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Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank my noble friend and agree with every word he said. We did not inherit any benefits or assets whatever. We were definitely in a negative game and it is indeed true that my right honourable friend, especially during the time of the British presidency, managed to undo much of the damage that had been done before.
Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, perhaps the Minister will accept my warm congratulations on what Ministers have managed to achieve. But does he agree that life would be much easier if governments on the Continent would accept independent scientific advice, because they took a long time to accept that?
Perhaps the Minister will answer three further points. First, as one who tries to deal with cattle passports and other difficult red tape in the meat industry today, I ask the Minister whether he will streamline the administration in relation to exporting cattle. Secondly, he attends as a representative of the Government at food fairs on the Continent. Will he do all he can to help to promote British beef by helping MLC and others? Thirdly, I cannot understand why the scientific committee in this country is taking so long to make up its mind about beef on the bone. It was a marginal decision a year ago which has been totally discredited. I hope now that a conclusion will be reached before Christmas that at least in Britain we can eat beef on the bone.
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the streamlining of administration. I am not enormously optimistic. It seems to me that it is an intrinsic feature of any highly complex regime such as the CAP that it will be hugely bureaucratic. That is one further reason for trying to alter the regime.
I entirely agree with what the noble Lord said about promotion. As Ministers, we must go to European food fairs--it is basically the MLC--and we must do all we can to help. Today I have been--and only just got back in time for this Statement--to the Birmingham food fair, where I did what I could to promote British beef.
I can only say what I have said before about beef on the bone. It was not a ludicrous decision but a decision which was in favour of British farmers, because it contributed towards restoring confidence in British meat. That was essential. We shall lift the ban when we receive scientific advice that it is safe to do so. But while we have advice from the Chief Medical Officer that it is unsafe, it would be irresponsible to do that.
Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, has my noble friend detected an attempt to seek to spread the blame for that dreadful matter across both sides of the House? Is it not the case and should it not be recognised clearly that serious suspicions were entertained more than 15 years ago; that the severity of the disease was diagnosed more than 12 years ago; that the government were slow to introduce prohibitions on infected material;
Will my noble friend stress that the ban on beef on the bone, which clearly contributed to the favourable situation we are now enjoying, was a tough decision but one designed to help, though some of those helped were not particularly appreciative of that decision? Also, will my noble friend encourage the Meat & Livestock Commission and all those involved in this trade to develop urgently the marketing techniques that are clearly necessary?
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for those congratulations and for that contribution. Since taking office, on the whole, we have tended not to dwell on blame. The parties involved in this terrible BSE scandal were widespread and often well-meaning. But there is no doubt that it was a terrible scandal which cost the farming industry and the British taxpayer billions of pounds. We set up an inquiry into the scandal and await a report on it, some of us with great interest and some opposite, perhaps, with trepidation--of course, I do not mean individuals.
The decision to ban beef on the bone was a tough decision. We knew that it would be an unpopular decision in this House. But it was not as unpopular in the country as one would imagine from listening to the debates in this House or reading some of our more curious newspapers. When a major opinion poll was carried out some months ago on whether or not it was important to lift the ban on beef on the bone, the number of people who said yes was so small that it had to be significantly upgraded to reach 1 per cent.
Earl Peel: My Lords, surely on that basis alone it should be a question for the consumer to decide. I appreciate that the Minister has to take advice from the chief vet based on all the scientific evidence in front of him and that risk assessment is always a difficult matter, but, because of the enormous publicity attached to this matter, the consumer is fully aware of the situation. It would be in the farmers' interests if that decision was left to the consumer, and the Government should authorise the lifting of the ban on eating beef on the bone as soon as possible.
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, that is the dilemma that Ministers face. We would prefer to leave consumers to choose. But the noble Earl will be aware that in a whole range of areas affecting public health we do not choose to leave the individual citizen to choose. Where there may be a major risk to public health based on proper scientific advice, Ministers have to act. Whatever their failings, on every occasion the previous government, when advised that there was a need for action, took it. They were acting in a responsible way, as we are now acting.
Lord Tordoff: My Lords, I hesitate to intervene in farming matters. The question of the science behind this issue triggers a response from me on the basis of my experience in the European Select Committee.
On a number of occasions reports from your Lordships' Select Committee have been highly critical of the science base of some of the Commission's findings. The same can be said about the science base of some of the decisions relating to the BSE crisis.
Are the Government confident that the scientific advice being given in Brussels is adequate? Are they worried that some of it may be politically slanted? What can they do to pressurise the Commission to make sure that the scientific advice given is transparent, that we know who is giving the advice and that the advice can be subject to peer review in the future?
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of important points which Select Committees of this House have raised. In this country we can only establish and take the best scientific advice that we have available. It may not be perfect, but we will do what we can to make it as comprehensive and professional as possible. The advice in relation to beef on the bone came from our Chief Medical Officer based on other scientific advice.
The question of risk is a complex one. We do not have perfect systems of risk analysis and one periodically spots anomalies and incongruities--we have all done that. But in MAFF and the Department of Health we have units of risk analysis and we take the best risk advice we can. As Ministers we can only be as responsible as we can with the best analysis available. In the European Union there may be different levels--some better and some worse. We and the European Union must accept what advice there is. There have been suspicions of political awareness in some of the scientific advice but, in the end, the scientists recommended lifting the ban. We still have BSE in cattle. The work of the committees of this House is a major force for good in that area. But we welcome
Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I add my congratulations to the Minister and the agricultural team on the excellent progress they have made on lifting the beef ban. However, perhaps I can press the Minister on some of the longer-term and deeper lessons to be learnt from the BSE exercise, particularly in terms of the increasing intensification of agricultural production. We have a lesson to learn about the risks of intensive production, certainly for human health. We are already aware from a whole variety of sources of the risks of intensification of food production on the environment.
We also heard praise heaped upon the ministerial team for their new approach to Europe and for the increasing confidence that our European partners have in the United Kingdom within the European setting. I would add my praise to that, but I would ask the Minister whether, in taking that approach forward, he will be urging the agriculture team for the United Kingdom to use this well-developed track record in European negotiations to support the Scandinavian member states, including the Danes, in their commendation of the introduction of environmental conditions on all payments under the common agricultural policy, particularly the mainstream and compensation payments, including, where necessary for public health and the environment, intensification payments and conditions as part of the Agenda 2000 Agreement.
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