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Lord Richard: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, since he has referred to me, I will tell him one thing that I would not have done. I would not have telephoned the Commission half an hour before I made the Statement. I would have been very sure that Brussels knew exactly what was going on before I stood up in the other place.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, the events which trigger this debate are tragic and the effects on the farmers of this country are not to be underestimated. But we may pluck good out of evil and I, for one, see two possible healthy outcomes.
The less important is on the purely political scene. The people of this country are aware that an important event has happened, which may or may not be the major catastrophe it is intermittently being called but which in any case is certain to bring ruin to many, and that, as far as they can see, the reactions of their Government have been muddled, ill thought through and incompetent. It cannot be said that the impression on those of us nearer the centre of the political machine are very different.
The much more important effect is the exposure to the public gaze of the effects of letting a country's agriculture be dominated purely by economic factors. As the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said, we do not like the thought of turning animals into cannibals and as we realise that this is what we have been doing we may be emboldened to look again at some of our other practices such as the factory production of eggs and chickens, the overuse of artificial fertilisers and the misuse of harmful pesticides.
It is time we called a halt to many of these practices, if necessary withdrew from the CAP and started to put together a sane and humane policy for the land. I do not propose that we should revert to the cry of the last Liberal Prime Minister of "three acres and a cow", but I do suggest that we need to move in the direction of more organic farming, more mixed farming and less specialisation, more small farms and therefore, as a result of all these things, more humane treatment of animals.
I am well aware that in order that these things should happen and that farmers should at the same time have an adequate as well as a satisfying living it will cost money in the short term. And when I am asked where that money should come from I, this time, have no hesitation in going back to Lloyd George and saying that it should come from the pockets of the rich, who exist in large numbers in this otherwise very modestly wealthy country.
But this, though satisfying and worthwhile in its own right, is merely a short-term solution to a short-term problem. During the next 20 or 30 years world prices of food will undoubtedly be soaring as China comes on stream as a market and what we have now is a desperately small window in time before agriculture is seen as a milch-cow of money (if one will forgive the expression) in which to insert a regime of humanity.
There are more things in life than money and most of them are a great deal more important, as everyone of us who counts our blessings knows. Our blessings are usually our families, our jobs and the country in which we live. These are usually more important than money, important though that is.
If there should be any civilisation in 500 years' time, which is becoming more and more doubtful as we let loose more and more pestilential viruses on the world, it will be better that it is said, "This was a humane country which knew how to farm its land for the benefit of all, which looked after its livestock and conserved its soil", rather than, "This was the farming factory of the world which turned its animals into grotesque single-purpose machines; which in an over-populated country denuded its countryside and which in the process benefited only a rich, largely urban elite".
Lord Cochrane of Cults: My Lords, I fear that there is little on which I can agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken except the need for consideration of what we do in farming with the need for a proper degree of humanity.
The BSE affair is an enormous disaster and I agree with an earlier speaker who said that it is perhaps the greatest disaster which has occurred in the farming experience of anybody here today. I fully agree with that. My experience is perhaps not as long as others, although I think that I now face my 47th harvest.
Over the years my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior has been kind enough to keep me informed about the development, advancement and retreat of BSE in accordance with calculations and forecasts made within the circle of great knowledge and distinction of the veterinary profession. Over the years, he has correctly predicted to me what was going to happen before it did. I wish that he were also a racing tipster.
We have heard about high risk occupational groups and how at present, ministers of religion seem particularly prone to this extraordinary disease, although probably just one extra person would be needed to tip the balance into another group. As noble Lords have said, the probability still remains at about one in a million.
Perhaps I may draw attention to a case about which my noble friend Lord Soulsby has told me recently. He was sent to a practice where there was a cattle beast in a dire state and none of the vets could think what was the matter. As a man of great experience, he walked in, looked at it, I dare say he pinched its ribs and said, "Rampant TB". The other vets did not know what the problem was because rampant TB has gone out of the general cattle stock in this country; although when I was a young boy, I can remember why tuberculin-tested milk was introduced.
That brings me to another point. Tuberculin-tested milk became possible only when a quick test of reasonable reliability for the existence of tuberculosis in cattle became available. As has been said, the need now, almost no matter what the cost, is to develop a tolerably reliable and quick test for the existence of BSE in cattle.
It is very tempting to indulge in an orgy of hindsight and say, "Of course, we could have dealt with this better; we could have dealt with it differently". It is my opinion that throughout this slowly growing and emerging disaster, which was not seen as a major problem initially because there was no reason to do so, the Government have acted with exemplary activity. They have taken sound advice and when suddenly overwhelmed by the media, they have, albeit that it has taken a month, produced a reasonably definitive answer. That has answered many of the points that have been made, although there are still a number of loose ends. However, that is an enormous step forward.
Many years ago, at the time of the three-day week, it was rumoured that there was to be a salt shortage because sugar had become scarce. I cannot imagine how the two became linked but that rumour went about. The then Minister of Food made a Statement in Parliament saying that there was no shortage of salt. That resulted contrarily in panic buying and excellent sales of salt. After some time, the market collapsed. The Salt Manufacturers Federation tells me that even now there are 4 billion tonnes of unexploited salt under Cheshire. Therefore, we must not be surprised by the behaviour of consumers. We must do our best to make sure that information portrayed by all sectors of public information services is accurate and responsible. We shall then begin to see a way out of this fearful disaster.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, one of the intriguing facts or pieces of information to emerge this afternoon is that vicars seem to be more susceptible to CJD than other members of the community. There is a great temptation to suggest that this whole business is some act of God sent to punish the horrible farmers and our whole community for rearing animals in an unnatural way. I would argue that that is a rather nonsensical way to treat a very serious subject. It reminds me of the attitude that some people had when the scourge of AIDS started to appear on the scene.
One of the factors we need to consider when we think of vicars is that they are not well-paid. The risk is that they and their families will buy the cheaper cuts, the cheaper types of mince and so on. That may be a clue to their susceptibility.
It is all very well for large numbers of well-heeled government supporters to say, "Yes, we shall carry on eating beef." The chances are that the beef they will eat comes from pure beef herds bred for the production of nice succulent joints of beef. But that is not the reality for the vast majority of British citizens, or citizens of the European Union or the world.
I was absolutely appalled to hear on the radio this morning a report that British beef was offered to Danish consumers at vastly reduced prices and they actually bought it. That is likely to lead to fairly horrific results. If the worst fears of some of us are realised, effectively it will become a plague of poor people. It will barely touch rich people. We need to think very seriously about our response to that situation.
One of the difficulties we face is that the Government are almost institutionally antagonistic to regulations except, unfortunately, regulations as they apply to the payment of income support and housing benefit to poor people, which are very heavily regulated. When it comes to the regulations which provide for consumer safety in a whole range of spheres, the Government are almost institutionally antagonistic.
We heard the very able and expert information given by the noble Lord, Lord Granchester, in his maiden speech. He told us that he had a herd of 300 dairy cattle and that he recently had a case of BSE in an animal which was born in 1991. Given what the Government have said previously, that should lead us to have great cause for concern. It is probably true to say that the pure beef herds--if I may so describe them--which have no experience of BSE may be completely free and perfectly good to eat. However, I hope that the Government will accept, even at this late stage, that any herd which has any experience of BSE ought to be destroyed.
That would create grave problems for farmers like the noble Lord, Lord Granchester. But one way of alleviating the risk is for large herds, developed as the economic pressures of the common agricultural policy have come to bear, to be broken up so that no individual herd consists of large numbers of cattle. That would provide some means of protection initially to the Exchequer, but also to the farming community in that large numbers of stock would not be decimated.
We should heed carefully the words of my noble friend Lord Winston who, with the scientific authority he brings to the Chamber, said that we do not yet know the linkage between BSE and CJD. We do not know how BSE is, if you like, caught by one animal from another or, indeed, what is causing it. We must recognise that until we develop more scientific information we need to take action that will not just give confidence to the consumer in the British beef market but which will also ensure the safety of people, especially those poorer members of our community who may be very susceptible to purchasing cheaper cuts of meat and cheaper beef products which may, in the end, cause them to have a higher risk of developing CJD.
Lord Monk Bretton: My Lords, I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for initiating today's debate. I may not agree with everything that he said, but, nevertheless, I am happy to have the opportunity to speak. I have to declare an interest in dairy farming, and I duly do so. I should also say at once that, as things are, I am sorrier for the beef farmers than I am for myself as a dairy farmer. For that reason, there is one question that I should like to put to my noble friend the Minister. Will the Government monitor very carefully their package in connection with beef steers and heifers under 30 months, by which I mean will they watch what
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, mentioned the 1980 decision about rendering plants. In that respect, I should like to say that I would not like to apportion blame over the matter. It was indeed a disaster, but I agree with my noble friend Lord Stanley in his attitude to it. There is one comment that I should like to make which arises from that issue. I am sure that one should commend the achievement of the central veterinary laboratory in identifying BSE in November 1986 and also commend it for the work that it carried out thereafter which led to the 1988 and 1989 regulations regarding taking blood and bonemeal out of cattle feed and taking offal out of cattle in the slaughterhouses. That was the linchpin that we got in place. It was most important for it to be done and I believe that it was done with great promptitude and ability.
I do not want to say very much in today's long debate, but I should like to draw attention to my interest in what is happening elsewhere in Europe. I suffer from somewhat of a dearth of information on the subject; and, therefore, I make various suppositions in certain areas. I am really anxious to know whether or not I am right. First, I am well aware that if you make a disease notifiable, introduce a slaughter policy and do not compensate, the disease goes underground. That is something that has happened a number of times in agricultural policies in our own country and, indeed, in others. I feel rather concerned and wonder very much about it when I gather that France has only reported 13 cases of BSE.
The second point that I should like to make about Europe is that we introduced slaughterhouse controls in 1989, but Europe introduced them last week. After all, it is known that Europe has the disease, although perhaps in smaller quantities than we have. When they find this disease in France they rush off and kill everything in sight around the reported case. That is really to go berserk and to take action beyond the needs of science. That is not a desperately intelligent policy. It is right to compare that situation--if it is not totally unfair, which I do not believe it is--with our actions here that I have already described.
I prefer British beef because I believe it is safer. I very much hope that one of these days McDonald's will take the advice that the Government no doubt originally gave. That might have a considerable impact on the public's view. I am glad that Commissioner Franz Fischler said what he did. It will help the beef industry and it will give us a case. We are right to take that case up. I am glad that the Government will do that. However slowly the wheels of justice grind, that will nevertheless put pressure on Brussels to do something about this ban. I am not anti-European; I am fully aware of the benefits that the European Community offers us all. However, I warn that the European Union's handling of the beef problem could
Lord Poole: My Lords, I fear I must start with an apology because a longstanding engagement makes it impossible for me to remain for the whole of the debate. I apologise to the House and to the Minister.
If there is one truth that has come out of this episode, it is the fickleness of the consumer. Your Lordships will recall that four weeks ago Stephen Dorrell announced that there was an extremely small risk of contracting a rare brain disease from eating BSE infected meat. Since then, and on the back of that announcement, and reassurances from leading scientists that British beef was in the normal sense of the word safe, the beef market--as we have been hearing--has collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been put at risk and thousands of jobs have already been lost. A multi-billion pound industry has been brought to its knees.
There are signs that confidence is returning, as my noble friend Lord Lindsay said earlier. That is encouraging. Without a return of consumer confidence there can be no prospect of any sustained recovery at all in the beef industry. However, I fear that long-term damage has been inflicted on Britain's agricultural industry and it could take many years before rural economies fully recover.
There are of course implications for public expenditure in all of this. The very substantial package of support for the beef industry announced by Douglas Hogg yesterday is extremely welcome. Without it farmers, slaughtermen, renderers and others would have faced certain bankruptcy. I believe it is a well thought out and impressive policy and that we should commend Mr. Hogg for it. However, one cannot help but feel that hundreds of millions of pounds are to be spent because of a totally irrational spasm of public hysteria.
I do not blame the Government for that hysteria. In my view, Ministers had a duty to put any new scientific advice that they received from their experts into the public domain, and to do so immediately. Any cover up would have been a disaster. I am glad that Messrs. Dorrell and Hogg refused to countenance one. Having made the new information public, the Government have done everything possible to try to reassure the public that British beef is safe. I do not believe that any government of whatever complexion could--despite some of the remarks from across this Chamber--have handled the crisis better. But who is to blame for it, or should we be apportioning blame at all? There is no doubt that in this country public health scares can be sparked off by the slightest rumour or the remotest risk: witness recent scares over salmonella and the contraceptive pill.
However, I also believe that the media and some politicians have acted with what can only be called gross irresponsibility during this whole crisis. I remind the House of the front page headline in the
However, it is not the media alone which has acted in this way. I believe that some politicians have behaved in an equally cavalier and irresponsible manner. The deliberate scaremongering by the Shadow Health Secretary and others was, frankly, a disgrace. The job of opposition is of course to scrutinise and criticise the Government. I have no problem with that; indeed, it is certainly an essential and good thing. But politicians who whip up public fears to serve narrow party political aims, and put thousands of jobs at risk in the process, are, frankly, the worst sort of demagogues. I hope that rural Britain will not forgive them.
Then there was the behaviour of the European Community. I fully understand the desire of other member states to shore up confidence in their domestic beef markets which have also suffered a crisis of confidence. However, the worldwide ban imposed by Europe on all British beef products has, I believe, done more than anything to bring about the collapse in consumer confidence in beef across the Union. It is wholly unjustified, either on scientific grounds--as indeed Commissioner Fischler and President Santer admitted over the weekend--or, I believe, on economic or commercial grounds. The European Union should lift that ban forthwith. I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement yesterday that the Government are to challenge the ban in the European Court of Justice. On the face of it, they must have a good case. The ban certainly goes against every principle inherent in the single market.
In conclusion, I hope the collective hysteria that has brought about the present crisis, and which is doing so much damage to our economy and our farming industries, will come to a speedy end. I commend my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture for the way in which he has tried to keep a calm head during all of this, and also for the comprehensive measures that he has taken to prop up the beef industry during these most difficult times. I call on all those who, through scaremongering and over-reaction, have done so much to damage British beef, to stop doing so immediately and to work with Mr. Hogg for a restoration of confidence.
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