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Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, it is difficult to follow the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in that he has specified a great many matters that are wrong. I believe that great harm was done because the Government were not sure what the advice was from SEAC. They then set it to work for a weekend, after making the announcement which destroyed our beef trade in Europe, and they then make this Statement now which could have reassured a great number of people if they had not been totally upset and terrified by statements, such as that which emanated from the Minister of Agriculture when he said that, if necessary, he would kill every cow in Britain. It appears to everyone that great harm has been done to the industry by the handling of the announcement which the Government made last week.

As regards the Statement made today, I was going to urge that the Government do nothing for publicity's sake, such as slaughtering large numbers of animals, but the Statement now includes such phrases as proposing to proceed as expeditiously as possible. That is hardly likely to do immense good on the Continent where people are waiting to see what energetic steps the Government are to take. Will the Minister assure us that instructions have already been issued to every slaughterhouse to ensure that they tighten up, and that inspectors are working overtime to ensure that they do so? That is an absolute necessity at the present time. Will the Minister also assure us that every cattle beast which has been found to have BSE is slaughtered and destroyed and does not enter the meat chain at all? Will the Minister tell us how soon he thinks licences can be issued to slaughterhouses to bone out completely, and does he think that any interim steps should be taken before that is done? There might well be a case for slaughter and destruction until the slaughterhouse is ready to carry out the instructions and the recommendations of SEAC.

Will the Minister also assure us that all the necessary staff will be put in place to carry out these stiff recommendations? Will he make a statement to assure the public at large that milk has never had any connection with any infection put forward? Finally, can he tell us what exactly is the position in Europe, not as regards the number of BSE cases but as regards the precautions that they are taking? That might do something to help. The damage has already been done. There is reference in the Statement to the measures that could be taken if prices fall to particularly low

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levels. If the Minister had read the agricultural papers, he would know that the prices in Aberdeen have fallen by £100 per head. I hope that that fact will be taken into consideration and will not be regarded as a necessary sacrifice by the farming community.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I was grateful when the noble Lord, Lord Carter, acknowledged the fact that public health is being put first. However, the other allegations he made were wide of the mark and were somewhat extraordinary at times given his knowledge of the industry and of some of the complexities of the industry. There has been no complacency in the handling of this matter. We have been guided for the best part of a decade now by the leading experts on this subject. We introduced orders in 1989 and in 1990. We have tightened those controls since. All the time we have sought to reduce a small risk. We have increased the research. We have researched both CJD and BSE. The arrangements, the restrictions and the controls we have had in this country to date have been approved both by European veterinary experts and indeed by the World Health Organisation. They have led to the comment that they go beyond the controls that those bodies might otherwise have expected of us. Therefore, according to those bodies, we have exceeded the minimum threshold.

As regards why the incidence of BSE in the UK is so much higher, there are a number of factors which occur together uniquely in the UK which has meant that BSE has entered the cattle food chain. However, as the noble Lord will know as well as I, there are still more unanswered questions about BSE's pathway than there are answers. I remind the House that there is still no direct evidence that there is a connection between BSE as it is found in bovine offals and human diseases such as CJD.

The noble Lord returned to a favourite subject of his--compensation. I remind him that the Select Committee in another place did not find evidence that paying less than 100 per cent. compensation led to under-reporting. The history of notifiable cattle diseases is that less than 100 per cent. compensation was paid in such instances. The House may be interested to know that when the Government raised the compensation level from 50 per cent. to 100 per cent. the number of reported cases of BSE per annum levelled off. It did not continue to rise as it had under the 50 per cent. compensation level.

We have, and want, the strictest controls on slaughterhouses. Where the Meat and Hygiene Service has direct responsibility for administering those controls, and where the State Veterinary Service checks the MHS's control of the orders, there is, as it were, a belt and braces approach. I can assure the noble Lord that the disposal of SBOs involves incineration. It would be premature to go into the details of intervention at the moment should that be triggered. After just a few days the market is still fluid and to establish a rescue package when the market is still unstable would be premature.

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The noble Lord returned to a subject which he raised last week; namely, that of calves. The SEAC experts are convinced that calves up to the age of six months remain safe. The research it has undertaken involves contaminating calves and then checking them after a 12-month period. It found that the brain of a calf at 18 months has still not become infected, despite the calf being infected with BSE at an earlier age. It is the experts who advise us on these matters. If they had any doubts about this, they would have told us.

I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie. Perhaps I may make this basic point. The first interim report of SEAC involved some vital information. Considerable extra scrutiny was required to come up with the recommendations on that information. But to have had that information spill into the public domain, as it were through informal means, in the middle of last week without the Government presenting the information formally would have been grossly irresponsible. Speculation resulting from such informal leaking of information would have done incalculable damage. It was better in every way that we were absolutely open about the fact that the information had been presented to us in an interim format and that SEAC would make specific recommendations as soon as they had been finalised.

The speed at which we shall introduce the new regulations is laid down in the Food Safety Act. It requires consultation. The consultation will be immediate and it will be quick. The Food Safety Act specifies that that initial consultation must take place, however brief. There are emergency procedures. But again it is worth the House keeping matters in perspective. We are not looking at an emergency threat to human health. We are looking at a focus that the SEAC experts have adopted of a temporary exposure during the 1980s. They are not doubting current beef and beef-related products. Their focus has been on an historic and not a current exposure.

I reiterate, as I did last week, that milk is absolutely safe.

The noble Lord also asked about Europe. I believe--I shall need to double check the fact--that Denmark and Ireland have not banned our products, but many other European member states have banned our products. There is no scientific basis for that ban. It is unnecessary. It is, therefore, an overreaction; and because of the lack of justice in that ban we have taken up the matter with the Commission.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, 27 years ago I had the responsibility of dealing with two outbreaks; namely, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease and of rabies. I know and appreciate how difficult these days are for Ministers in charge of this matter.

This is a more serious outbreak, with all its implications, and I welcome the steps that the Government are taking. However, I have a certain doubt about whether or not the Government are going far enough in dealing with the matter. The implications of a further major outbreak would be disastrous not only

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for the farming industry but for the community in general. There has been advice in newspapers from other experts in this field. One of them thought that cattle over the age of two and a half years should be slaughtered; that that would give security from the possibility of a major outbreak. Has that proposal been considered? What was the reaction of the Government? What was the advice of their experts on the proposal?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am grateful for the memories of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, on issues with which he had to deal in the same area of policy.

I stress to the House that this is not an outbreak. We have 10 cases of a new variant of CJD. There is no direct evidence linking this new variant of CJD, or indeed any CJD, with BSE, bovine offal and, least of all, beef flesh or beef meat. We do not have an outbreak. It is also not infectious in any way. That may further reassure the noble Lord.

Have we gone far enough? Should we be slaughtering all cattle over the age of two and a half years? The SEAC experts, and the experts they commissioned to cover different angles, have the option to recommend to us whatever they think will be necessary in order to tackle the problem, as they see it, which relates to a brief period of exposure during the 1980s. They see no scientific justification whatsoever for slaughtering any cattle except those which are currently slaughtered. At present, we slaughter any cattle that are suspected of having BSE. But there is no scientific justification for slaughtering any other age range or type of cattle.


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