wrong that a minority should direct discouragement and criticism at regulations that achieve the vital aim of protecting consumers. Such criticism goes against the advice of the Food Standards Agency.

The regulations comply with European and human rights legislation in the normal way. They are important regulations, but they do not introduce mass culling powers through the back door or make the national scrapie plan compulsory. They simply tackle the risks associated with BSE and scrapie.

 
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Prepared 19 June 2002