HC Deb 25 March 1996 vol 274 cc724-37 4.27 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the beef industry.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has informed the House of the advice that we have received from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee earlier today. I hope that this will help to reassure consumers as to the safety of British beef, and that this in turn will lead to an improvement in market conditions.

Some of the SEAC recommendations are for Agriculture Departments to take forward. In particular, SEAC has given advice on the treatment of trimmings from cattle over 30 months of age, on meat and bonemeal, and on the status of heads from animals over six months of age. The Government have accepted these recommendations in full and I will bring orders before the House as soon as possible. Because of the nature of the advice given by SEAC, these require consultation with the interests concerned. However, I propose to proceed as expeditiously as possible.

The House will appreciate that the orders will be complicated since, in particular, a new system of licensing for plants authorised to bone out animals over 30 months of age will be required.

I turn now to the consequences for trade and for the beef market. The House will be aware that certain EC member states have banned the import of some beef products from the UK, and in some instances live animals as well. I do not believe that these measures are justified by the SEAC findings, which explicitly referred to exposure before the imposition of the specified bovine offal ban in 1989. My officials are arguing in Brussels that the bans are unjustified.

The House will also be concerned, however, about the effect of recent alarm on the beef market and on the livelihoods of the many thousands employed in the several industries connected with it. As I made clear to the House last week, a number of mechanisms exist within the common agricultural policy to support the beef market. These include intervention on young male animals, including safety net intervention if prices fall to particularly low levels, export refunds, and other measures such as aids to private storage, and aid for the slaughter of young male calves from dairy herds.

Obviously the precise use that we wish to make of these, or other, mechanisms will depend upon the extent of the market reaction. It is too early to judge this with confidence, but I am in touch with the Commission so that measures can be put in place as soon as it is clear that they are justified.

I believe that second to putting in place the necessary measures recommended by SEAC, the most important task is to rebuild consumer and market confidence, a process helped by today's statement from SEAC. However, confidence is fragile. I shall monitor it with scrupulous care and I shall not hesitate to come before the House with further measures if it is clear that they are justified by the circumstances.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Does the Minister accept that, in the light of last week's announcements, his first priority should be to ensure that the BSE agent does not enter our food? Is it not clear that to do that he must first ensure that all the necessary regulations are in place; and, secondly, he has a responsibility to ensure that they are properly enforced? I remind the Minister that, in announcing new measures last week, he assured the public that they could eat British beef with confidence. He has announced further new measures today. When does he expect all these measures to be implemented? Enforcement of BSE control legislation is crucial. I remind him that, as recently as last summer, the state veterinary service found that BSE controls were being flouted in our abattoirs. Will the Minister give me an assurance today that the state veterinary service and the Meat Hygiene Service have all the resources and statutory authority that they require properly to enforce all the regulations?

As regards the new steps that the Minister announced today, will he confirm that if a carcase or part of a carcase is believed to be contaminated with bovine specified offal it will be kept out of the human food chain? Can he say who will be responsible for deciding whether that carcase is kept out of the food chain; who will have to implement that decision; and who will be responsible for enforcing that measure?

Will the Minister consider ensuring that all cull cows are slaughtered? I ask him to consider three further steps: first, to ban from human and animal food all calf bovine specified offal—I still put it to the House that it is not wise to allow the specified offal of cattle under six months to enter our food; secondly, a random testing programme for BSE of the brains of cattle going through our slaughterhouses, as recommended by the Tyrrell committee in 1989, which would be of great epidemiological significance—and, thirdly, the safety of mechanically recovered meat in the light of the new concerns.

For the sake of farmers and consumers alike, I make it clear to the Minister that only when consumers are satisfied that the necessary regulations to protect them are in place and are being effectively enforced will they be confident that our beef is as safe to eat as any other beef or beef products in Europe. Will he recognise that his prime responsibility to the British people is to ensure that the food in our shops is safe to eat, and that the British public will judge him not by his words but by his actions?

Mr. Hogg

May I deal with the hon. Gentleman's last point first? Yes, I accept that the prime responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is to do what he or she can to ensure that human food is wholly safe: that is our prime duty, and it overrides all others. It is, of course, true that as Minister of Agriculture I have a responsibility to the agricultural and farming communities, but my overriding duty relates to public health and the national interest.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we accept that it is important to keep the agent out of the food chain. Absolutely so—and that is the justification for the SBO controls, together with the new controls. He asked whether we could ensure proper implementation. He will remember that towards the end of last year I called in representatives of the slaughterhouse industry on, I think, two occasions; I have seen them subsequently, and so have my colleagues in the Ministry. This is an extremely important issue, and last Wednesday I issued express instructions to the Meat Hygiene Service relating to the vigorous enforcement of controls. I believe that the state veterinary service and the Meat Hygiene Service have both the authority and the resources that they require.

Diseased cattle should not enter the food chain. Confirmed cases should be disposed of and destroyed before they enter the slaughterhouses, and in any event the SBOs of all cattle should be taken out and destroyed.

The question of cull cows has been put in a variety of ways, but SEAC considered the position of cattle over the age of 30 months, and sought to deal with the problem that the hon. Gentleman has in mind by means of the deboning requirement that was announced last Wednesday. As for mechanically recovered meat, it was banned last December.

Mr. Paul Marland (West Gloucestershire)

I know that my right hon. and learned Friend will agree that we are all here this afternoon because we care about public health. Does he also agree that, given that we are all here for that reason, it is nauseating for Opposition Members to try to claim this as their own public domain? I commend my right hon. and learned Friend: his actions have been taken on the basis of the best scientific advice available, not just today but historically. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to criticise what has gone on in the past, but the Government and the Ministry have always acted on the basis of the best available scientific advice. The Government have been very responsible in that regard.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that a considerable amount has been written in today's newspapers about what is known in Europe as mineral deficiency, or manganese staggers? Is he entirely convinced that that is not just another name for BSE in France or Holland? Should it not be examined very carefully? I have a feeling that our European Union partners are using the current difficulties here as an opportunity to do down our beef industry to the betterment of their own.

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. He brings a great deal of knowledge to the issue, partly as a result of his time on the Select Committee on Agriculture and partly because of the nature of his constituency.

On the question of public health, my hon. Friend is entirely right. I have already stressed that maintaining public health is our paramount and overarching duty. He is also entirely right about the question of acting on scientific advice. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made absolutely plain, we have always published the scientific conclusions and recommendations and have acted on them fully and promptly. I was asked whether there is BSE on the mainland of Europe. There are indeed cases—I suspect that there are more than have been disclosed—but I proceed on the basis that the problem is greater in Britain than on mainland Europe.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Minister and the Secretary of State for Health have rightly laid great stress on the need to act only on the best possible scientific advice. Does the Minister think that it was alarmist of him and the Secretary of State in media interviews to give such weight to the suggestion of mass slaughter, even complete slaughter of the national herd? Will he consider the circumstances of replacement in that eventuality since, as I hope he will be able to confirm, in some cases young stock imported from France and Holland and from other continental breeders were subsequently found to have BSE? Would it not be a case of out of the frying pan into the fire if we found that we were re-importing BSE after having slaughtered our own herd? Is it not equally absurd for the burger giants to import beef that is not controlled, regulated and inspected to the high standards that we have in this country?

Mr. Hogg

One needs to go on repeating that, in all probability, the exposure to BSE occurred before 1989. That is the considered judgment of SEAC. The scientific committee also concluded that the risks associated with eating British beef are extremely small. It follows that in logic and on the scientific evidence I must agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is not necessary for anybody to stop eating British beef or to stop using it.

I was asked about a cull policy. The announcements that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I have made today reflect our considered policy. They are based on the recommendations that we have received from the scientific committee and we have no other recommendations to make to the House at the moment.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ignore the hysterical politicking by the Opposition and the mass, whipped-up scaremongering by the media over the weekend? Rather, will he listen to a dairy farmer in my constituency whose herd has never had BSE and who is desperately worried about the hysteria? What does my right hon. and learned Friend propose for dairy-bred calves that are now virtually worthless and unsaleable? Can he find some sort of scheme to help my constituent? If he is forced into a slaughter policy, what will happen to milk quotas? I gather that we are heavily over quota for this year, but that a slaughter policy next year or in the near future would make us very heavily under quota. If a slaughter policy is introduced, what compensation would be available to my constituent whose herd has never had BSE and who has not felt it necessary to insure against BSE because he did not feed his cattle on the sort of feed that has led to it?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend has asked a number of important questions reflecting the concern of his constituent and, I have no doubt, the concern of other people in his constituency and elsewhere. I shall begin by dealing with his question about calves. In my statement, I drew attention to the mechanisms in the common agricultural policy—in particular, the aid mechanism for the slaughter of young male calves from dairy herds. However, it is important first to try to restore confidence in the market. Confidence should be restored on the basis of what SEAC and others have said. If consumer confidence is restored it will have a very important and beneficial impact on the market. However, if for any reason that does not happen, I anticipate that I may have to come back to the House with further proposals. But that is not the position at the moment and, consequently, I am not doing that. Rather similar propositions apply to compensation. My hon. Friend will note that I have not in any way suggested a cull policy. That being so, I am not suggesting a compensation policy.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

The Minister and the Secretary of State for Health keep hiding behind what they say is the best scientific advice. But surely the problem is that the scientific advice has been constantly overtaken by events and has been shown to be wrong. In 1989, the Southwood committee said that the cumulative total of cases by 1995 would be 20,000. It is now 155,000. The best scientific advice said that it was unlikely that the disease could be transmitted from cattle to humans, but it now says that it is likely to be so transmitted. [Interruption.] The word used is "likely". Before it was said that it was highly unlikely, but the scientists now say that the cases are likely to have been transmitted by BSE in cattle. Therefore, the Government's responsibility is to go beyond the scientific advice and get ahead of events: they should not wait for public confidence to plummet again. The first step that they should take is to ban the feeding of offal to cattle under the age of six months, as was recommended by the Select Committee on Agriculture in 1989.

Mr. Hogg

Of course Ministers have a responsibility, and that may sometimes go beyond simply acting on scientific advice. I accept that, but it is absolutely the case that any policy that one presents to the House must be considered and informed and proportionate to the risk. When one determines against those criteria what it is proper to bring to the House, one inevitably and rightly places enormous weight on the scientific advice. That is not to say that Ministers are thereby exonerated from making decisions, but it is to say that our decisions have to be justified in rational and informed terms. As I say, that means placing great weight on the expert and scientific advice that we receive.

Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset)

My right hon. and learned Friend has rightly laid great stress on the competence and integrity of SEAC. Its recommendations are accepted, and we are all delighted that it has come out today in the way that it has. Can he assure us that the informed views that are being heard today by the standing veterinary committee in Brussels and which will be put to it again on Wednesday will be received by people who are, first, qualified to understand exactly what they are being told and, secondly, will not have been got at by their Governments in an attempt to defend the situation that they have brought upon themselves by imposing a unilateral beef ban on no basis whatever?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is wholly right to draw attention to the importance of ensuring that those who serve on the standing veterinary committee and the scientific veterinary committee in Brussels are fully aware of the facts and arguments as they are determined by SEAC. SEAC probably contains the most prestigious and informed group of scientists on this topic anywhere in the world. We have taken enormous pains to ensure that members of the veterinary committees are aware—and will be continually informed—of the facts and considerations that have led SEAC to its conclusion.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is it not true that for six long years there has been consistent abuse by abattoir owners of the procedures that were recommended at the time of the original SBO ban—so much so that last year the Minister's officials undertook two studies, one of 163 slaughterhouses and the other of 120 slaughterhouses? It seems that they found abuses of the procedures in half the slaughterhouses that were surveyed. How is it possible that over all those years, while we were being told that the rules were being complied with in slaughterhouses, all this happened without officials in the Department or the state veterinary service even knowing that it was going on?

Mr. Hogg

It is true, and the hon. Gentleman knows, that instances have been found of non-compliance with SBO controls. In the latter part of last year in particular, those instances were made known by way of parliamentary answers.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I told you in a letter early last year.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman makes a sedentary intervention, but it matters not because I accept that there has been a degree of non-implementation of the controls. As I say, I made that plain by parliamentary answer. I called in the industry on at least two occasions. One of the important functions of the Meat Hygiene Service, which has taken over responsibility from local authorities for the enforcement of the requirements, is to supervise and enforce the controls more vigorously.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

In retrospect, do not the Government deserve much credit for the regulations in 1989 banning the use of offal and for setting up the scientific advisory service in 1990? Despite this afternoon's reassuring statements, for which hon. Members and people outside will be grateful, do not two major problems remain? One relates to the single market. How can we possibly have a single market where there are national bans on certain products? Surely, if there had been a danger to human health through eating British beef, that beef should have been banned everywhere, including in this country. As there is no danger, there is no justification for its being banned anywhere else. What will my right hon. and learned Friend do to restore the integrity of the single market?

Secondly, is it not a problem that this country's beef industry has progressively become a by-product of the dairy industry? The overwhelming majority of beef comes either from dairy cattle or from crosses with dairy cows. Would it not be a good idea to consider whether beef farmers who wish to specialise in pedigree beef herds and to produce pure beef cattle should receive full recognition for that? Should we therefore not consider some form of certification procedure such as exists, I believe, in France?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend makes a number of important suggestions. As to the latter suggestion, essentially, that is a matter for the industry, but, clearly, his suggestion has considerable force, although most prime beef that he would eat comes from specialist beef herds.

My hon. Friend suggests that the Government should claim credit for putting the SBO controls into place. The Government were performing their duty in that respect. It is important to remind the House that, when those controls were put in place, the best evidence that we had and the best views that we could form were that the condition was not transmissible, but it was against a possibility of error that those controls were put into place. We thus had a belt-and-braces approach to the control of the disease.

For all the reasons that have been outlined to the House by my right hon. Friend and me, European Union countries are not entitled to erect a barrier against the importation of British beef.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

The Minister will recognise that, today, he cannot say with 100 per cent. certainty why we should believe the expert advice, which has been wrong on so many previous occasions. Nor can he say with 100 per cent. certainty that he will not have to return to the Dispatch Box to make yet another statement. Who appoints these so-called independent experts? Will he give an assurance that other people who may believe that they are experts will have all the evidence that is available so that they can check whether what we are now being told is correct?

Mr. Hogg

As to the publication of the evidence, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has already made it plain that the relevant considerations will appear in the scientific journals. Consequently, anyone who disagrees with or wishes to criticise the considerations that have led SEAC to its conclusions can readily do so—the material will be available in the scientific journals, as has been consistently the case throughout the management of this business.

On the question of SEAC's standing, again, my right hon. Friend made a clear point on that. Professor Lacey, who is a critic of the conclusions, does not for a moment impugn the quality of the advisory committee. I believe that, in SEAC, we have the most qualified, eminent and distinguished group of people operating in this sector of disciplines anywhere in the world.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take this opportunity to redress the balance that has been created by people in other countries who are seeking to take commercial advantage from beleaguered British farmers, in respect of both dairy and beef farms, and from other people who depend on them for the goods that they sell here and abroad? Will he ensure that, in other countries, a proper summary is put in newspapers by way of advertisement, for example, so that people have an objective analysis against which they could form their judgments on British beef, which I ate on Sunday and again today?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Essentially, it is this: how best do we try to ensure that the debate in other European Union countries is as rational and as considered as that which we are seeking to have in this country, and that people can make decisions in the informed and considered way that we are able to do in this country because of the quality of the advice that we receive.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Is the Minister aware that I am astonished at his complacency while countries around the world are banning British beef, while slaughterhouses are closing, while farmers in my constituency have been telephoning me all weekend distraught at what is happening and while meat renderers, butchers and processors are paying people off? All that is happening not because of any scaremongering by Labour Members—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Not at all. It is caused by the Government's panic, indecision and dogma. It is about time that they dealt with the matter with the urgency and seriousness that it deserves.

Mr. Hogg

We should go back to the basic facts: if CJD has been caused by BSE—and it seems that it may have been—that resulted from exposure before 1989. The advice that we have received and accept is that beef now is extremely safe—the risks are extremely small. Against that background, our common duty is to ensure that the public understand those basic facts because, if they do understand that the risk is extremely small, consumer and market confidence will be restored. The criticism that is properly made of Opposition Members—especially the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), whose comments are unjustified in many respects—is that their comments damage the confidence of both the consumer and the market.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend pursue the instances of BSE in Germany, Holland, France and Italy so that those facts can be published and it can be shown that their regulations are much less stringent than ours? Will he consider the position in relation to marketing beef from herds that are absolutely free of BSE? It is wrong that farmers who have gone out of their way to keep BSE-free herds should suffer in the same way as other farmers. Cannot he design a way of either labelling or inspecting that meat for the market so that those farmers are not caught up in the general panic that has been expressed by Opposition Front-Bench Members?

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the quality of beef in Britain compared with the quality of beef in countries in mainland Europe. It is true that, in a number of important respects, those other countries are operating a much less tight regime than Britain, in particular in the handling of SBOs and the contents of feed rations for ruminants. In those two respects, our controls are very much tighter than those operated in mainland Europe.

My right hon. Friend made an important point about marketing, although it is more specifically for industry to take advantage of the status that he identified than it is for MAFF to advise.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Surely one of the lessons to be learnt from this whole sorry saga is that food policy in this country should be rethought. Whatever Ministers have said today, the belief is that consumer interests have been subjugated to the interests of producers. [Interruption.] That is the general belief in this country and nothing that has been said today will change that.

Scientists have said today that people who may be worried about beef should not think that they can simply change to chicken, pork or any other meat because they are full of antibiotics which may bring their own risks. The consumer is totally confused.

The Minister boasts about taking note of scientific advice. Why did not the Government take note of their own committee's advice in 1989—the Tyrrell committee—which recommended research into the brains of slaughtered cattle to examine the incidence of unknown diseases? Why was that not done?

Mr. Hogg

On the question of food policy, it is clear that these sort of incidences will inform the way that we think about food. Lessons will be learnt. It is nonsense to suggest that policy does not develop against the background of emerging problems. We learn from experience and draw our lessons from what we now know. The hon. Lady can be certain of that.

The consumer interest is heavily protected in Britain. The weight of regulations currently in place shows the significance and importance attached to the consumer interest. I shall cite one example. The House will remember that in the latter part of last year I introduced restrictions on mechanically recovered meat. Now, I am being sued for having acted in, it is said, an irrational and disproportionate manner in doing that. That shows that we put public health first.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I am conscious of the need to safeguard the remainder of today's business. I appeal to hon. Members to put brisk questions. I am sure that the Minister will oblige with brisk answers.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

I welcome the fact that the Government are not overreacting to the hysteria generated over the past few days by certain of the media, by the self-interested action of some of our competitors and, in particular, by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) and some of her colleagues—in sharp contrast to the restraint shown by the Liberal Democrats on this issue.

Bearing in mind what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for West Gloucestershire (Mr. Marland), my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), and also that McDonald's and other organisations in this country that are banning British beef intend to import beef from Ireland, France and elsewhere, will my right hon. and learned Friend inform the House of the risk of BSE infection being imported into this country by that means?

Mr. Hogg

I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the hysterical reaction of a number of Opposition Members—and I include the nationalist parties in that. My hon. Friend referred to importing beef into Britain to satisfy the requirements of McDonald's. On the advice of SEAC, we believe that the position adopted by McDonald's is not justified on any assessment of the facts.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I do not wish to be hysterical, but I am sure that the Minister realises that his statement will do nothing for consumer confidence, and nor will it help the industry. I respectfully refer him to the fact that in Ireland the problem was virtually eradicated by selective culling in 1989, at a comparatively small cost of £12 million. When will the Minister take a real, decisive step and not pass the buck and waste time?

Mr. Hogg

A number of policies can be pursued, but it is important to rest our conclusions on the best possible evidence and assessments. We have two important strategies. The first is to try to eliminate the incidence of BSE from the cattle herd. It is falling rapidly, but not fast enough. That is the justification for excluding from the animal feed chain the ruminant protein to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) referred. Secondly, on the question of public health—and we have concentrated for most of the past hour and a half on this—we believe that the arrangements now in place ensure that the risk from eating British beef is extremely low.

Mr. Robert Hicks (South-East Cornwall)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that throughout the west country, which is a major livestock area, there is considerable resentment that premature judgments have been made about the safety of beef, largely on the basis of certain irresponsible statements by politicians, journalists and other so-called instant experts? Does he agree that the greatest need now is to restore confidence in the beef market and the consumption of British beef? If a further package of measures is required to achieve that objective, it should be implemented sooner rather than later.

Mr. Hogg

We have a clear duty to inform the public and the House of any important conclusions or recommendations that come to us from SEAC. It was for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I came to the House as expeditiously as we did last week with the information that we had, namely, that CJD may have been caused by BSE, the exposure having taken place before 1989. That we have to do. The central point is that exposure probably occurred before 1989. Thereafter, controls have been in place. My hon. Friend referred to confidence. I believe that there should be confidence in the safety of British beef, for the reasons that my right hon. Friend and I have been outlining over the past hour and a half.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the only way in which confidence in British beef will be restored among British and European consumers and the market generally is an assurance that no BSE-infected meat will enter the human food chain? Can he explain to the House why the research carried out by Mr. Narang in Newcastle, which was to develop a live test for BSE, was not continued and developed? If there were to be a live test, we would be able to begin to solve this horrendous problem.

Mr. Hogg

Obviously, it is vital to keep infected beef out of the human food chain; that is the purpose of the SBOs and that is why we have reinforced them. It is also true that it is highly desirable to develop a live test as soon as possible. At the moment, we do not have one and the best estimate is that we will not have one in the near future. I wish that it were otherwise, but I believe that what I have said represents the facts.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)

My right hon. and learned Friend has been absolutely right this afternoon to keep underlining the importance of restoring the confidence of consumers in British beef. Will he call in the heads of those retail chains that are refusing to serve British beef and at least ask them to offer a choice between Dutch or other beef and British beef?

Mr. Hogg

That is an interesting suggestion, and I should like to reflect on it.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

Has the Minister had an opportunity to study the Hansard report of the debate on BSE and CJD that I initiated on 10 January? If he has, how it is possible for him to state that stringent controls are operating to ensure that unsafe meat is removed from the food chain? May I express my appreciation of his Department, particularly the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), for arranging, following that debate, a briefing on BSE and CJD with his officials, which is due to take place on Wednesday? Why are his officials refusing to allow me to take along to that briefing as an advisor Dr. Stephen Dealler, a consultant microbiologist who has studied the issue since 1988?

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words regarding my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I am glad that the briefing to which he has referred is being held. I do not dispute, as I said in response to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), that, from time to time, there has been non-compliance with SBO controls, to which the hon. Member for Wakefield apparently referred in his debate and which I am afraid I was unable to attend. That information was volunteered by my Department by way of a parliamentary answer. We are doing our utmost to ensure full compliance. I believe that now that people fully realise the significance of non-compliance, there will be infinitely better compliance, to the extent that one can say in any meaningful way that there will be full implementation. What I cannot guarantee is that we shall always avoid the possibility of some slight error. I think that we will get full implementation in the sense that it is ordinarily meant. If one asked whether that would be 100 per cent., the answer would be not always.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the two statements today have been encouraging, especially to those who have to make decisions on school meals? Does he further agree that those who stand back and take a practical, sensible and cool look at SEAC's advice must realise that the risk is infinitesimal? Does he also accept that those who are selling prime cattle this week, next week and the week after will face substantial losses? Will he assure me that if intervention buying is essential, it will be introduced quickly?

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support. As I mentioned on—I think—Wednesday, he has considerable experience in this field. I am conscious of the possibility that farmers who live in his constituency will be seriously affected by the loss of market confidence. It is for that reason that I drew attention to market support mechanisms in the common agricultural policy. I am also grateful to him for welcoming what our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health said regarding the risks to children and food provided in schools.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

It would have been helpful if Conservative Members who are farmers had declared their interests when they asked questions. We are in this situation mainly because we have interfered with nature. Feeding animal protein, especially diseased animal protein, to herbivores was clearly going to have severe implications.

On scientific evidence, would it not be appropriate for the Secretary of State to talk to Professor Richard Lacey, who, before 1989, was warning of a connection between humans and mad cow disease, but was dismissed as either making it up or as being lucky with his evidence? Was he making it up? Was he lucky with his evidence, just as he was about listeria and salmonella? Will the Secretary of State add Mr. Lacey and Dr. Narang to the committee of experts?

Mr. Hogg

It is perfectly true that different scientific opinions have been expressed on occasions during the past eight or 10 years. The Government have however brought together, as I have said before, probably the most authoritative group of experts on this subject in the world. We placed before the House last week the result of new information, and we did so with all possible speed.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the dispassionate way in which he has dealt with the subject this afternoon and on his refusal to be panicked into taking drastic action—which was widely predicted in the press—that was not justified by scientific evidence? Has he learnt today that two further outbreaks of BSE have occurred in France? If it is appropriate for countries to ban our beef because of BSE, surely it is entirely appropriate, if BSE occurs in those countries, that we should institute such a ban against their products.

Mr. Hogg

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for his support. I was not aware of the two cases in France. It is right to say that the scale of the problem on mainland Europe is quite different from the scale of the problem here, and that fact should inform our considerations. My hon. Friend does, however, make an important remark regarding the controls in Europe. It is right to keep in mind, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton stressed, that in a number of important respects, most especially relating to feed content and SBO controls, our regime is very much tighter than that which is found on mainland Europe.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Can the Minister clarify that the scientific advice that he has had about the safety of eating beef makes no distinction between beef from pedigree Aberdeen Angus herds, for example, and beef products such as sausages, pork pies, black pudding, and so on? Will he draw the lesson that it would be in everybody's interest—feed manufacturers as well as food processors—if all compounds that derived from animals were listed on product labels?

Mr. Hogg

One has to start from the basic proposition that, in the judgment of SEAC, British beef is safe and the risk involved in eating it is extremely low. As the hon. Gentleman will have noticed from its statements—I am sure that he has read both statements, which were issued on Wednesday and earlier today—it has focused on the particular status of the older cow. For these purposes, that is the cow over the age of 30 months. To reinforce public confidence, it has introduced a deboning regime in respect of older beasts.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that although consumers in my constituency can take great heart from the fact that the risk is extremely small, for farmers and their families in many areas, the results could yet be devastating? Does he also agree that if there comes a time when compensation in some shape or form has to be paid, we should be entitled to receive the same compensation from Europe as our European partners would demand for themselves? Does he further agree that the reason why the incidence of BSE may seem less on the continent is precisely because, as he said a few moments ago, their efforts to control it are the less?

Mr. Hogg

On the question of controls, I have no doubt that, as I have already said, our controls are very much tighter than those that one finds on mainland Europe. However, it is also true that the scale of the problem here is very much greater than that on mainland Europe, and I would not want to pretend otherwise in the House. I very much hope that we can get financial support from Europe—indeed, I expect to because of CAP market support mechanisms, to which I have already referred. I look to our colleagues in Europe to play their part in ensuring that the market is supported in Britain, if that is required.

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

As someone who has always eaten British beef, and will continue to do so, particularly if it comes from organically raised cattle, may I ask the Minister to clarify one issue as there are some concerns about the meat that McDonald's and other chains are bringing from Europe? What evidence has he that the cattle, from which the beef that is now being imported has come, have never been fed on contaminated foodstuffs?

Mr. Hogg

That is an important question, but it is best put to the Dutch Minister and, of course, to McDonald's.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

May I express my sense of relief at the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health have based their decisions on scientific evidence, not the scaremongering emanating from the Opposition Front Bench which, if followed through, would undoubtedly have led to the warranted slaughter of the millions of animals that make up the national herd. Is it not time that we clearly expressed the view that the continental ban on British beef has everything to do with commercial advantage and nothing to do with health? If the Commission approves the continuation of that continental ban, should not my right hon. and learned Friend follow it through to its logical conclusion and ban the importation of veal, much of which, regrettably, still emanates from animals originally exported from this country?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend has supported the recommendations and I am extremely grateful to him. It is important that we base our policy on an informed discussion of the facts and I am grateful to SEAC for making that possible. I have no doubt that some of the reaction that we have seen in Europe is motivated as much by commerce as by any other consideration. Some Ministers in Europe certainly do not question the scientific position that we are adopting, but are simply seeking to respond to anxiety among the public, which is quite different.

Mr. Hinchliffe

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could you advise me and clarify the rules in the House on the disclosure of personal interests during statements? I sat through last week's two statements on BSE and CID, as well as today's statements, and I am concerned that a number of Conservative Members, who have direct pecuniary interests—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. I assume that all hon. Members know the rules and it is for them to decide whether to declare an interest.