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Noble Lords: Oh!

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I suggest to the noble Lords opposite that if they talk to the farmers and those in the industry in rural areas, as I and other Ministers responsible for agriculture have done, they will find that those people are annoyed at the bickering

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that has gone on while their livelihoods are at stake. They are surprised that the party opposite has become so interested in this matter when the extent of the commitment to UK agriculture in the 1992 manifesto of the party opposite amounted to two sentences. One could write what that party stated about UK agriculture in that manifesto on the back of a bus ticket.

It surprises farmers and others in the agricultural community when suddenly the party opposite decides this is a party political issue in which it wishes to become involved. Our commitment to that industry and to rural areas where the beef industry is so vital is complete. We want to maintain the viability of that industry and the jobs that it supports. We want the quality and the safety of the product to be paramount. We want the support that the beef industry gives to jobs and to livelihoods to be secure.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, made a useful contribution when he set out the scientific background to the current BSE scare. As I think he implicitly acknowledged, this is an area of complex science and of as yet unanswered questions, even as regards those who know more about this than the rest of their scientific colleagues. The noble Lord stressed that we should be pursuing a slaughter policy. However, the scientists have never suggested that. We know that the science that we have promptly taken on board is working in that the number of cases of BSE in this country has fallen considerably and quickly. The most surprising thing was that the noble Lord opposite failed to condemn the EU ban. It is disproportionate, illogical and irrational. It is based on not one shred of scientific evidence. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, will find it in himself to condemn that ban.

We shall not be bullied by Europe on this matter. In particular, we shall not be bullied into carrying out a mass cull which would devastate our national herd for years to come and place us at a grave disadvantage in the market, if there are no scientific grounds to support it. We shall not burn the sacrificial calf to placate European competitors who have ruthlessly manipulated health concerns to distort the market in their favour. If there is a scientific basis for such action, we shall of course do so. But if it is based on malevolence or on ignorance, it would be crazy to do so.

The beef industry is a great industry. It is almost part of our national identity. We know that the people involved in it are worried about their future. But we have brought forward the actions. We are determined to deliver to that industry the secure future that it deserves. It produces a great product and it deserves a great future.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, has been wise to put down this Motion today because it is a timely occasion for it. We are concerned to have an effective and sensible way of dealing with the consequences of panic. There is no doubt that that is the right way of putting it. I do not wish to go over the inept way--even the most partisan supporter of the Government cannot congratulate the Government Ministers--in which they dealt with the problem

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initially. One cannot go publicly on television and talk about the slaughter of 10 million animals without any kind of reference to time and not expect public panic; and that is what happened. That panic extended to Europe and there has been a great deal of politicising about the issue since. Eurosceptics felt that they could climb on a bandwagon to blame Europe for a panic that was really started in this country.

All that is now water under the bridge. We are now concerned with the effective means of dealing with the situation. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, was right to call for consistent and coherent policies to deal with the situation that now faces us.

I deal first with the question of public confidence. Although no direct evidence of a link between BSE and the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease exists, there is serious circumstantial evidence to suggest a possible link with the new strain of human disease which has taken the lives of 11 young people. Therefore, it is quite right that we should take a very serious view and that the public should be safeguarded as reasonably as possible. But the whole issue must be kept in perspective.

On 3rd April, when commenting on the previous and much less constructive Statement made on that day compared with the Statement made yesterday, I quoted the letter from the distinguished Fellow of the Royal Society, Sir Christopher Cockerell, in The Times. It states:


    "This means that on present data the odds against dying by eating beef are at least half a million to one against. Crossing a road is many times more dangerous".
It is right that on the information that we have, the best scientific analysis that we have, it is much more dangerous to smoke, drink or to cross a road than to eat beef in any form. That is not to wish the problem away; but it is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, indicated, to have a pooling of information of the research done not only in this country but also on the Continent and in the United States. I hope that that will be done.

I believe that the measures taken yesterday are nearly all to be commended with certain reservations. The Minister of Agriculture announced yesterday that,


    "So far as manufacturers are concerned, on 12th April I amended the Emergency Control Order to allow imports of beef from animals over 30 months of age produced in certain third countries traditionally supplying the UK in which there is no history of BSE".--[Official Report, Commons 16/4/96; col. 599.]
From countries where there is no history of BSE, mature beef is being imported into this country for manufacturing purposes. I do not disagree with that. However, I wish to raise the policy of selective slaughtering. I raised the issue previously and I cited my own herd--it is in no way exceptional--where there has not been a single incidence of BSE during its 30 year existence. There are many such herds in this country. Some are extremely valuable. If we can import beef from other countries which supplied us which are not affected by BSE, why can we not use the same beef from safe herds in our own country?

The Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, asks for consistent and coherent policies. How can that particular policy of the Secretary of State

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be described as consistent and coherent? Slaughtering millions of animals unnecessarily will cost a fantastic amount of money whether we or the Common Market find the money. If it is unnecessary, then we should be much more circumspect about that policy.

As I gathered, there has been a debate within the Common Market as to whether a selective policy of slaughtering was to be preferred. I understand that the Minister of Agriculture is still looking into the matter. The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, referred to the 20 per cent. drop in consumption; it is back to 80 per cent. If there were a 20 per cent. drop in the Stock Exchange there would be total panic. Weeks have gone by, and slaughtering now in certain areas is back to 80 per cent. of what it used to be; that still indicates a tremendous crisis. Therefore the Government owe it to the country and to the consumer to take a more measured approach to the problem. The consumers need reassuring; they need reassuring on scientific evidence; and the farming community, which has suffered the effects of the panic caused by the ineptitude of the Government, need more efficient and fairer proposals for compensation than they have been provided with at present.

3.37 p.m.

Lord Grantchester: My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity to make my first speech in this House, on a subject which is of vital importance to the well-being of the nation and is even more crucial for the future of the beef industry. It is also of direct relevance to me personally and, accordingly, I would like to declare an interest.

I am a dairy farmer in Cheshire, where I milk 300 head of cattle on 400 acres. I was lucky enough to be awarded the Premier Breeders award at the Royal Agricultural Show every year from 1989 to 1994.

However, like every other cattle farmer, the future of my business has been placed in jeopardy by the Government's handling of the scares about BSE. I have had BSE in my herd--not when the disease was at its most prevalent from cattle born in the 1980s but, rather disturbingly, in 1995 from cattle born in 1991.

Farmers and consumers have, quite rightly, looked to the Government to offer advice and to set out clear policies to tackle the problem. Instead, the ministerial Statements made on 20th March and subsequently have caused complete turmoil.

The Government are supposedly making policy on the basis of scientific facts but this whole furore has been caused by a speculative and uncorroborated statement that CJD may--I stress, may--be linked to exposure to BSE prior to the SBO ban in 1989. Yet all the UK control measures have up to now been based on the assumption that BSE may be transmissible to man.

Since then, we have heard of cases of CJD in Europe, which shows that it is not just a British problem. And now we hear from Dr. Gareth Roberts of the London Medical College that it is likely that there has been quite

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a lot of misdiagnoses of death occurring prior to the discovery of BSE in cattle that can now be attributable to CJD.

But Ministers made their Statements without consulting the farming industry, the scientific community or our partners in Europe.

The scientific community has consistently differed in its views on the disease. And it is still a matter for academic debate whether or not scrapie has in fact made the "species jump" from sheep to cattle.

The constant drip of further measures to be introduced has reinforced the perception that the Government are doing too little, too late. The end result of the Government's dithering and indecision has been to tear public confidence to shreds. The same applies in the farming industry.

There is also a widespread suspicion that financial criteria are more important to the Government than the nation's health. This was reinforced when the implications of the Government's proposals became apparent. Prior to the recent scare, it took 18 months to persuade the Government to raise the compensation paid to farmers from 50 per cent. to 100 per cent. of slaughter value, but even that is often below market value. How small is the £4 million saving during these 18 months against the cost of measures announced yesterday!

Nor can public confidence have been helped by revelations that sections of the industry have been less than scrupulous in adhering to the regulations. Let me mention just a couple of examples: the inclusion of potential contaminants in cattle feed; the hazardous handling of SBOs by abattoirs. A recent sample found that 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses were found to be failing in their handling of SBOs, and that as late as the end of last year.

There has been a lack of monitoring of feed mills. Feed merchants still do not openly declare the list of ingredients to farmers. Can the Government bring forward legislation on this as a matter of urgency? There has also been a lack of monitoring of the rendering process and of abattoirs. The staining of prohibited offals and the establishment of the Meat Hygiene Service only occurred in April 1995. There is also the possibility that waste products may have been included in mechanically recovered meat. Bonemeal was still included in feed for pigs and poultry right up to three weeks ago.

All these practices have, of course, been taking place even though so little knowledge is available of the disease. We know that just one gramme of BSE-infected material fed by mouth to a calf will produce BSE in that calf. But what do we know about the dosage, incubation periods and susceptibility in humans, and at the different stages in the process of changes in practices in slaughterhouses? Are scientists now convinced that every avenue of possible infection has been closed? Are Ministers convinced? The answers to those questions are crucial to restoring the public's confidence. But the public are still waiting and meanwhile dairy farmers cannot sell their cattle.

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A lot of British beef has been replaced by imports as a means of allaying public concerns. But I wonder what thought has been given to the likely explosive reaction when imported beef is found to be potentially more dangerous than the British beef we now propose to destroy. Millions of tonnes of feed containing bonemeal were exported and used on the Continent while it was still being used in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. At the same time, vast numbers of breeding stock were exported. It would be logical to assume that there have been far more cases of BSE than have been declared. Thus, there is every possibility that BSE could be reimported. It is well understood by farmers that the authorities in Europe are not averse to making use of Lord Nelson's eye.

To restore confidence in British beef and the farming industry, the Government must insist that the European Commission publish the facts on the measures taken in Europe to safeguard public health. How well observed are the regulations governing abattoirs and the slaughtering process? How do our measures to safeguard the consumer compare with those in other European countries? We must stop being defensive and highlight the safety measures taken uniquely in this country.

It is a fact that the number of confirmed BSE cases in the UK fell from 36,000 in 1992 to 14,000 last year. That amounts to just 0.4 per cent. of the cattle population. Here in Britain we are at the leading edge of expertise on this disease. That expertise must lead the way and not be sidelined by Europe's Standing Veterinary Committee. The first priority must be public health. We need to restore the public's confidence. The survival of the meat industry depends on it.

What is needed is a major publicity campaign highlighting all the facts and focusing on the measures being taken to tackle the BSE problem. We must not pander to hysteria and I welcome the British Veterinary Association's call to halt mass slaughtering and mass rejection of all carcasses over 30 months of age. The problem is not about infectious diseases in cattle. It is about excluding risks from the food chain.

The public know that clinical cases are incinerated. But they need to know about the measures being taken to stop sub-clinical cases reaching their dinner plates. By this I mean the measures taken since 1988 to deal with the rejection of the host site for the ineffective agent. Now the European Union demands rejection from the food chain of all cattle over 30 months, supposedly to reduce further the potential risk of sub-clinical cases entering the food chain. But the meat will be clear of the infectious agent in any event, due to the safety measures already implemented. A mass slaughter would mean the rejection and quite immoral waste of millions of tonnes of healthy food. Surely we can be more intelligent than that?

Remember, my Lords, only 0.4 per cent. of cattle have been diagnosed as having BSE. The number of sub-clinical cases is estimated at perhaps twice the clinical number. Trying to find each one would be like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Only last week a breakthrough, as reported in the New Scientist, was achieved in the United States at the California Institute of Technology to diagnose sub-clinical CJD in humans with more than 98 per cent. accuracy. Can the

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Government invite these scientists, with funding and facilities, to develop their tests for identifying sub-clinical cases of BSE? I fear the case to reject meat for sub-clinical cases only has been already lost, following the ill-advised statement of 20th March. Perhaps this can be achieved over time, should development of this test successfully identify sub-clinical BSE.

What the Government must do is to adopt and promote a set of consistent and coherent policies with the following objectives: regaining scientific justification for the measures needed to deal with the problem; restraining scientists from making ill-advised suppositions (the media are quite capable of that); ending the cost-cutting features of policies which override and devalue everything done to protect animal and public health; ensuring adequate research into BSE, covering such facets as I have mentioned, plus research into genetic links and research into vertical transmission; and undertaking regular monitoring and inspection of abattoirs and rendering plants to ensure maximum adherence.

From this it follows that the Government must address a number of issues: how they consider the results and implications of research before publication; how they announce findings; the public response to announcements; their proposals for action, including legislation; their implementation and enforcement of orders; and their monitoring of the impact of changes, especially including financial assistance so structured as to avoid the encouragement of deceit and fraud.

Most immediately, the industry demands an immediate end to the crippling uncertainty. The announcements yesterday go a long way towards stabilising the beef industry, but do not address those issues of public confidence. Administrative details still need to be announced. Agriculture is a long-term business that needs confidence in its future to undertake the necessary investment for returns that are often not immediate but materialise years later. If, or rather when, I hope, the ban on British beef is lifted, there must also be a lifting of restrictions on British genetic material, by which I mean stock and embryos which are also banned. What is the justification for leaving that ban in force? In the dairy industry, British genetics--by which I mean dairy cattle and embryos--have been banned from export for many years already due to the scourge of BSE. A prosperous industry demands unfettered access to the world market.

BSE is undermining the prosperity and recognition of a great British industry. I despair at the Government's handling of the situation. If they do not take measures to restore public confidence, the industry could be fatally undermined. It will take a long time to recover from this debacle in any case, but if the Government do not get it right and get it right quickly, it will not happen in my lifetime.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, it is a delight to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, on a most thoughtful maiden speech. As a livestock farmer, he has brought to the House very personal and pertinent observations on how the BSE

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crisis evolved. He also posed some critical questions of which I hope the House will take note. They certainly require answers.

The crisis that we face has its origin in what one might call media hyperbole, a total disregard of scientific facts on the part of the European Union and the imposition of controls mediated by political imperatives--as indeed was fully admitted by Franz Fischler, the European Union Commissioner. Some noble Lords may have seen a leader article in the Telegraph this morning stating:


    "They will eat our beef, but refuse to eat their words".
That is a very pertinent comment.

The present ban on British beef, Decision 96/239/EC, was imposed contrary to the advice of several committees. I shall not bore the House by listing them. It is of great regret to me as a veterinarian to note that the Standing Veterinary Committee of the EC voted 14 to 1 (the one vote against was that of our own Chief Veterinary Officer) despite the advice from the expert Veterinary Committee, which is slightly different from the standing committee, that spongiform encephalopathy is not derived from BSE cattle under the present regulations on dealing with cattle in our slaughterhouses.

It might be of interest to noble Lords to glance briefly at the evidence that was ignored, since it is pertinent to comments that may be made later in the debate. First, it is possible that BSE has been with us much longer than we think. Many veterinarians who are a bit longer in the tooth than the present number can recall cases which, in this modern day, would be described as BSE but in those days were not recognised as such.

Despite that, over the past 10 years there has been a massive increase in spongiform encephalopathy in cattle (BSE): 154,000 cases have been diagnosed and slaughtered. But in that time there has been no relationship of the human disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, to that massive increase in BSE. Indeed, there are more CJD cases per million of population in countries where there is no BSE or where BSE is present to a very minor degree.

Similarly, in a study of the occupation of CJD patients over the past 10 years, there has been no case of CJD in abattoir workers, in knackering workers, veterinarians or butchers. One might have expected such people, at high risk from contact with cattle and their various products, to have shown some indication of a susceptibility. Indeed, professional drivers are one of the groups at highest risk from CJD in this country, while vicars are the highest risk group of all--one is not too certain why that should be so!

Despite all the evidence, of which there is a great deal, public confidence is to be placated by what can only be described as a slaughter of innocents. Tens of thousands of British calves are to be slaughtered in Holland and France; in the United States all imported British livestock is to be slaughtered; and in this country 15,000 cull animals are to be disposed of every week. Admittedly, they would have gone into the food chain,

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but they will be discarded. My profession feels that that is a waste of good beef. Among those 15,000, some 200 probably might suffer from BSE.

The Government's approach, as stated yesterday, is welcome in that it is a return to the scientific basis of BSE and CJD. However, much still needs to be done to ensure the return of public confidence with respect to British beef. While financial aid is welcome in the various sectors of the industry, very rigorous application of the existing regulations must be a coherent approach to the control of the disease and its eventual eradication. There must be very rigorous supervision by the Meat Hygiene Service and by veterinarians. And it is to be hoped that the manpower situation that has been threatening the State Veterinary Service, which is crucial in relation to this matter, will not be applied as rigorously as was indicated.

As the Royal Society stated, there is a need for more research on BSE and CJD, both at a basic level as to the infectious agent, about which still not a great deal is known, and also at the very practical level of the development of a diagnostic test. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, about a test being put forward as a viable means of diagnosing BSE in cattle, both in the living animal and in the carcass. Obviously, that must be undertaken and evaluated. Finally, as was mentioned by other speakers, positive steps must be taken to generate confidence by means of a much more aggressive and measured information service to the public based on the science of the situation. The British public will believe the science if it is put to them in an effective way.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Winston: My Lords, time is short and I shall try to be as brief as possible. First, it might be helpful if I, as a medical person, try to give some background to the nature of the human disease. It is highly relevant to how we examine this issue. As noble Lords will understand, I know nothing about farm animals. The only animals I have kept have been rabbits--mostly for my children, and also, I must say, for certain breeding experiments of a very benign kind. So far as I know, rabbits do not appear to suffer from BSE, although many other animals, such as pigs, do.

The curious thing about this disease is that it is an entirely new phenomenon. It is caused effectively by a prion protein that is present in the brains of all of us; it is a normal protein. It is not the usual kind of infective agent, microvirus or bacterium. That is why, when the prion protein was first proposed--"prion" stands for "proteinaceous infective material"; it is a kind of portmanteau word--many people did not believe that it could exist because nobody could understand how a protein of this sort could exist without a previous genetic structure to cause it. However, it seems that that is so. What happens is that the protein in some way changes its shape. It expands, combines with other prion proteins in the brain and forms large cysts, and hence the spongy nature of the degenerative disease that has been so well described.

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The human variation of this disease can be manifest in many different ways. It is very important for the House to understand that at least 25 per cent. of CJD is genetic in origin. It is related to a particular mutation on chromosome No. 20, and is quite unrelated to any infectious agent. It is also very clear from the medical literature that there are very strong possibilities that particular individuals, in both the animal and the human world, may have a genetic predisposition to forming this protein. That is very important; apart from anything else, it may actually be why by its nature this disease has been peculiarly strange and sporadic.

Clearly we must have more research into prion disease. That is taking place and it is important that it should do so. I would say cautiously to the House that we must be careful when we assess the latest reports of tests. We have just heard about a test being developed in California in conjunction with NIH. But there is no clear evidence at this stage that that test has been sufficiently developed and, indeed, it has not been published and subject to peer review. It is important, when we consider any scientific development, that there should be proper peer review.

One of the problems about the whole issue is that there has not always been adequate peer review. That has only come out afterwards and, consequently, there has been much more alarm than there genuinely needs to be. It is important not to knock the scientists, but to obtain collaborative ideas from other scientists as to just how important those observations are. There is some anxiety that the test in California may not be viable. I understand that one of the reasons it is being held up is because the scientists concerned want to draw out the patent before they publish.

It is clear also that we need to look at research as to how the disease is conveyed to humans, particularly whether oral ingestion is important, whether there is a predisposition in the gut--for example, if one smokes or drinks--which may change the mucus membrane. There is a range of conditions that we must consider as to what triggers the onset. There is a great deal to be done. Above all, there is a great need to look at the epidemiology. One of the problems is that no good epidemiological studies have been published.

Good medical opinion says that the hypothesis linking the human prion disease is by no means compatible with what we know in animals. If there is a clear link, one would have to say that the incidence of sporadic CJD and the incidence of BSE (the animal form) or scrapie, should be constant in the various countries. I have just taken one report from the Lancet which shows that in Iceland, where there is a high incidence of scrapie, the CJD incidence is only 0.27 in humans. In Britain, where there is an endemic situation, the scrapie incidence is 0.93, some three or four fold; in New Zealand where there are far more sheep than anywhere else in the world per head of population, the scrapie incidence is virtually nil but the CJD incidence is almost as high as it is in Britain. That is important because it argues that the link has yet to be clearly established.

I do not want to go on for too long, but I want to draw one important comment made recently in the British Medical Journal by Paul Brown. Paul Brown is

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an important individual because he is the medical director of the United States Public Health Service. He comes from NIH, which is a respected body. In a leader in the British Medical Journal he says,


    "I am still astonished, in view of all of the earlier negative epidemiological and laboratory evidence concerning the risk of human infection from scrapie ... and from the failure to detect infectivity in the muscle of cattle ... that human infection might be occurring from the ingestion of beef (or, even more improbably, from milk). Especially distressing is the fact that no unusual dietary history characterises these cases--for example, the regular ingestion of calf brain, black puddings, sausage, tripe",
or indeed of offal. He goes on to point out that it would be an ironic event if 11 million head of beef were slaughtered in a pre-emptive strike to eliminate the risk of zoonotic Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, only to find belatedly that the true villains were pigs or chickens which had been fed meal at a young age and the disease had not yet become manifest in those species. It is important that we recognise that.

I should like to conclude by making a few brief suggestions. First, if we slaughter herds we must monitor the situation carefully by random testing of the animals. We must avoid playing Russian roulette with those cattle; we need to develop in vivo and in vitro tests for looking at the disease and there must be European co-operation. It is not fair to point to the Labour Party and say that this is party political. It is confusing to the public when very little information is given out. Frankly, we were disturbed on this side of the House by the paucity of the information in the original Statement from the Government and we said so.

Above all, there needs to be better promulgation of scientific evidence. The noble Lord, Lord Prior, made an important point yesterday when he pointed out that much of the problem related to the lack of information. We have to recognise that these expert committees meet in private; the evidence is kept under wraps and their conclusions are published in short, bald statements. It is only subsequently that we obtain the peer review information. Perhaps we should look at a way of promulgating the information so that we do not experience more medical scares of this kind in the future.

4.5 p.m.

Lord Porter of Luddenham: My Lords, first, I apologise that, owing to a long-standing engagement for this evening, I am unable to stay until the end of this important debate. I very much regret that.

Many people, rightly, looked to the scientific community for guidance in relation to BSE and its possible connection with CJD--the form found in humans. The Government acknowledged that guidance, though other less reasonable factors--political or emotive and far from scientific--unfortunately often take charge.

The Royal Society, to which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, kindly referred, has been concerned with this subject for some years. Indeed, it held authoritative briefings for science journalists as well as international conferences of the leading experts three or four years ago. The facts to date were

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summarised on the 2nd of this month by the president, Sir Aaron Klug. It is worth referring to what he said, though it has already been referred to in part. Sir Aaron Klug said that, while it is well established that, although the sheep form of the disease known as scrapie is known not to affect humans, it is entirely possible that BSE could affect humans. That is as far as he would go and as far as it would be wise to go. Unfortunately, I fear, it is not far enough for the general public to be reassured.

BSE is particularly difficult to study. However, scientific experiments currently under way are due to be completed within the next year and should help to establish whether or not there is a connection. That is the good news from the Royal Society; we may only have to wait until next year. In the meantime, rigorous implementation to remove infectious material from the human and animal food chains should lead to a considerable lowering of the risk of exposure of humans to BSE.

Several possible approaches to inhibiting or treating BSE are being actively investigated. Further approaches could emerge from continuing basic research in the general area of prion diseases. The message from all that is loud and clear: basic research in this area, as in all areas, should be supported fully so that, when problems of this kind arise, the basic information is available when we need it. What we know today has come from research undertaken on the initiative of individual scientists and the institute of animal health supported by the biological and medical research councils over the past 20 years. Without that research today's debate would be taking place in total darkness. The obscurity that remains--and it is great--can only be removed by further research aimed at understanding rather than by a short-term fix.

It is doubtful whether that kind of research would ever be undertaken by the private sector, whose priorities are naturally based on wealth creation, as are those of government exercises like technology foresight. I have been unable to find, after a rather cursory examination of the reports, any reference to the importance of extending research on CJD, presumably because it was not perceived to be wealth creating. That is surely a very big mistake. A better understanding could perhaps have saved the billions of pounds that our ignorance is likely to cost us.

In conclusion, perhaps I may quote from a speech given some time ago on the importance of supporting fundamental research:


    "If we disregard the need to carry on fundamental science and continued research, we shall deny ourselves the solutions to many problems which will arise years hence. We do not know what the application will be. We only know that unless we continue this kind of research and put a good deal of money into it we shall lack the capacity, in years to come, to make the maximum contribution to the future".
Those are the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, spoken 20 years ago, and they still need to be heeded today.

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4.10 p.m.

Lord Biddulph: My Lords, we have all been following the BSE crisis with considerable concern. As news came in of the reports by government scientists on the possible link between CJD in humans and BSE in cattle, followed by the Government's Statement and then swiftly the EU ban on all beef products to Europe and the world, I was not surprised that the British public were confused by what the media had to tell them. I wholeheartedly support the measures which the Government will be taking and which were given to us in yesterday's Statement and feel sure that they will help to reassure the farming industry and the general public, thus averting the collapse of the entire beef industry and its satellite industries on which the countryside depends for employment and a way of life.

Though I must confess I feel as nervous as a bull contemplating whether or not it might have BSE, I stand up and speak in defence of an industry which I know represents Britain at its best. British beef is the finest in the world, and I congratulate the Government on their determination to regain swiftly the public's confidence. We are told that already consumption of beef is at roughly 85 per cent. of pre-crisis levels and that cattle throughput in the markets is nearing 60 per cent. of previous levels. The goal must be to work towards the total eradication of BSE in British cattle and I hope that other European countries will follow the British lead and implement such policies.

Since the ban on feeding meat and bone meal to cattle in 1988, incidents of BSE have been dropping in the UK, from a high in 1992 of 36,681 cases to a figure of about 609 cases this year. Last year in Scotland there were 664 suspected cases, 0.03 per cent. of Scotland's 2.1 million herd. This year only 41 cases have been reported. It has been mentioned that incidents of BSE were fewer in Scotland than in Belgium this year. I am greatly relieved to hear that there is not going to be a mass slaughter, rather a selective cull in tens of thousands instead of millions. That would have been devastating to the industry and needless destruction, distressing to both farmers and animal lovers. I welcome the aid package of £1 billion to assist the whole industry to get back on its feet and that it will be coming into operation this month. The whole industry will feel ready to recover with this support.

I feel sure that the £500 million scheme to destroy cattle over 30 months old is the key element in reducing the risk of BSE entering the food chain. I particularly like the idea that animals could have passports within quality assurance schemes. One third of Scotland's 18,000 beef farmers are already part of a quality assurance scheme run by the Scottish Beef and Lamb Association, quality certificates being awarded to those farms which can prove that there have been no cases of BSE in their herds in the past six years. I also hope that government scientists are working on a live test for BSE in cattle. This could be usefully added to such a passport scheme. Perhaps we could be updated on that as it has already been mentioned today but was not in yesterday's Statement.

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In the light of the events of the past few days, especially the comments made by the EU farms commissioner, Franz Fischler, that British beef was safe to eat and that the ban on beef products was imposed to ring-fence Britain to protect European markets from collapsing and not on scientific but economic grounds, I feel sure that with the measures the Government are now taking this should be sufficient to convince the EU agriculture ministers totally to lift all restrictions on British beef.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, it falls to me to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Biddulph, on his maiden speech and in particular on bringing to the House an analysis of the economic importance of the beef industry to the countryside. I certainly look forward to hearing from him again on this subject and on related country interests which I know are at the heart of his own interests. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Grantchester on his maiden speech. He brought an agricultural expertise to the debate. I certainly look forward to hearing him as an agricultural spokesperson for the Cross-Benches in future debates.

The trouble with this issue is that because of its complexity we are in danger of failing to realise that it is in a sense no different from any other issue of public policy in that there is an issue of science and information; there is an issue of public health; there is an issue of communication on the part of government and through the media; there is an issue of the consumer market; and of course there is the economic issue for the producers and distributors within the trade. All those issues come together. However, we should realise that within the context of the agricultural industry we are dealing with an industry that has been inherently European at least since the beginning of the CAP in the 1960s.

The last thing we want to have in this debate is an argument between the Eurosceptics and the Europhiles in this House or anywhere else or to see the debate about the future of the beef industry degenerate into the running of a pre-referendum on a common currency or on relations between the UK and the rest of Europe. We should not be surprised that the European Commission should take a lead role in what is, after all, a major industry within a single market. We have already heard of the extent of the transfer of cattle throughout Europe and throughout the world. Therefore, we should not be surprised that there should be serious political and scientific discussions taking place in tandem. We cannot say that all market decisions should be based on scientific evidence; neither can we say that scientific evidence should have no place in market decisions. Those matters have to be taken together.

Some noble Lords have referred to European Commissioners making statements on the basis of trying to safeguard the market. I say to the House that it is part of the responsibility of the European Commission to safeguard the beef market throughout Europe--and that includes the United Kingdom. It should come as no surprise that the European Commission's position

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should be an attempt to balance the interests of consumers and producers with that clear determinant of public health.

What concerns me about the history of this issue is how and why there does not appear to have been much closer collaboration between the UK and the other member states of the European Union in advance of the Statements in this House and in another place on 20th March. After all, there was a meeting of agriculture ministers on 18th and 19th March. Surely technical experts in the veterinary field as in all other scientific fields are continually discussing among each other within the European Union. Had it been possible for the scientific evidence, which appeared to be fresh evidence, to be shared at a much earlier stage, it is not impossible that much of the negative impact on the consumer market might have been avoided, in particular the income crisis hitting beef producers both in the agricultural community, where I have been privileged to live throughout my life, and in other parts of the UK. It is important for us now to ensure that the position taken by the next scientific veterinary committee, by the next veterinary standing committee and by the next meeting of EU agricultural ministers is a positive one.

In that sense much of the quality of the debate in the British media, including the Daily Telegraph this morning, is not helpful in trying to develop a concerted European position on this issue. We have to understand that we are dealing not just with the domestic consumer in the UK, but that we should also be looking at the interests of Irish, French and German farmers who have pursued a policy of eradication. We have to take cognizance of the fact that they are suffering from the reduction in the level of the beef market from having to implement intervention policies at a high scale as a result of the BSE scare, which seems to have emerged mainly from the UK. So there is a common interest here that we need to safeguard.

Finally, I say to the Government that it is extremely important that the economic position of the areas producing hill and store cattle, and those areas which are dependent on the early part of the beef production chain, should be safeguarded. I am well aware that both the NFU of England and Wales and the Farmers' Union of Wales have had discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Welsh Office about the early payment of the relevant premiums to ensure that any cash flow problems caused by the present crisis are ameliorated. The Minister's colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, speaks for the Welsh Office as well as for the Ministry of Agriculture in this House on these matters. I hope that he shall be able to respond positively on that issue.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, as usual, I have to declare an interest in that I normally summer-fatten cattle, but have been unable to do so this Spring because of the BSE crisis. If we have to apportion blame--I suppose that on occasions I have criticised my Front Bench--my view is that, even with hindsight, this disaster was one of those things that I would call an act of God or maybe an act of the Devil. Whether the Government should have had a contingency

17 Apr 1996 : Column 687

plan, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, suggested, I know not. But I believe that the noble Lord was wrong in saying that this new strain was confined to the United Kingdom: in fact, I believe I am right in saying that there has been a case in France as well.

Make no mistake: I, and my fellow farmers, are angry about the handling of the BSE crisis. But the main finger of guilt points to our totally irresponsible media--I go further than the noble Lord--and the European Commission for banning British beef for public relations and market supply reasons rather than health ones, so bringing the CAP into further disrepute.

I would have preferred to stick with the Government's original policy of excluding the most suspect parts of the carcass but, like the noble Lord, Lord Carter, I have to visit slaughterhouses and most of them find this procedure physically and technically extremely difficult. So, if only to be doubly sure that such situations do not occur--and we are all human--I am prepared to accept that there is a case for excluding those animals most at risk, which includes all those which might--I am using a great many "mights"--conceivably be developing BSE which, again I understand, are those over 30 months' old.

I understand that the Government are being forced to do more than this by instituting a selective cull. I do not know and I cannot envisage such a cull being in any way related to preventing any possible BSE cross-infection. I sincerely hope that the Government will resist it. I realise that if they do not come up with such a scheme, the EC may refuse to lift the ban on British beef. I hope that the EC will come to its senses when it considers the possible cost of banning British beef based on PR reasons rather than health reasons, as stated in an incredible statement, so far as I am concerned, by Herr Fischler the other day. I welcome the Government's decision, therefore, to take the matter to court.

The beef industry has been--and probably still is--in chaos. The EU intervention proposals are useless; so I, like my noble friend Lord Biddulph, welcome the measures taken by the Government yesterday that should bring--indeed, I believe that they have already brought--some stability to the market. It is now up to the whole of the industry, including farmers, to do their part in ensuring a return to normality. In a small way, and to practise what I preach, I shall enter the market next week.

To conclude, I hope that the BSE crisis has taught us the following lessons; first, the vital role, both economic and social, that the production of food still plays in our national life. I hope that we shall remember this when our extreme environmentalists tell us that we should look after the birds and the bees and our stonewalls before we look after our food production. Secondly, the silence of the animal rights activists appals me at the impending slaughter of vast numbers of cattle in sharp contrast, I am glad to say, to the BBA which appreciates not only the dreadful animal slaughter that may occur, but also the position of the farmer who has had to contemplate the needless slaughter of his animals which may possibly have been his life's work.

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4.26 p.m.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, in company with many other Members of your Lordships' House, I have received briefing from the Country Landowners' Association, the CLA, and from the United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association (UKASTA). Reading the briefing, a small contradiction occurs between them which I hope the Minister will be able to clear up for me when he responds.

The CLA reminds us that the use of animal protein, as we have all heard ad nauseam in the past few weeks, was banned in cattle feed at the end of 1988, which took effect in 1989. The Government have reminded us of this many times. But UKASTA says that until 20th March 1996, which has just passed, MAFF continued to assure the industry that the use of animal protein in its feed was safe. As a result, UKASTA is so concerned about this, among other things, that there should be compensation for the now unusable stocks of feed which it has on its hands. I hope that the Minister can explain that.

If we have continued to feed animal protein to other species (which is probably the likely explanation) can we be satisfied that none of this feed has found its way to cattle? I understand, for example, that the feed bags do not have a list of ingredients on them. In some cases the feed looks quite similar. We need to be reassured that this aspect has been taken care of or that it is safe to give it to any other species. My noble friend Lord Winston referred to the possibility of pigs having BSE. I do not know whether that is a possibility or not; but if they are being fed on this protein, it seems to me that there is at least a risk. Not so long ago we were assured that it was perfectly safe to feed this protein to cattle, and now we are having to withdraw from that.

As the noble Lord, Lord Granchester, indicated, we must be satisfied that regulation and inspection of the rendering industry is complete. Is it not time that we applied the precautionary principle in this case as we do in so many other matters? So many of the practices which have been uncovered in the past few years are unnatural and distasteful to most people. There is something peculiarly unpleasant in discovering that cattle--undeniably herbivores--have not only been fed on animal protein, but have been induced to devour each other. It is just as revolting to me to discover that until 1988, as my noble friend Lord Richard listed for us, products sold for human consumption contained parts of the animal which most of us would reject, such as the tonsils, the larynx, the spinal chord and goodness knows what else. If those are offered for sale, we can buy them or refuse them. But if they are minced up and sold to us in processed food, we have no choice. That should not have happened in the first place and we must certainly ensure that it does not happen again. Are slaughterhouses well enough policed to make sure that those pieces are not used?

I understand that the Health and Safety Executive and, indeed for that matter, the environmental health officers at this moment are seriously under-resourced and under-staffed. It is extremely important that those regulatory authorities should have the resources to do

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their job properly. We are not learning from our mistakes. We heard in the debate only yesterday in this House that the use of organophosphates in fish farming is causing concern in some circles; and only a week or two ago, speaking to Members of Parliament and Peers at a meeting in this House, an eminent gastrologist mentioned--just in passing, as a kind of throw away line--that high fibre diets might have to be considered with caution because of the agrochemical residues in grain husks. So far as I know, that has not been picked up by the press. But if the medical profession thinks that, surely it is time that we thought about it, too.

We must develop a more sensible and sustainable approach to food production. The Soil Association can show the way to at least part of the solution. The association banned the feeding of animal protein to cattle as long ago as 1983 because it felt that it was an unnatural practice which could only have undesirable results. That was five years before the Ministry took any action and three years before it even suspected that action was necessary. Recent surveys of organic farms have shown very promising results on the incidence of BSE. Perhaps I may quote from the Soil Association's text, which states that:


    "there has been no recorded case of BSE in any herd which has been managed organically since before 1985 and where no animals have been brought in from outside sources subsequently".

There have been cases in herds which have recently converted to an organic system, but the animals had probably been contaminated before they came in. But it does at least point in a hopeful direction.

There is a demand for organic produce of all kinds which, I understand, has to be met from substantial imports. We do not supply enough in this country now. Moreover, the quality of what comes in from abroad is often very suspect. Surely it is time for the Government to consider giving better economic encouragement to organic farming in this country. Our system of support is well below that of other major European countries. I know that organic systems alone could not at present meet our needs. But surely the whole farming industry must be encouraged to adopt a more sensible and sustainable approach to food production, so that the lessons of this disaster are not lost.

It is a disaster. It is a disaster in which I am completely sympathetic to the loss of income to the farmers, to the loss of jobs and indeed, although I am not an animal rights activist, to the healthy animals which must be slaughtered to no purpose.

4.34 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, spoke strongly of the innocence of Opposition spokesmen of any contribution to this crisis. But I put my name on the list of speakers because of my anger at the conduct of Mr. Blair who seems to me to have breached the convention that Leaders of the Opposition choose their words with great care when faced with grave emergencies. That anger has been reinforced by the ignorant antics of the Consumers' Association and by those sections of the media which so enthusiastically fuelled the panic. Careless talk can have devastating consequences. We have to find a better

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way of dealing with legitimate public concern about health before we are overwhelmed by the next event in a cycle of scares of which this one will not be the last. The facts got lost beneath the screaming headlines.

CJD occurs worldwide at a rate of between 0.5 and 1 per million per annum. The UK's annual rate has remained within those limits. It was 0.92 per million in 1994, and the provisional figure for 1995 is 0.64 per million. Mike Painter, consultant in communicable disease control at Manchester and a member of SEAC, commented:


    "It is fair to say that the risk of eating beef in 1996 has to be many orders of magnitude less than it was pre-1989 ... whether that now equates to zero risk is impossible to say but it is enough for me not to stop eating beef".
The World Health Organisation confirmed the judgment of our own experts, saying that,


    "there is little risk of human contamination from BSE".
And Franz Fischler, the EU Commissioner, has belatedly acknowledged that there is no medical reason not to eat beef.

The epidemic peaked in Britain in January 1993 at about 1,000 cases per week. The numbers fell 30 per cent. from 1993 to 1994; 40 per cent. from 1994 to 1995; and 27.5 per cent. so far this year, to about 300 cases per week. The evidence indicates that the disease is spread through feedstuffs and not animal contact and that the numbers will continue to decline sharply.

The British Parliament will need very convincing evidence before it agrees even to a limited and selective cull, tightly targeted on animals most likely to be incubating BSE, as my noble friend Lord Lindsay said yesterday. That evidence will need to show that such a cull would significantly speed up the already sharp decline in the number of infected cattle and, crucially, trigger a lifting of the European ban.

There has been much criticism of the Ministry of Agriculture. It has been faced with issues of great technical complexity, as the Statement yesterday so clearly revealed. In such circumstances it is far better to consult and get things right rather than be pushed by those who shout loudest into taking measures that are flawed. I believe that the Government have their package about right, but they now have to persuade the rest of the world.

It is easier to fight a war than a food scare. The rules of war are known; experience and expertise are almost unlimited. Science is different. It provides few absolute certainties. As A.H. Byatt has observed, it is like a story. It changes and develops as new facts are proved and old facts found to be false. The trouble is that with BSE and CJD we are not dealing with a story so much as with a myth of Wagnerian proportions.

Mr. Hogg has been criticised for not satisfying our European partners. He deserves our congratulations for standing firm against their unreasonable demands and challenging the intolerable ban on British beef. But the Europeans are angry and frightened too. The presentation of our measures will now need to be most skilfully handled, which, I suppose, is where a limited cull may play a part. Our European partners need to be reminded that, far from ending the crisis, they risk

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making it worse across Europe as a whole. If they persist in demanding large-scale slaughter, what happens when it becomes clear that there are a larger number of cases of BSE on the Continent than have yet been detected or reported and that the recently reported death of a Frenchman from a strain of CJD similar to the British version is not an isolated incident.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, pooh-poohed the idea that there may be a significant number of cases outside the UK. But already the disease has been identified in cattle in almost a dozen countries and the evidence is that in only some of them did it originate with British exports. Without a tight control on the trade in feedstuffs, which I do not believe exists, it would be surprising if cases did not continue to appear outside Britain. To begin a policy here that may lead Europe inexorably down the road to the slaughter of millions of cattle across the Continent for no good scientific reason would be madness. That is a point which perhaps we should put to our European partners in the coming days.

Against that background of hysteria, I take comfort from the good sense of a large section of the British public. When offered beef at below the normal price, people rushed to buy so that sales are now recovering. I suspect that the Financial Times is right in suggesting today that it will not be long before we have a beef shortage and prices higher than people like. I do not believe that panic is removed by taking panic measures. For goodness sake, let us stick to those necessary steps demanded by fact and not by myth, or by selfish economic interests.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Moran: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in that my wife has a small herd of Welsh black cattle, which is happily free of BSE. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said yesterday about the notably helpful replies given by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, to our questions throughout the whole of this crisis. It is a relief to learn from the last Statement that beef consumption in this country has recovered to the extent that it has, but we still have the problem of the monstrous EU ban. The prospects for its early removal appear to be dim. Our partners continue to insist on a mass slaughter of cattle in this country. The Minister made clear yesterday that that was an option which he absolutely dismissed. We learn that the United Kingdom proposes to go to the European Court. I am not a lawyer, but I understand that it takes a very long time for a decision to be reached. In addition, will it not be argued by the Commission that we have long since handed over responsibility for trade to the Community and therefore it can do what it likes, whether or not that is reasonable?

In view of the devastating nature of the EU ban, is it not essential to do something now to prevent further damage? Yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, suggested that retaliation ought to be considered. If we did that, I believe that we would be justified in stopping imports of agricultural products from the EU, including perhaps wine, until the ban was lifted. In the light of the enormous damage that has been done to our interests by this ban and the CAP and CFP

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generally, should we not begin to take notice of those of our partners who appear to be convinced that we have no place in a fully integrated Europe and begin to consider a purely economic association with the Union?

Perhaps the noble Lord will deal with one or two matters when he winds up. First, what will happen to BSE-free herds? When will the restrictions be lifted from them? Will there be a register of such herds? What is to happen to rare breeds and pedigree herds? Will consideration be given to separating the beef sector from the dairy sector to a greater extent than at present? Above all, there is a question about labelling. Both consumers and farmers are entitled to know what is in what they buy. I have seen feedbags on farms which simply refer to 17 per cent. protein. That does not seem to me to be adequate or good enough. In an editorial in the New Scientist on 30th March 1996 it was said:


    "If Science Week means anything, it is that people have a right to the facts, and should develop a critical understanding of the world they live in. More open debate on how our food is produced and processed is much needed ... Another spin-off might be a move to eliminate the worst excesses of intensive farming".
I believe that is right. In due course we need to be told more about the true origins of this disease. A lot has been said about whether it is related to animal feed or a rise in temperatures. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, described what was known at present. There still seem to me to be uncertainties. As with any other disaster, we ought to have an authoritative, independent and expert inquiry to establish the facts beyond any doubt.

Lastly, the other day there was talk of the Government getting rid of the Department of Transport. I believe that when all of this is over they should take a careful look at the responsibilities of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There is a widespread perception that the Ministry has been too cosy with big feed and chemical firms and that its responsibilities for food have not been given a high enough priority. I believe that a close look should also be taken at the Ministry's involvement in other high-tech experiments with animals which, in the light of this disaster, should be looked at with a very leery eye indeed.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Middleton: My Lords, I too must declare a close interest in the outcome of the crisis in the beef industry, in that I am a director of a farming company with a dairy herd, a commercial beef breeding herd and a Charolais pedigree herd.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, called for coherence and consistency. I believe that his criticisms of the Government have been well answered by my noble friend Lord Lindsay. What has not been coherent or consistent with the best available scientific advice is the behaviour of the European Commission, in particular the Agriculture Commissioner and the Agriculture Ministers in Council. These Ministers represent member states which are in direct competition with the United Kingdom in satisfying an already shrinking European market in beef and veal.

Our home-produced beef has recently achieved notable penetration of this market across the Channel. Anything which damaged Great Britain's ability to

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export live animals and beef could only be of benefit to our European competitors. What could be more damaging to the UK's export drive than a ban on our exports and a demand that our Ministers crawl back to Brussels with plans for what is called a targeted slaughter of productive animals from our national herd?

Together with my noble friend Lord Lindsay, I believe that these demands have little to do with public health and much to do with commerce. The demands of the Agricultural Council have also much to do with politics. There are some Ministers of member states who would link any financial contribution from Brussels to compensate a proposed hecatomb of British cattle with greater compliance by the United Kingdom in the wider field of policies put forward at the IGC.

I have two questions to put to the Minister following yesterday's Statement in both Houses. The first deals with scientific research, which has been referred to this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and other noble Lords. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government are aware of the recent work carried out by the California Institute of Technology which claims that CJD can be diagnosed with more than 98 per cent. accuracy? The scientists involved claim that the technique adopted could work equally well with BSE-infected cattle. If they are right, would it not be desirable that the claim be tested by inviting Mr. Harrington and his colleagues to this country to extend their work to BSE? It is vital to narrow down the policy of overkill which is so repugnant, not least to the veterinary profession.

If there is any inconsistency in the performance of the Government in an extremely difficult situation, it is the limited slaughter policy, coupled with the disposal of carcasses, to which the United Kingdom is already committed. It is inconsistent with scientific advice, which merely recommends removal of certain parts of the carcasses of older cattle. Yet it is an inconsistency that is fully supported by the beef industry as a measure which goes well beyond what is probably necessary to ensure food safety but which is an attempt to restore consumer confidence in beef.

On the question of confidence, an additional selective culling policy might well have the opposite effect. The public might assume that there really was a greater risk to health from our cattle than ministerial assurances have indicated and that those assurances are not to be trusted.

I turn therefore to the question of selective culling--that is, the slaughter of breeding animals in addition to those which have reached the end of their productive life. To agree to carry out, at the behest of our European competitors, a selective slaughter policy that would decimate our British herd and reduce our capacity to produce meat and milk without scientific evidence to justify it, would be looked on by our farmers as a disgraceful act of appeasement. I was therefore glad to hear in yesterday's Statement that the Government were not contemplating the slaughter of the whole herd. However, I must ask why additional selective culling is being contemplated at all. What scientific evidence do the Government possess to justify such a policy?

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Listening to the Statement and reading the text, it might be inferred that the idea of an additional cull is being used as some kind of bargaining counter. In paragraph 22, the Minister said:


    "I refer to the EC ban on UK exports and the possibility of selective culling".
Referring to implementation of the additional selective cull, the Minister said in paragraph 25,


    "So far as implementation is concerned, we would only go ahead ... if there was a direct understanding about the lifting of the EC ban".--[Official Report, 16/4/96; col. 601.]
That is like saying, "You lift the ban and we will shoot another few tens of thousands of cows". Is that what the Government are saying? I do not believe that that would be acceptable to the industry or to this House. I hope that the Minister will reassure us on that point.

The ban on our exports is wrong, wrong, wrong. It should be resisted. Its lifting must not be part of a deal. We must stand absolutely firm in demanding its unconditional withdrawal.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Blease: My Lords, my intervention in this debate is directed towards the Northern Ireland aspects of the United Kingdom beef crisis. Like other noble Lords, I find that the time limit prevents me developing reasoned and constructive arguments in support of the brief points that I wish to make, points which I believe are consistent with the challenging and reasoned terms of the speech from my noble friend Lord Richard, the Leader of the Opposition.

I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful reply to the matters that I raised yesterday. It indicated that he is well apprised of the Northern Ireland aspects of the present problems of the United Kingdom beef industry. I was pleased to hear the tributes paid yesterday both in this House and in another place to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Denton of Wakefield, who is the Minister in charge of this issue in Northern Ireland. She is worthy of all the tributes that have been paid to her in that respect.

Whatever may be the relevant situation in this crisis for the United Kingdom as an entity, what has happened is indeed a disaster of increasing dimensions for the whole of the Northern Ireland economy unless widespread effective measures are immediately adopted and action taken. I am reliably informed that the beef industry in the United Kingdom accounts for 0.2 per cent. of the UK's gross domestic product. In Northern Ireland the proportion stands at 4 per cent. of the Province's GDP. It therefore appears to me that the Northern Ireland problem is 20 times greater than the United Kingdom figure indicates. That shows the serious consequences for employment in the Province and for the Northern Ireland economy. Perhaps the noble Lord who is to reply to the debate will comment on that.

It was claimed in the Statement yesterday that consumer confidence is returning. Mention has already been made of that aspect, but I think that it bears looking at again in the Northern Ireland context. Yesterday it was claimed that the UK consumption of beef stood at

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85 per cent.--it is 80 per cent. today--of pre-crisis levels. The cattle throughput at abattoirs is now nearly 60 per cent. of its previous level. Although there has been some improvement in the retail sales of beef in Northern Ireland, it is far from the 85 per cent. figure that has been mentioned. Before the parliamentary Statement on BSE in March, the weekly throughput at Northern Ireland's abattoirs was 10,000 beef cattle. That was for the Northern Ireland, Great Britain and European beef markets. Today, instead of 10,000 cattle being slaughtered, a mere 700 cattle are being slaughtered per week. Therefore, the claimed consumption level of 85 per cent. does not in any conceivable way reflect the true situation in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the noble Lord who is to reply will reconsider the position taken in the Statement in terms of the effect on Northern Ireland.

A few weeks ago, after the first impact of the Government's announcement on the BSE-related risk of eating beef and beef products, there was an immediate outcry of public concern with consequential consumer resistance to beef in the Province. I am pleased to say that positive steps were taken by Province-wide organisations in Northern Ireland, representative of farmers, food producers, food processors, retailers, employers, consumer organisations, public health bodies and the trade unions. Joint consultations were arranged and constructive public statements were issued by the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland and by the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and particularly by Northern Ireland government departments. They have helped to bring the crisis under some overall control in terms of remedial action in the Province.

Four weeks ago the Northern Ireland Department of Economic Development formed a food processing industry emergency task force, under the chairmanship of the Permanent Secretary, Mr. Gerry Loughran. The importance of that organisation continuing its work should be fully explored. Perhaps it could enlarge the areas from which it draws its representatives. However, there is a need for a particular body to be established in Northern Ireland, especially in the light of the mention of the Intervention Board in yesterday's Statement. That is borne out by the 1995 report of the National Audit Office on the Intervention Board and preventing, detecting and acting on irregularities in agricultural produce. That should be magnified greatly in terms of the new work that has to be done.

5 p.m.

Lord Wade of Chorlton: My Lords, I too must declare an interest as a farmer and director of a trading company which handles a great deal of beef around the world. I am conscious of the fact that in 1967 I lost two herds as a result of foot and mouth disease and that in 1923 my grandfather lost his herd, which would have been the first pedigree herd of Friesian cattle in the country had they not been slaughtered because of the same disease.

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My experience of those two incidents makes me aware of the devastating impact of having one's herd destroyed. I am delighted that the Government have decided not to implement a slaughter policy but to take out of the food chain the animals which would have gone to slaughter in any event. I hope that they will never be persuaded to introduce a slaughter policy in respect of a matter which in no way makes that necessary.

I recently received information from Professor Phillip Thomas who, when I first met him, was a professor with the Atomic Energy Authority at Risley near Warrington. He is now a visiting professor at the City University in London. Among other things, he is a statistician. He sent me a detailed analysis of what one could expect as regards the number of cases of CJD in humans on the basis of available evidence. It accords closely with the comments made by noble Lords. Assuming an incubation period of 10 years there would be a peak rate of four cases per year. If the incubation period were 15 years there would be peak rate of 12 cases per year. If it were a 20-year incubation period the number of cases would be 40. That is in line with the existing number of cases of CJD. It amounts to a maximum risk of one in a million, which is exactly the same as driving a motor car for 50 miles. I appreciate the argument that any risk is a serious matter but it is important that we put the possibility of contracting CJD into balance. I believe that when the Government announced the risk they should have given a clearer analysis of it.

As I said, I am associated with a company involved in meat exports, and it is on that matter I wish to speak and ask my noble friend some questions. What is not yet clear is the position of the large amount of meat which was in the chain, on the high seas, or delivered to countries but which will not now be used. The licensing and export refund position is unclear. My noble friend Lord Lindsay will be well aware of the implications of the export refunds which could have been paid on the meat. Will that be returned? If not, can we have clarification of the matter? We have heard the Government's view but we have not heard whether it coincides with the Commission's view. Unless there is unanimity nothing will happen because the instructions to IBAP come from the Commission, not from our Government.

South Africa is the largest importer of British meat and has been for the past 12 months. Seventy per cent. of the meat now in "limboland" had been ordered by South Africa. It seems to me that it is not beyond the wit of man to have a discussion with the South African authorities who desperately need the meat. We can see that by reducing the price people in Britain, Denmark and Germany have been enticed to eat British meat after all the false condemnations and therefore perhaps investigating the export refunds on meat to South Africa would be a good way of dealing quickly with a serious situation. Although my noble friend may not be able to comment at the end of today's debate, I should like him to inform me of the steps which the Government might take to clear much of the meat that is now in the pipeline. It is frozen meat and, by the very nature of things, likely to be cow meat and therefore more than

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30 months of age. There is a desperate need within the industry for action. Large companies whose livelihoods depend on the export of meat are receiving no money for it; as a consequence they are not paying bills further down the chain. My noble friend will be aware that the meat represents 30 per cent. of the total meat production of the UK; it is therefore an important aspect.

I am delighted that all noble Lords agree that the issue is most serious. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, was critical of the Government's handling of it. When one sees a crisis of such proportion there is a natural instinct to blame someone for not having handled it properly. Perhaps looking back the Government believe that they could have handled it differently. However, in order to put the noble Lord's thoughts into perspective it would have been helpful to understand exactly what noble Lords opposite would have done in such circumstances. Would they have taken a view different from that of the Government in trying to remove the ban? Or would they have accepted the ban? Would they have adopted a different approach to dealing with the problems relating to the meat and the farmers? Would there have been a positive policy on creating a marketing campaign as regards British beef in order to inform people of the product and its quality? It would be helpful if, when the noble Lord, Lord Carter, winds up, we can understand what practical steps the Opposition would take to deal with the situation.


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