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House of Lords

Thursday, 12th March 1998.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Southwell.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Lord Dowding--Made the solemn Affirmation.


Lord Dixon-Smith asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Under what conditions they consider that the BSE epidemic will be sufficiently diminished for them to revoke the Beef Bones Regulations 1997 (S.I. 1997/2959).

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, as the epidemic declines, we will, with the help of SEAC, continue to review the policies which have been put in place in order to combat BSE in cattle and to protect public health, including the Beef Bones Regulations 1997. But it would be premature to reduce the controls in place at this stage. It would be imprudent to act, or to give any firm commitments to act, on the basis of predictions of the future course of the epidemic.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I thank the Minister for a rather depressing reply. There have been reports that the Standing Veterinary Committee advising the European Commission will be recommending a phased end to the beef export ban, based regionally on a period of years without BSE. Can the Minister confirm that that is the situation? Does it not suggest a possible way towards ending what might be called the BSE crisis?

Lord Donoughue: Yes, my Lords, thank you. We are very pleased with this initial progress, the first progress that has been made. The Standing Veterinary Committee has looked at the scientific evidence and is prepared to recommend the Commission's proposal, which would provide for a partial lifting of the ban with particular reference to Northern Ireland because it meets the condition of having computer traceability. I take the opportunity to point out that if we had not had the regulations which banned beef on the bone, our beef would have been technically, however remotely, unsafe and it is unlikely that we would have been able to make such progress.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, is the Minister aware that as a member of the Southwood Working Party I gave evidence yesterday, with the other members of that working party, before the BSE inquiry? I am quoted in the press this morning as having said that if we had possessed in 1988 and 1989 the scientific knowledge we now have we would then have recommended a complete ban on beef on the bone and

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on the use of brain and spinal cord in the food chain. Does the Minister accept that, in the light of scientific evidence, it is becoming clear that the risk involved in eating beef on the bone is so minuscule that before too long it will be appropriate to allow consumers to make up their own minds as to whether they should eat such beef?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and I appreciated what he said at the inquiry yesterday. We hope that we shall reach that position. There was no pleasure in introducing a ban which clearly inconvenienced people. However, as I said, without that ban I am convinced that we would not have made the progress towards lifting the export ban that we have. Following the precautionary principle--which we follow and which, I may say, the previous government followed, although noble Lords may have been misled by statements since that party went into opposition--it would be unwise to take any measures which risk the progress we have made. However, I can assure the noble Lord that when we reach a position where we feel that we can ease some of the control regulations, we certainly shall. In the meantime, our prime concern is to protect public health, to restore confidence in British beef and to make the progress we can towards the full lifting of the ban on our exports.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, I am sure that the House welcomes what the Minister said about Northern Ireland and the possibility of easing the ban on beef on the bone there. Does the Minister also consider that there are several other parts of the United Kingdom that almost meet the requirements in place for Northern Ireland? Should not some reconsideration of the total ban be undertaken to relieve some areas--for example, in Scotland--where there has been no BSE in many herds for many years?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, indeed, we wish to see the ban lifted for the entire United Kingdom. The recommendation still has to go through the Agricultural Council, which I shall attend at the beginning of next week. But the ban is not for Northern Ireland. It has conditions which can currently only be met by Northern Ireland; for example, the existence of an adequate computer traceability system. We are pressing ahead as rapidly as possible to get that for the whole of the United Kingdom. We shall have it certainly before the end of this year, we hope by the autumn. Then we believe that we shall be in a position to say that we meet all the requirements. We shall press in the strongest possible terms to get the ban lifted, as it should be, for the whole of the United Kingdom.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that, when the beef on the bone ban was first instituted, it was done on the basis that there was a risk to health, however minuscule? He has told us today and previously that the reason for the ban was twofold: first, on the basis of health and, secondly, on the basis of getting the beef ban lifted. Can he tell

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me whether, if there had been no prospect of the beef ban being lifted or it had already been lifted, there would have been a ban on beef on the bone?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, that is a fairly hypothetical question. I would point out that the Chief Medical Officer wrote to the Minister in clear terms saying that on public health grounds there should be a ban on beef on the bone.

Lord Luke: My Lords, the Minister said that the previous government should be blamed for acting too late. I thought that the Phillips inquiry was set up to establish the history of BSE overall. Have the Government already decided that the previous government should be actively blamed for acting too late? Where does that leave the status of the Phillips inquiry?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I did not say that the previous government acted too late. I said that they followed the precautionary principles, certainly towards the end, that we have followed. The Phillips inquiry is an independent inquiry and we await its findings with interest.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, the Minister may have read a recent description of himself in the press by another member of your Lordships' House as a "zealot vegetarian". Will he comment on that and say whether it has any bearing on the decisions in which he takes part?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank my noble friend. That tacky piece appeared in the Evening Standard. I should say immediately that I see no reason why a vegetarian, however zealous, should not make objective ministerial decisions. In my case, ironically, on that very day I had eaten the best steak I had had for months.

The piece also described me as dishevelled, which is a matter of opinion. It said I was the lead Minister on beef policy, a matter of fact which is untrue. It also spelt my name incorrectly, which was not bad for 70 words. I should say that it did not suggest that I was a transvestite or a supporter of Arsenal, so I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.

Church of England: Constitutional Arrangements

3.12 p.m.

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to introduce legislation to disestablish the Church of England.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the Government have no plans to introduce legislation

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to disestablish the Church of England. We would not contemplate disestablishment unless the Church wished it, and it has not told us that it does.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I thank the Minister warmly for his reply, which is entirely to my liking. I can assure him that nothing in what I am about to say in the form of a question implies any disrespect whatever to the right reverend Prelate or indeed to any Member of the Bench of Bishops. However, does it not amount to this? The Church of England is not just a sect which can change its forms of worship at the drop of a hat in the vain hope that a bigger congregation will come in through its doors. It is, in a real sense, trustee for the whole nation of a precious cultural heritage.

Does the Minister agree that those responsible for the Church's forms of worship should not lightly tinker with the language of prayers which millions have learnt in childhood and from which they still find comfort at times of distress and grief? The Church should not substitute the trite, the banal and the ugly for the beautiful. It should not continue to try to force into disuse the Book of Common Prayer, with all its dignity, gracefulness and beauty.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I must declare an interest as a baptised and confirmed member of the Church in Wales and also a lapsed member of the "Band of Hope". We do not have problems of decaying language in the Church in Wales because we still have the great glory of Bishop Morgan's translation of the Bible, to which we stick. It is not for me to express any view about the cultural heritage of the Church of England, save to point out that richness of history, culture, tradition and language are of fundamental importance.

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