Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, obviously the Geneva Convention remains one of our international obligations. If there is oppression which leads to genuine claims for refuge and political asylum, I for one am glad that this country retains its civilised tradition of many years' standing. As I indicated in answer to the Question a few days ago on a not entirely dissimilar topic, an interdepartmental review was set up on 21st August to deal with, among others, some of the points raised by the noble Lord. We must get a system which is fairer, firmer and faster than the present mish-mash. That is what the Government are intent upon.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, does the noble Lord accept the approval of these Benches for what he has just said? It is in the best traditions of this House. Can he give us any idea of the length of time that now obtains between an immediate application for asylum and the settlement of the claim? Finally, can the Minister say whether the Government will reconsider providing assistance for those seeking and awaiting the outcome of their claim and appeal with regard to the position in which local authorities in some parts of the country now find themselves?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I cannot give a particular answer to the noble Baroness's first question because each case varies infinitely. As I said the other day in answer to the Question to which I referred, much of the outstanding backlog relates to people who have been awaiting determination of their case since 1993. No one can regard that as a cause for self-satisfaction about our present arrangements.

The noble Baroness's point about local authorities is a good one. The relevant departments are in close contact with affected local authorities to see what additional supplementary assistance should be given to those local authorities.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the delay suffered by genuine asylum seekers is totally unacceptable and unworthy? Can he tell the House what steps he proposes to take to reduce the delay, without waiting for any revision of the law? Surely steps should be taken now, in accordance with the great and honourable traditions of the country towards genuine asylum seekers.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I subscribe to those great and honourable traditions, but it is also a sensible tradition to approach general reform on a considered basis. That is the purpose of the interdepartmental review which was set up on 21st August 1997.

27 Jan 1998 : Column 103

I echo another point raised by the noble Lord about the proposition that those who seek refugee asylum status ought to have their claims quickly dealt with. Of course, that is our policy--it must be firmer, fairer and faster. In that context--and I am trying to be helpful rather than tedious--the Home Secretary has instituted a review of the evident malpractice in certain parts of our community, namely: bogus asylum advisers, whether or not they are professionally qualified. It is a serious vice because they prey on innocent lost people and distort the system which at present obtains for the bone fide applicants.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, can the noble Lord supply an estimate of another category of asylum seekers not mentioned in the Question? I have in mind those who have already disappeared without trace within the United Kingdom--a category referred to in my Question last week to which the noble Lord has already referred twice today and to which he gave very helpful replies.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right: he asked this question just a few days ago. My answer then was that our best approximation was 14,000. Although a few days have passed, my best approximation is still about 14,000.

Baroness Ludford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply to my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby about local authority support in the absence of social security benefits for asylum seekers. I also welcome his remarks about the discussions between government departments and local authorities. But is he aware that the Refugee Council estimates that not only do many asylum seekers live in distress because they are living at subsistence level as local authorities are not allowed to give cash benefits but only food and accommodation in kind, but also that it is £30 to £65 a week more expensive for local authorities to support them in the way they do than it would be if social security benefits were available? Is this not the worst of all worlds all round?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not disagree that many aspects of our present arrangements encapsulate the worst of all possible worlds. I can assure the House and the noble Baroness that the whole question of support arrangements for asylum seekers is being specifically addressed as part of the interdepartmental study of the asylum process to which I referred a little while ago.

Lord Henley: My Lords, can the noble Lord assist the House by giving the figures for the number of asylum seekers, bogus or otherwise, who appeared in earlier years than the year referred to in this Question? If, as I suspect, the figures indicate that we have seen a decline in the number of those seeking asylum, would he not agree that that seems to indicate that the measures we introduced, particularly in relation to changes to the benefit regime, have had a considerable effect? Will he therefore confirm that the review being conducted by

27 Jan 1998 : Column 104

his department and others will not seek to make changes to the benefit regime as set up by the previous government?

Lord Strathclyde: Answer!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am about to, my Lords. I have never myself come across a review which tried to predetermine the conclusions of the review. That may have been the way in the past 18 years. It is not the way we intend to continue. There are differences in intake, with regard to rise and fall in the statistics, which are substantially dependent on political upheaval in other parts of the world. That is inevitable. What we have to do is to get a decent balance between our historical tradition and the Government's responsibilities, first, to those who live in this country and, secondly, to those who are taxpayers in this country. But there is no easy brutalist solution of which I am readily aware.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I join in the welcome for what the Minister has said about reducing delays in disposing of asylum applications. But does he agree that in the past such delays have been needlessly prolonged by what has been described as the culture of disbelief inside the Home Office? Does he further agree that that culture would wither faster if it were not as assiduously watered as it was under the previous Administration?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the reasons for delays are manifold. One is the present appeal process with the opportunity for judicial review. Judicial review--I say this cautiously in the presence of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor--is a notoriously slow remedy and it does mean sometimes that unworthy cases are taken to judicial review. There is no culture of disbelief in the Home Office. I hope that there is a culture of decency, as exemplified by the present holder of the Secretary of State's office.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, can the Minister say how many applicants for asylum applied more than five years ago and have not yet had any adjudication or any interview on the matter? Is not to wait five years for a response both demoralising and extremely heavy on the national benefits system?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. It is utterly demoralising. As I said in answer to the question a few days ago, no human being should have to be left in doubt and limbo for that period of time. I cannot give the specific statistics to the noble Lord, but I shall research what statistics there are and undertake to write to him as soon as may be.

Education (Student Loans) Bill

Read a third time, and passed.

Beef Bones Regulations 1997

3.15 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke rose to move to resolve, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government

27 Jan 1998 : Column 105

to revoke the Beef Bones Regulations 1997 (S.I. 1997/2959), laid before the House on 15th December 1997, to allow further consultation with consumers and consumer organisations, farmers, trade representatives and the relevant enforcement agencies [19th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is the first opportunity either House has had to debate the inept measure known as the Beef Bones Regulations 1997. The use of a negative Instrument, which has always struck me as being first cousin to government by decree, cannot be the right way to deal with an issue which had the potential--and has more than fulfilled that potential--to infuriate so many people and make the Government look unusually foolish.

Why has it infuriated so many people? Because there is so much wrong with the reasoning, if it can be so dignified, behind the ban. First, the scientific basis for the ban is questionable. Secondly, even accepting that the scientific basis is sound, the risk involved is so small as to be almost invisible. Thirdly, there are practical difficulties in policing and enforcing a ban which is held in such contempt by the vast majority of people in this country. Finally, there is the suggestion implicit in the ban that none of us is capable of rational risk assessment, so the man in Whitehall must make up our minds for us, and from now on we must all have our meat cut up in small pieces.

Perhaps we could look a little closer at the science and the risk basis on which this beef bones ban has been announced and the sale of beef bones has been criminalised. The advice to Ministers on dorsal root ganglia is based on experiments wherein unrealistically large doses of BSE-infected feed have been given to cattle from the age of four months. These cattle force-fed this infected feed showed clinical signs of infection at 39 months of age. I now quote from paragraph 5 of the SEAC advice to Ministers:


    "With the Over Thirty Month Scheme in place the only DRG [dorsal root ganglia] to pose a risk would be from animals which would have developed BSE before the age of 38 months. Using risk management techniques, and taking account of the 90 per cent. decline in the BSE epidemic since 1993, the numbers of such animals with BSE aged 30-38 months are shown to be very small. In 1997 it is estimated that there will be 6 animals in the latter category and 3 in 1998. Thus next year, of the approximately 2.2 million cattle to be slaughtered for human consumption only 3 will be near enough to the end of the incubation period to raise the possibility of infectivity in their DRG. (Note in the worst year in the past the figure was many thousand times greater)."

I remind the House again that this is on the basis of infection discovered in cattle which had been deliberately fed very high doses of BSE-infected material from a very young age, material which has been banned from cattle feed since 1988.

The advice goes on at paragraph 6:


    "On the basis of the risk assessment available to us it is estimated that there is a 95 per cent. chance of no cases and a 5 per cent. chance of one case of new variant CJD arising as a result of this exposure in 1998".

27 Jan 1998 : Column 106

But as my noble friend Lord Ferrers pointed out in the debate on agriculture last Wednesday,


    "there is no known proven connection between BSE in animals and CJD in humans ... No one can say without doubt that new variant CJD can be contracted from BSE in animals".--[Official Report, 21/1/98; col. 1518-9.]

So what we have is a scientific assessment that there is a one in 20 chance that one person out of 58 million may contract CJD from eating beef on the bone; that is a more than one in a billion chance--and that only if you accept the presently scientifically unproven assumption that there is transmission of the disease from animals to humans.

So what was the Government's reaction? Did they pause for reflection? Did they consider the matter deliberately? Did they make the figures and the risks public and allow us to choose whether to eat beef on the bone? No, quicker than you can say dorsal root ganglia, they pushed the panic button. The SEAC advice was given on 3rd December, and by 16th December the Beef Bones Regulations came into force. There has, until now, been no opportunity for proper debate on this subject although there was a rushed and entirely inadequate consultation process. Your Lordships may be interested to learn that the consultees on the matter of the Beef Bones Regulations included some of the following: the British Fur Trade Association; the National Association of Tripe Processors; the European Documentation Centre; the Al Hasaniya Moroccan Womens Centre; the Goat Advisory Bureau, the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles; the British Ceramics Confederation--are we at risk from eating off bone china? Perhaps we should be told. The consultees also included the West Indian Standing Conference and finally, and crucially, the Association of Circus Proprietors. But the list did not include any of the beef herd book societies or breeders associations, such as the Aberdeen Angus, Hereford or any of the other principal suppliers of animals to farms.

I understand that all the meat industry bodies who were consulted opposed the ban. Can the Minister tell us which, if any, of the consultees supported this ban? With this valuable consultation under their belt and the odds against infection of more than a billion-to-one, the Government felt it sensible to move to criminalise the sale of beef on the bone with penalties of £2,000 or six months imprisonment or both--the same penalty as applies, as your Lordships are undoubtedly aware, for keeping a brothel.

There are also problems over enforceability of the Beef Bones Regulations. It is the responsibility of local authorities to enforce them through their environmental health officers. I have had an interesting conversation with a senior environmental health officer. He pointed out that no law is enforceable at no cost. The money for information, education and enforcement will have to come out of local authority budgets, which are already spoken for.

He told me that there had been no guidance on how these regulations should be enforced, therefore there would be no consistency throughout the country in application. He also told me that he and his team would hope to inspect the butchers' shops in his area, which is a large area, at most twice a year. Does that inspire

27 Jan 1998 : Column 107

confidence in the inspection procedure? I suggest that it does not. Unenforceable law is bad law, and surely effort should be proportional to the risk involved. Is it sensible to spend the time of skilled enforcement officers on a matter of such slender risk when their time should be spent on more immediate threats?

These regulations are really beyond parody. The Government case is based on the risk of contracting new variant CJD from eating beef on the bone, which is more than a billion-to-one against. But everything that we do has a risk factor attached to it. It would be hard to dream up a longer shot than eating beef on the bone. Smoking, driving, reading the latest European Commission directive, are all much higher risks and yet we are still allowed to take them. We are allowed--but for how long?--to decide for ourselves whether to drive to work and to take the risk of being maimed, which is 76,000 times more likely than eating beef on the bone; to play golf and risk a lightning strike, which is 120 times more likely, or to have lunch and to risk choking to death, which is 4,800 more likely or even to lead life on the cutting edge and do all three on the same day.

So although the Government started by pretending that risk to the consumers was the trigger for this legislation and as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Office of Public Service stated in another place,


    "The Government's first priorities are the protection of the consumer",

and later,


    "we will not play fast and loose with public health",

it is now apparent that the risk is now almost non-existent.

No, there must be another reason. What the Minister must tell the House is why the Government are making a special case, giving special treatment to the practically negligible risk from eating beef on the bone, as compared with the million or more cases of food poisoning nationwide from E-coli or salmonella which occur every year and cause hundreds of deaths. There is also the health risk involved from imported meat about whose origins and safety we know very little at all.

Are the Government saying that this is the best way to build consumer confidence in beef? What an odd method to build confidence in the beef sector by banning its flagship product. In any case, consumers have shown their contempt for the government measure by stocking up with ribs of beef, T-bone steaks and oxtail. I understand that there is a brisk trade in beef on the bone dinners in the more sensible type of pub.

The Government seem to have stumbled on a bizarre method of "confidence by ban". Or are the Government playing to the European gallery in the hope that the ban will persuade our European competitors--I shall read that again because I meant our European partners, of course--to lift the worldwide ban which they have slapped on British beef? If that is the rationale, surely the best way of buying their votes would be to go the whole hog and make it illegal to sell any British beef at all. Surely a mere beef on the bone ban hardly serves the case.

I end by reminding your Lordships of the importance of beef in the British way of life. The roast beef of old England is celebrated in our songs,

27 Jan 1998 : Column 108

our verse, our stories and our plays. It is part of our historical background. Our French friends have known us for centuries as les roast beef. Are we now to be known as les milk pudding? I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to revoke the Beef Bones Regulations 1997 (S.I. 1997/2959), laid before the House on 15th December 1997, to allow further consultation with consumers and consumer organisations, farmers, trade representatives and the relevant enforcement agencies [19th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Willoughby de Broke.)

3.24 p.m.

Lord Rea: My Lords, I am sorry that, as on Wednesday of last week, my noble friend is again having to explain government policy to large numbers of disgruntled or, if that is too strong a word, at least not very gruntled, farmers. In fact, beef formed a large part of the agenda last Wednesday as now. I can fully understand the concerns of farmers and why they need to beef about beef. BSE/CJD has been a body blow to the prosperity of thousands of cattle farmers up and down the country and the whole beef industry, let alone the taxpayer. Now these regulations on deboning are seen as adding insult to injury. However, this cloud, as my noble friend will explain, may have a silver lining.

But first it is important to get the health reasons for these regulations into perspective. In the debate last week both the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and no doubt others--and now the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke--said that the link between BSE in cattle and new variant CJD was still unproven. Strictly speaking, they are right. But the circumstantial evidence is now so compelling that I believe that the link would be accepted in a court of law. In particular, the microscopic appearances in the brain of BSE in animals and new variant CJD are identical, while those of scrapie--mainly a disease of sheep--or the more common form of human CJD, which preceded the BSE epidemic, are not the same as those of BSE if one looks at them in great detail under a microscope. It is true that so far there were at the last count only 23 cases of the new variant CJD, for which we should be grateful. It could already have been a lot worse if the predictions of some prominent microbiologists had been correct.

But we are not yet out of the wood. The incubation period of this disease is very long and in some cases it may be a decade or more. Unfortunately, like HIV and AIDS, the incubation period--between infection and overt disease--is also very variable. So although, based on present cases, the risk is very small, the potential is still there. But the risk does not come from eating muscle meat. The great bulk of the meat eaten is of course muscle meat. The risk comes from those parts of the animal which are part of the central nervous system or consist of certain types of offal.

It is fairly certain that the small number of cases that we have seen arose from the consumption of meat products containing some of these products before they were banned from sale. The new findings--namely, that

27 Jan 1998 : Column 109

the dorsal root ganglia can also carry transmissible BSE prions--are not altogether surprising since these small nodules of nervous tissue lie very close to the spinal cord (a main source of the BSE agent) between the ribs where they join the spine. Bone marrow, also covered in these regulations, is closely allied to the lymphatic system, parts of which, such as the tonsils, count as specified offal which cannot be sold for human consumption under current regulations. So the regulations that we are discussing today are in fact a logical extension of the 1989 bovine offal (prohibition) regulations. The experiments which provide evidence of infection often take many years to show results and, as more evidence becomes available, the regulations lag behind. In fact, it could be held that not to include bone and bone marrow among the products banned from consumption would have been inconsistent and illogical.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page