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Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, last Wednesday in this House and in another place Statements were made by myself and by my right honourable friend indicating that new money would be coming forward for research into this matter. The figure mentioned was £4.5 million. Today SEAC made specific recommendations as regards research and we have accepted those recommendations. They deal with the question of resources and the fact that there should be sufficient resources for research into this matter.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, arising from that question, is my noble friend aware that a notable research effort is being conducted at St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington, under the auspices of Imperial College?
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I would hate your Lordships to believe that research is not being carried out. Indeed, research into this matter is taking place in different parts of the country. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State recognises the concern that exists and in no way would he wish to stand in the way of suitable, tested further research schemes.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The Government have laid great stress on their obtaining advice from the scientific community. I hope that they are aware that some members of that community have disagreed with their colleagues
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I am aware that the scientific community is composed of extremely intelligent, bright people--perhaps the cream in the land. Naturally, they have different opinions and views which are widely debated and discussed. We must go back to peer review. Where protocols are coming forward it is up to the experts in the field to decide whether a protocol warrants resources and whether the research is pertinent and appropriate and should go forward. As I said, my right honourable friend stated that he will ensure that the question of resources will not stand in the way if appropriate research is mooted.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I wish to ask the Minister two questions. First, is she aware that today two cases of BSE have been reported in France, which was one of the first countries to ban the import of British beef? Does France have the same stringent controls on matters BSE and does it take the same kind of notice of the scientific community and the scientific advice that it receives as do we in this country?
My second question relates to the attitude of the Secretary of State for Health over the weekend. He said that if the scientific community made any recommendation the Government would accept it straightaway. In that case, I wonder why on earth we have Secretaries of State. Secondly, he said that if the advice that he received was to destroy all British cattle--there are 11 million--the Government would act on that advice. Before he made that statement did he seek advice from all other Ministers, from the Cabinet and, in particular, from the Chancellor of the Exchequer who on behalf of taxpayers must meet the enormous costs, both internal and external, that that will bring about?
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I believe that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has acted with extreme integrity and has come over very strongly. He has taken scientific advice on which he has based all his facts. That is absolutely right and proper. However, he has also said that if options are open, quite properly the Government will consider them all.
As regards cattle, the beef industry, BSE and those issues, I do not believe that I should answer but that my noble friend who is representing the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food this afternoon should take on those issues.
"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health has informed the House of the advice we have received from SEAC earlier today. I hope that this will help to reassure consumers as to the safety of British beef and that this in turn will lead to an improvement in market conditions.
"Some of the SEAC recommendations are for the agriculture departments to take forward. In particular, SEAC has given advice on the treatment of trimmings from cattle over 30 months of age, on meat and bonemeal; and on the status of heads from animals over six months of age. The Government have accepted these recommendations in full and I will bring orders before the House as soon as possible. Because of the nature of the advice given by SEAC, these require consultation with the interests concerned. However, I propose to proceed as expeditiously as possible.
"However, the House will also be concerned about the effect of recent alarm on the beef market and on the livelihoods of the many thousands employed in the several industries connected with it. As I made clear to the House last week, a number of mechanisms exist within the common agricultural policy to support the beef market. These include intervention on young male animals, including safety net intervention if prices fall to particularly low levels, export refunds, and other measures such as aids to private storage, and aid for the slaughter of young male calves from dairy herds.
"Obviously the precise use we wish to make of these, or other, mechanisms will depend upon the extent of the market reaction. It is too early to judge this with confidence, but I am in touch with the Commission so that measures can be put in place as soon as it is clear that they are justified.
"Madam Speaker, I believe that, second to putting in place the necessary measures recommended by SEAC, the most important task is to rebuild consumer and market confidence, a process helped by today's Statement from SEAC. However, confidence is fragile. I shall monitor it with scrupulous care and I shall not hesitate to come before the House with further measures if it is clear that they are justified by the circumstances".
As we said last week, this is a very serious matter. Despite all the problems of the agriculture industry, public health must come first. However, if we are in the situation in which agriculture in this country faces what is potentially the worst crisis in its post-war history, a combination of complacency and hand-wringing will just not do. There has been a catalogue of incompetence, misjudgment and inertia. But that can be dealt with on another occasion and I hope that time will be given for a debate on that. But I trust that all of us who must deal with this matter will act responsibly and do our utmost to allay public alarm.
I start with a simple question. Will the research findings, when they are finally published, explain why the incidence of BSE in this country is 422 times the incidence in the rest of the world put together? Can we have an answer to that?
Last week I referred to the fact that I am sure that a contributory factor to the introduction of animals into the food chain is the obstinate refusal of the Government to pay full compensation on animals--only 50 per cent. compensation was paid--for over three years. The saving to public funds was £4 million. That may be the most expensive £4 million that any government have ever saved. Even in January 1994, there was a further reduction in the compensation paid on affected animals.
Perhaps I may give an example of the seriousness with which the Government took the situation in 1990. When the announcement was made that compensation would be increased to 100 per cent., it was carefully timed by the Minister at the time, Mr. John Gummer, to be released on the afternoon of the evening on which Mr. Neil Kinnock was to make his speech to the annual dinner of the National Farmers Union. If Ministers spent less time in childish headline massaging and more time in responding to their responsibilities for the safety of public health, we might not be in this situation today. By refusing to pay full compensation, the Government gave a perverse incentive against eradication from the food chain.
We must have the strictest controls in our slaughterhouses. We know that the random investigation by the State Veterinary Service last year revealed a worrying state in which controls were not being enforced. Perhaps I may refer to the statement from the SEAC which states:
The Statement refers to intervention but I understand that, for intervention to apply, meat has to be saleable. Is there an undertaking that if the meat cannot be sold, it will be accepted into intervention? I was told only this morning of a major slaughterhouse which is losing £100,000 per day at present because of lack of sales. It is having to stockpile everything. If there is to be compensation, who pays? Will it be the British taxpayer, the European Commission or both?
The Statement refers to export refunds. What exports are the refunds to be paid on? Will the Government now accept the argument which we have made since the mid-1980s that there should be an independent food standards agency which is responsible for the quality and safety of the nation's food, whether imported or home produced? Every time these matters are discussed, there is divided responsibility. There is always this unique situation of a joint statement by the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture. This shows that divided responsibility must be ended. Consumer safety must be separated from producer protection.
Will the Minister undertake to ban from human and animal food the specified offal of calves? We do not accept that it is wise to continue to allow offal from cattle under the age of six months into the food chain. The Minister made much of the fact that the Government have listened to the outcome of research by scientists. Will the Government consider random testing for BSE in the brains of cattle routinely sent for slaughter, as recommended by the Tyrrell Committee in 1989? Will he reconsider the safety of MRM--mechanically recovered meat--in the light of the new concerns?
For the sake of both farmers and consumers alike, I make it clear to the Minister that only when consumers are satisfied that they are protected by rigorous regulations which are properly enforced will there be confidence that our beef is as safe as any other beef in Europe.
The enforcement of all the BSE controls and legislation is crucial. I remind the Minister that as recently as last summer the State Veterinary Service found that BSE control rules in abattoirs were being flouted. Will the Minister give the House an assurance today that the State Veterinary Service and the Meat Hygiene Service will be given all the resources and all the statutory authority that they require to execute their duties?
As regards the new steps that the Minister has announced today, will he confirm that if a carcass, or part of a carcass, is believed to have been contaminated in the slaughterhouse, or in any other part of the chain, with specified offal, that carcass, or part of a carcass, is to be prohibited from entering the human or the animal food chain? Can the Minister tell us who will be responsible for taking the decision that this action is necessary, and who will be responsible for enforcing it? Will the Minister consider ensuring that all cull cows are slaughtered and destroyed? Does the Minister agree with the statement of the former Prime Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, that advisers advise but Ministers decide?
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