HC Deb 03 December 1997 vol 302 cc372-89 4.21 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dr. John Cunningham)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

The first priority of this Government is protection of the consumer. I am making this announcement in response to the latest advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, which met yesterday, 2 December, and to outline the action that I intend to take on a strictly precautionary basis. I shall publish SEAC's advice in full, and a copy has been placed in the Library of the House.

SEAC has reviewed new evidence, which will be published in the scientific literature in due course. That evidence has emerged from an experiment designed to recheck which parts of cattle may contain BSE infectivity. Under those experimental conditions, in which animals were fed large doses of BSE-infected material by mouth, my scientists have found infectivity in nervous tissues called the dorsal root ganglia, which lie within the bones of the spinal column and would be left with the bone when meat is cut off the spine. The dorsal root ganglia are not currently covered by the specified bovine material restrictions.

Further new findings, which are still being evaluated, indicate that infectivity may also be found in the bone marrow in cattle that are at a very late stage of disease and are already showing clinical symptoms.

In both cases, the experimental animals showed the infectivity only at ages of more than 30 months, above which all cattle are excluded from the food chain and destroyed under the over-30-months scheme, and only after receiving a heavy dose of infected bovine tissue. In any case, consumers would not normally eat dorsal root ganglia as such.

Muscle, meat and blood are tested at every stage of the same experiments, and all results are negative.

SEAC has emphasised that the risk is very small. The committee has suggested that there are three possible alternative courses of action: first, to make public the research findings, together with its assessment of the risk, and to leave individual consumers to choose which precautions to take; secondly, to require that no beef with the bone in from cattle over six months old should be sold to consumers; and, thirdly, to require that cattle slaughtered between 24 and 30 months of age for human consumption should be deboned under official control by the Meat Hygiene Service in licensed plants.

Taking account of the views of the chief medical officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, who advises me on these matters, I have concluded that I should take further action. It would not be acceptable to allow tissues shown to transmit BSE to remain within the human food chain. I shall therefore be consulting as rapidly as possible with consumers and the industry on proposals to implement the second of the options indicated by SEAC: the deboning of all beef, whether from home supplies or imported, coming from cattle over six months old before it is sold to the consumer.

It is helpful that, currently, only about 5 per cent. of beef is consumed on the bone. The proposals would allow deboning to take place in cutting plants, butchers' shops, catering establishments or other commercial premises, but would not allow the bones to be sold, given to consumers, or used in the preparation of food. That is in line with SEAC advice on that point. This action, which is being taken on a precautionary basis, will ensure that United Kingdom consumers continue to be given the highest protection possible against the risks from BSE while we press ahead with our determined action to eradicate this disease completely from our cattle herd.

I know that this announcement will come as a further disappointment to our beef producers. My message to them is that this Government are acting firmly and rapidly to protect consumer confidence, which is in the fundamental interests of the beef industry. We are maintaining a high level of support through the over30-months scheme, direct aid and other measures worth nearly £1.5 billion this year.

I regret that this important matter was the subject of a leak earlier today—although not from my Ministry—which resulted in my having to respond to the high level of media interest prior to making this statement in the House.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I thank the Minister for giving me a copy of his statement in adequate time, so that I could read it before he put it before the House. I appreciate his courtesy.

The official Opposition support any moves that help to make British beef safer—indeed, to make it the best beef in the world. However, does the Minister recognise that his statement today will be of great concern to the quality butchery trade, which has done so much to rehabilitate the prospects for British beef after the most serious crisis the beef industry has ever known? Does the Minister further recognise that farmers who raise long-maturing animals will be extremely worried by his comments? I should be grateful if the Minister, in the course of his consultations, fully took into account the views from those two important parts of the meat business before casting the measures absolutely in stone.

At the conclusion of his statement, the Minister mentioned that there had been a leak. That has perhaps forced him to come to the House this afternoon to make a statement. Will he confirm that, in the light of the information that he received from SEAC, he was minded to make a statement to the House tomorrow rather than today? May I register my annoyance that it was from journalists this morning that I first learnt that a statement was to be made to the House? As soon as I learnt that, I found statements on the matter appearing on Ceefax, from the middle of the morning onwards. Only later did I officially learn from the Ministry that it was to make a statement. Would the Minister like to give us a timetable of the thinking that lay behind the approach to his statement today? Will he tell us when he received SEAC's conclusions and the written report? Will he also tell us when he discussed the matter with the chief medical officer?

Can the Minister tell us whether he has launched an investigation into how the journalist Mr. James Erlichman was able to release on to an unsuspecting world information about the statement in the rather aptly named BBC television consumer programme, "The Really Useful Show"? Will the Minister hold an inquiry into the leak? It is a pity that he is not taking those important matters seriously, because he will know that once SEAC has come to a conclusion, there is always potential for a leak, and it is incumbent on Ministers to come to the House and present their findings without delay.

Will the Minister also enlighten us on the role that the Prime Minister played in the decision-making process in the Government, in regard to the making of the statement today? Does the Minister agree that the leaking of information is damaging to confidence in British beef?

In the light of the Minister's statement, will he now argue that the materials in question—the subject of his statement—should be added to the list of European specified risk materials? Will he confirm that they are currently not on that list? Will he further confirm that their addition to the list would be important in conferring on British citizens who travel abroad and eat beef the same protection that they can expect to receive in this country? Can he tell us how, in terms of third-country imports, he will police adherence to the ban? Does he agree that his announcement might be a further setback to the chances of getting the beef ban lifted?

The Minister has been long on rhetoric but short on delivering results on the beef ban. In the light of the fact that he has come to the House in haste, will he go to Brussels to explain to our European partners exactly what this is all about?

What costs does the Minister expect the meat and butchery industry to incur as a result of the statement? If, as he has said, his announcement will help to improve the safety of British beef, is not it ironic that he makes his statement at a time when he is tearing the guts out of the British beef industry? He is taking away £60 million in hill livestock compensatory allowances. He is overcharging the beef industry on cattle passports. He is levying the industry on the new meat inspection charges. His Government's monetary policy is making the cost of farmers' borrowings, which are rising, increase.

In short, the statement shows that the Minister is out of touch with farming and could not care less about the beef industry.

Dr. Cunningham

The right hon. Gentleman began by saying that he would support any moves to protect consumers, and then went into a long ramble about why he thought I was making this statement today. I had every intention of making a statement on the SEAC report. I said within days of my appointment that I would publish SEAC advice as quickly as possible after receiving it, and make statements. I have kept that promise to consumers and the country as a whole today. It was always our intention that a statement should be made. He asked what role the Prime Minister had played. The Prime Minister played the role that any normal Prime Minister would: he agreed that I should make a statement to the House, and that was that.

As for the serious part of the right hon. Gentleman's questions. as opposed to all the nonsense about the leak in the media, of course I understand that farmers are worried, as are consumers. I am also concerned, but is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should have suppressed this information, and that we should have refused to act on SEAC's advice and kept the matter quiet? Is that what he would have preferred? If that is the implication of his shenanigans about how the information has been disclosed, I know on which side of the argument I stand. I am fully in favour of being candid with consumers about the nature of the risks that they face. I emphasise that, notwithstanding the fact that the risk is very small, we should not take the risk of infected BSE material being allowed into the food chain. That is the basis on which we have taken this action.

There was never any intention to make this statement tomorrow. I do not know where the right hon. Gentleman got such twaddle from, but it is simply not true.

I have informed our partners in Brussels of this statement to the House and the reasons why I am taking this action. My officials are in constant touch with them about the actions that we are taking on BSE.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about consumer confidence in the beef industry. It is precisely because we have acted promptly and fully on SEAC advice, and because we have imposed the most rigorous standards on our beef, that I am able to say with confidence that beef is safe. That is also the basis on which I am able to say in Brussels and in the Council of Ministers that we have a good case for a progressive lifting of the ban. If I were not to act in that way, it would undermine our ability eventually to get the ban lifted.

Jacqui Smith (Redditch)

I welcome the speed with which the Government have acted today in response to the SEAC evidence. However, that evidence will be greeted with concern in my constituency, especially by the family and friends of Mike Clifford, who sadly died of new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in June 1996. In the light of the tragedy of new-variant CJD and today's statement, is it not important for the Government to announce soon a full inquiry into the previous Government's handling of BSE and the links with new-variant CJD?

Dr. Cunningham

I well understand the concern expressed by my hon. Friend on behalf of her constituents and others. I know at first hand of the concern of parents who have lost loved ones through new-variant CJD, because I have met some of them. One of the young women who died was a close friend of my son and had studied with him at university. I am well aware of the dreadful circumstances for those families, and I understand the pressure for a full inquiry into all aspects of the matter. I am having urgent and continuing discussions with my right hon. Friends, but I am sorry that I cannot make an announcement about a decision today. Obviously, I would have done so if I could.

As a consequence of the previous Government's mishandling of these issues, the British taxpayer provides about £;1 billion to support our beef industry. That is the price we are paying for the consequences of the BSE crisis, in addition to the appalling consequences for the health and well-being of young people.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

Given the seriousness of the Minister's statement, does he acknowledge that, although he describes this development as a further disappointment for the beef sector, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is another desperate blow to the morale of that sector? It may have the practical impact of sending several specialist producers to the wall as a result of the changes that will, alas, have to be implemented.

while acknowledging the importance to importation of a level playing field throughout the single market, will the Minister consider a far more important time scale than the one to which the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) referred when he spoke such fatuous nonsense? Will the Minister deal not with the time scale of events over a few hours this morning, but with the time scale of events in the months ahead that will affect our vital domestic beef sector?

I return to the exchanges at Prime Minister's Question Time between my party leader, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), and the Minister's own. The Prime Minister said on the issue of importation that we would "expect the same" standards elsewhere in Europe. Will the Minister confirm that "expect the same" means "ensure the same"? The Prime Minister spoke about acknowledging the need to mitigate the financial consequences of this afternoon's statement. Will the Minister assure us that mitigate means compensate, not least in the context of the cuts in the hill livestock compensatory allowances, the strength of the green pound and the constraints that the new Government have put on the over-30-months scheme?

Will the Minister confirm that, as part of the continuing strategy to get the beef ban lifted throughout Europe in the interests of this country, the sooner he can announce a full public inquiry into the entire history and handling of the BSE issue, the better it will be for all of us?

Dr. Cunningham

Of course, I understand how beef producers feel. After all, I represent many of them in my constituency and I met some of them recently. However, the fact remains that the overriding priority is to safeguard consumers and people's health and well-being. That has to be our first priority and that is why I have acted in the way that I have.

Of course, I do not want to do unnecessary damage to either farmers' morale or confidence in British beef. That is why I repeat that British beef is safe. I repeat also that the tests on this material were also carried out on meat and blood and showed negative results. It is safe to eat and to export British beef. I shall go on arguing that in Brussels.

The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) asked me a question about a level playing field for imports. I remind the House that it was on my initiative—indeed, on my insistence—that, last July, the Council of Agricultural Ministers voted to take a uniform and rigorous approach to safeguarding beef. That decision will take effect for all imports of beef from our European partners from 1 January. I am not willing to tolerate any slippage of that decision—that will happen from 1 January. If, for some reason, it did not, I would revert to my position of taking unilateral action against any beef imported to this country. I hope that I do not have to do that. The decision has been taken, and I want it to be implemented from 1 January.

What the Prime Minister said about imports is the same as what I have just said: we shall insist that imported beef is treated in the same way as we treat our own.

I cannot make any promises about extending compensation.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Why not?

Dr. Cunningham

From a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman asks, "Why not?" Our support for the beef industry totals almost £1.5 billion. It is easy for hon. Members to go on demanding just more and more. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the Conservative spokesman, did that, too. As a former Agriculture and Treasury Minister in the previous Conservative Government, he bears a large measure of responsibility for the problems and circumstances that we face, and he should be the last person to demand more and more public expenditure.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his timely, serious and necessary statement. May I tell him of the fearfulness and desperation of beef farmers on the hillsides in my constituency? In Flintshire, I met the president and county delegate of the National Fanners Union and they told me of the need for a level playing field. I very much support my right hon. Friend coming to the House as he has, but just hope that he may be able to give some crumb of comfort to beef farmers.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Like me, he has represented hill farmers for 27 years in the House. I know that he maintains strong links with them and has their best interests at heart. I have already made it clear to the House that I shall insist on a level playing field with regard to beef imports.

I forgot to respond to the final question asked by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West, which related to a public inquiry, although I had made my position clear in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith).

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

I have every sympathy with the agriculture industry and the fact that this statement has had to be made. That sympathy extends to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. I greatly welcome the decision to put the SEAC report in the House of Commons Library and otherwise to publish it. Assuming that the contents of that report underpin what the right hon. Gentleman has said, he will have my support for the measures that he has outlined.

I have three specific questions. First, is it necessary to apply this regime to cattle born after 1 August 1996, having regard to the fact that there can be no cross-contamination from that date and also having regard to the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has already announced a cull policy based on vertical transmission?

My second question relates to consumption and price. Will the right hon. Gentleman please give an undertaking carefully to monitor whether there are substantial falls in either consumption or price so as to be better informed about whether further compensation is necessary? Thirdly, has he already had discussions with the two relevant Commissioners—Fischler and Bonino—with a view to a Europewide regime of the kind that he has just announced for the UK? He will have strong support from Conservative Members if he presses for such a regime.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his expressions of understanding and support. He has, after all, stood at the Dispatch Box in very similar circumstances. I think that he will be able to satisfy himself when he sees the copy of SEAC's advice, which is available in full, that I have made this decision and am making this announcement on the properly supported basis of its advice.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked whether it was necessary to apply this decision to all cattle. Let me give a practical example of why it is necessary and why I rejected one of SEAC's propositions on cattle under 24 months as opposed to those between 24 and 30 months. It is impossible for butchers in receipt of meat to know the age of that meat. It is also impossible for consumers to make the distinction, so the simple, clinically unambiguous way to guarantee that there are no errors, mix-ups, cheating or confusion is to ensure that all beef is sold after it has been deboned. They are the reasons why we came to our conclusion after very careful consideration. I shall, of course, consult the industry urgently about that, but it is my intention to lay an order as quickly as possible to give effect to the conclusions that we reach.

I shall, as we do now, continue carefully to monitor the consumption and price of beef. The sales and consumption of prime cuts of beef are now higher than before the original BSE crisis hit. Of course, that is not true for all beef, but it is for prime cuts. I repeat that I am taking these measures on a precautionary basis. There is a very small risk, but I am in no doubt that British beef is safe to eat. I eat British beef and I will continue to do so.

I have tried to make personal contact with Commissioners Fischler and Bonino today by telephone, but was unable to do so. However, my officials have been in touch with their officials and I have written to them both, explaining the basis of the decision and the background.

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that he has done more in the past six months to restore confidence in the beef market among consumers than the previous Administration managed to do in five years? Does he agree that, at a time when new CJD cases are still arising in our population, it would be mad to do anything other than accept SEAC's recommendations? Will he also assure the House that standards in slaughterhouses and meat processing plants are now adequately supervised by inspectors, ensuring that no contaminated meat enters our food chain?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who—because of his experience, knowledge and qualifications in medicine—is well placed to speak in the House on those issues. I absolutely share his view that it would have been a serious dereliction of my duty and responsibilities had I decided not to publish the report and not to act upon it. They are the responsibilities that fall to me in my current post, and I do not shirk them.

My hon. Friend's final point was important. We have taken considerable action—we continue to do so—to improve hygiene and supervision levels in our slaughterhouses and meat cutting plants. I have closed down meat plants when it has been necessary. It has been necessary to do so and, if it becomes necessary again, I shall not hesitate to do so again. I have withdrawn those operators' licences and destroyed the meat in those plants, to be absolutely sure that we can satisfy British consumers and our European partners that we shall take every precaution that it is possible for us to take.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

The right hon. Gentleman will know that one of the immediate risks of the statement, which I accept that he had to make, is that there will be a further fall in beef prices at auction marts. He will know also that prices are already very low indeed. Will he therefore, at the very least, seek from the Chancellor of the Exchequer the means to maintain the level of grant—particularly HLCAs—to farmers? The request has nothing to do with the green pound, but is related to grant levels and HLCAs, so that the Minister may give at least some very small support to farmers—given that suckler herds and upland farmers will be the ones who will, yet again, feel the heaviest draught from the announcement.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his understanding of the absolute necessity for me to make the announcement and to take my decision today. I appreciate his comments in that regard. I understand very well his valid point that the statement may act further to depress beef prices. I hope that that will not occur—which is why I reiterate not only to hon. Members but to the public that it is safe to continue to eat British beef. Given the rigour with which we safeguard our beef, I am able to say that our beef is as safe as, if not safer than, that produced anywhere else in the world. If I were not taking those decisions, it might be less easy to make that claim.

As for the hill livestock compensatory allowance payments, the right hon. Gentleman and Conservative Members know that the previous Administration made a one-off additional payment to hill farmers, but made no continuing provision for that extra support. We fought the general election on the clear statement that we would stick within the public expenditure totals proposed by the then Conservative Government and voted for by every right hon. and hon. Member on the Conservative Benches.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's prompt statement, which is in marked contrast to the fiddling and faddling of the Opposition, as they now are. Although I understand the need for the statement, we on the Labour Benches understand how beef farmers must be feeling today. I am sure that the Government will take cognisance of the effects on farmers. We place prime importance, however, on the safety of the food that consumers eat. Will my right hon. Friend therefore ensure that the food standards agency is established at the earliest possible opportunity?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for what is indeed prompt, urgent action. We shall continue to act promptly and urgently whenever circumstances so dictate. I understand that he knows very well, from experience in his constituency, the views and problems that beef farmers face. I share his view that the safety of consumers is of primary importance. As for his question about the food standards agency, I hope that we shall publish a White Paper on our proposals before too long.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus)

Does the Minister accept that computer traceability and certification are essential to a solution, yet in 14 months, the Tories did nothing, and after seven months, the Labour Government have done nothing? Will there be proper research and monitoring? Now that T-bone steaks from top-quality, grass-fed Aberdeen Angus herds are to be banned, how long will this costly, disastrous farce continue?

Dr. Cunningham

I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been. I can understand his comments about the previous Administration doing nothing on cattle traceability, but has he missed the announcement that we shall locate the cattle traceability service in Workington; that we have obtained the site; that the site is being equipped; and that we are about to appoint the head of the service? Has he had his head in a haystack? The Government have been acting from the very first day after the election to install a computer-based cattle traceability scheme for the whole national herd. I am proud of the record of my hon. Friend the Minister of State in rapidly carrying that work forward. I am also proud of the fact, incidentally, that in doing so, we shall create 250 jobs in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), where they are desperately needed.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and the prompt way in which those matters have been brought before the House—unlike what happened under the previous Administration. I am sure that he is well aware of the desperation, especially among Welsh farmers, and of the blockades that, unfortunately, have occurred over the past two days. Clearly, they have been prompted by the collapse in the market price for their product. Over the period during which there has been a substantial reduction in the price of beef in our marts, that has not been reflected in the price that consumers pay in supermarkets.

Will my right hon. Friend do two things? First, will he assure the House and the country that, following the measures, consumers can have total confidence in Welsh—and British—beef that is and will be on sale? Secondly, will he speak to or call in the heads of supermarkets—including Tesco, which was responsible for the importation from Ireland of the beefburgers that prompted the problem in Holyhead—to explain why the price of beef in our supermarkets does not correspond to the low prices in the marts and why they are continuing to import products that could be sourced in Britain?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his expression of support for the decision that I have taken today. In respect of the action of beef farmers in Wales, I should say that illegal action will be met with the full consequences and rigour of the law. We cannot tolerate illegality from farmers. Not only is that so, but such action totally undermines our position when we complain—as we have and as the previous Government rightly complained—about similar action in France, which affected our meat exports. It is simply unacceptable for Welsh or any other farmers to take to the streets and act illegally.

I should explain to those farmers that such action is totally counter-productive for them; it damages Britain's interests in Europe. In the case of Irish beef, the Republic of Ireland has been one of our staunchest supporters in trying to get the beef ban lifted. When I am working in Brussels to build coalitions of support for our position and our beef industry, nothing could be less helpful than such action day in, day out against the legitimate exports of our European Union neighbours. There is a single market in beef in the European Union. That brings us obligations as well as opportunities. I strongly urge all farmers to bear that in mind, because such behaviour is damaging the interests of the beef industry and the interests of Britain.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Does the Minister accept that this morning his officials were reported as saying that the risks to human health were remote? He has said that the risks are very small. Does he accept that the hard-pressed British beef producers, farmers and retailers are likely to be deeply concerned by what he has announced, not least because of the devastation that they have undergone over the past couple of years? Does he further accept that what he has described as a precautionary measure is a panic measure and that he is as interested in protecting his back as he is in the statement that he has just made?

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Gentleman's comments are patently absurd and irresponsible. Can he contemplate a Minister who had received on the record advice from an independent scientific body refusing to act to safeguard people's health and well-being? That would be an untenable position for any Minister. Of course the risk is very small, but there is a risk. It was my duty to take action to remove that risk in the interests of the people of this country. I have done so legitimately on the basis of sound, independent scientific advice.

I meant to tell my hon. Friend the Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger) that I shall discuss his comments about beef purchasing with the supermarkets.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

My right hon. Friend knows that a constituent of mine died from CJD. I should like to press him further on a public inquiry. We have spent billions of pounds on the crisis and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of cattle. Unfortunately, at least 20 people have died. The tragic reality is that there will be more. When will a decision be taken on a public inquiry? My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier that there would be a statement on that.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. As I have already told the House, it would have been good—and, I guess, appropriate—if I had been able to announce our conclusions on a public inquiry. I regret that I am not able to do so. I emphasise that urgent discussions are continuing on that. I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the death of one of his constituents from new-variant CJD. In fact, 22 people have died. We are advised that more deaths are predicted. The human costs of the tragedy are immense. The financial costs are in excess of £2 billion and increasing rapidly. To date, 1.9 million cattle have been slaughtered. That is the legacy in the beef industry left to this Government and this country by the Conservatives.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Livestock farmers in my part of Devon will be hard hit by today's announcement, but I understand why the Minister had to come to the House and make his statement. I should like some clarification. He mentioned how deboning will be handled in catering establishments and butchers' shops. Those bones will not be available for sale to the public or for use in any form of catering establishment. How does he intend to differentiate in butchers' shops between bovine bone and other mammalian bone or between bones from animals over six months and veal bones from animals under six months? Is it his intention to designate bovine bone as specified bovine material, with the attendant requirement for staining and disposal, which the slaughterhouses are used to, but which would cause considerable problems in butchers' shops?

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Lady asks some important questions, and I understand her concern about beef farmers in her constituency. I share it, and if it is possible to do more to help beef farmers, the Government will do so. As for her specific question about bones, we do not intend to designate bones as specified bovine material. They will be removed in butchers' shops and other catering establishments, as I have said, and they will not be available to consumers or to pass into the food chain, so the second part of her question about staining bones simply will not arise. The hon. Lady also asked about veal bones, but the restrictions will not apply to animals under six months old.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)

Will my right hon. Friend note that there have been no calls for an inquiry from Conservative Members? That is because, were we to have an inquiry, it would show the farmers who were the architects of their disastrous state.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the simple point that the Conservative party has been noticeably silent on the need for a public inquiry into all the issues.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that he is taking fear of beef infection to an extreme? The test was carried out under extreme conditions and, despite those conditions, no animal under 30 months showed any infection. Surely that was a positive result, which confirms the existing policy. Instead of putting more pressure on our farmers, the Minister should have taken the first option suggested by SEAC— to make public the research findings"— and allowed the public to make up their own mind.

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Gentleman suggests that I should deliberately and constructively allow infective BSE material into the human food chain. I simply am not prepared to do that.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of my constituents, Matthew Parker, died earlier this year of new-variant CJD and that his family have called for a public inquiry? One of their major concerns is that information about BSE should be made public, as my right hon. Friend has done today, and not concealed, as some Conservative Members seem to wish.

Dr. Cunningham

I express my sympathy and condolences to my hon. Friend's constituents. I was pleased to note that a spokesperson for the CJD support group welcomed the prompt and clear action that I have taken in the matter.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

The Minister said that he would consult. Given that the experiment involved heavy doses of heavily infected BSE material being fed to cattle and that, even in those circumstances, only cattle over 30 months were found to have very low infectivity, will he consider the suggestion made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), that the Minister should excuse from the scheme cattle born after 1 August this year? One has to make some distinction. Will the Minister promise the House that he will consult with an open mind, because his proposals will have a devastating effect on the beef industry and the high end of the butchering market, which has done so much to help to restore confidence in beef in recent months?

Dr. Cunningham

I shall consult urgently on those issues, and I expect to lay orders quickly after that consultation period.

To return to the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), I explained in some detail why I could not do what he suggested: it would be confusing and difficult to administer and control. The simplest and most effective response to the problem is to ensure that all beef is sold off the bone. Customers and consumers will understand that clearly, and it will avoid unnecessary complications and different processes for butchers.

I trust the butchers, and I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) said: they have worked hard and done a great deal to help to restore confidence in British beef. I am sure that they can continue to do so, even though I acknowledge that there has been something of a setback.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the speed and candour of his statement. If SEAC routinely made available its proceedings, would not that remove the need for the regular leaks and urgent statements?

I want to take up the point that has been made by all parties save one, about the need for a public inquiry. Is not it extraordinary that this catastrophe for public health, the beef industry and the public purse, which may have been compounded by incompetence, has not yet been the subject of a proper full public inquiry? Would not that do more than anything else to begin the process of restoring public confidence? If my right hon. Friend cannot give us the details, will he at least tell us in principle that he wants an inquiry and that it is not being blocked by producer interests?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks and his support for the promptness and candour with which I have acted. SEAC concluded its deliberations only very late last night. It would normally be encouraged by me to give a brief statement of its conclusions, but it did not have time even to do that in this case. I regret and greatly deplore the fact that its advice to me was leaked.

I am delighted to have the support of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in the Chamber today, and I share his view that there are strong arguments for a public inquiry into all aspects of these matters, but I assure my hon. Friend that no one among the producers has sought to exercise any influence on me as I present the arguments and continue the discussions, as I must do, with Government colleagues about the decision, which is not yet made. As soon as we reach a conclusion, I shall want to make a statement.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The right hon. Gentleman began his statement by saying that food safety was a priority. I do not think that anybody would argue with that, but what priority is given to the livelihood of thousands of farmers? He has said candidly that he does not propose to take any steps to recompense the beef industry, which is in the absolute pits. How can he, as the Minister responsible, sit and watch the whole agricultural industry dissipate before our very eyes?

Dr. Cunningham

To suggest that the whole of British agriculture is disintegrating is somewhat over the top, even for the hon. Gentleman. [Horn. MEMBERS: "Livestock."] He did not say that; he said the whole agricultural industry.

As for what the hon. Gentleman says that I said, let me repeat what I in fact said: I cannot promise the House that there will be compensation.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on coming to the House immediately on receiving SEAC's advice. The consumer will want to know why the information was not available five or 10 years ago. Why was research on infectivity not carried out by the previous Government?

I add my voice to calls from all parties, except the Conservatives, for a wide-ranging public inquiry. I should like it to be on the pattern of the Scott inquiry, taking detailed evidence from witnesses in public, with cross-examination and expert analysis, so that we can find out what mistakes were made and who was responsible. Should not the previous Government have done far more five or 10 years ago to stop the disaster that now engulfs the beef industry?

Dr. Cunningham

The papers and decisions of the previous Administration are not available to me and my colleagues.

Mr. Williams

Why not?

Dr. Cunningham

Because that is the way in which British government operates. If my hon. Friend is dissatisfied with that, I share his view; but that is how things are, and I cannot change it just for the moment.

As any sensible Administration would, we have carried on—I want to be fair to the previous Administration—developed and expanded the scientific work on BSE that was set in train. As time has passed and the research has become more and more sensitive, new results have emerged. I have reported to the House on the latest of those results today, and I have announced the action that I believe to be necessary and about which I am urgently consulting.

My hon. Friend joined many other right hon. and hon. Members in pressing for a public inquiry. He will have heard what I said earlier on that subject.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

The most important message that should go out from our deliberations this afternoon is that British beef is the safest in Europe. The Minister said that SEAC's experimental evidence was that the traces had shown up only in cattle over 30 months old and only in material that would not normally be consumed. Will he therefore reaffirm, for the benefit of the consumer, that no British beef that has been eaten in this country in the past 18 months contained any material that could lead to any risk of any sort of transmission of disease?

I accept that Mr. Fischler and Mrs. Bonino are not taking calls today, but is there in any way in which the Minister's actions today can bring forward, in the current negotiations, the date of the lifting of the export ban?

Dr. Cunningham

At least I can congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his first statement, that the most important message to send out today is that we are taking all the necessary action to ensure that British beef is as safe as any in Europe, and safer than most. I share that conclusion, but I cannot agree with the rest of what he had to say.

The reality is that, as we know, there is a long incubation period for the disease, so we cannot be certain that no beef containing BSE infection has been sold to consumers in the past 18 months; I cannot give that guarantee, because that guarantee cannot exist in the circumstances that have prevailed.

The hon. Gentleman made flippant remarks about Commissioners Fischler and Bonino. I wonder whether Conservative Members have learnt any lessons at all about our relations with our colleagues in the European Union. The fact, I understand, is that Mrs. Bonino is in Canada, and although we tried to track her down, it proved impossible. However, her office is well aware of what is happening, as is that of Mr. Fischler, to whom I talk regularly. I have cordial and constructive relations with them both, and I intend to maintain them, unlike the previous Government, because that is in the best interests of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

I should like to pursue the question raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), about the status of bone within the food chain. My right hon. Friend has said that it will not be classified as a specified risk material in the future, so that leaves the status of the material in limbo and the arrangements governing its storage and disposal slightly in doubt. What arrangements has his Department made for the large amounts of material that will require disposal in the future?

Dr. Cunningham

As I made clear to the hon. Lady, bone will not be designated as a specified risk material. There is no question of a large amount of additional material being disposed of, because, as I pointed out and as my hon. Friend will recall, 95 per cent. of beef is already sold off the bone. Only a small amount of additional material is involved, and none of it will be allowed to be put to any use in the human food chain. Bone will be disposed of as it has been disposed of in the past when it has not been used in any manufacturing process.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I recognise the difficulties confronting the right hon. Gentleman, but does he recognise the sense of desperation that will be felt by the farmers I met in Wincanton on Monday?

Will the right hon. Gentleman look very carefully again, at his leisure, at the scientific basis for the decision that he has taken, particularly the rather curious distinction that is made between dorsal root ganglia and the neural material in the surrounding tissue? Will he hold hard to his decision to refuse the importation of substandard meat into this country, as from three weeks' time? Will he look again, as the hon. Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger) has requested, at the behaviour of the large supermarkets and at the differential between the price of meat for sale in those shops and that on offer in markets? Will he also look again at compensation and perhaps consider using the contingency funds available to the Government, because our agricultural industry is facing a crisis?

Dr. Cunningham

As I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise, I did not come to the House without giving very careful consideration to the advice that I have received. I have not come to a hasty decision, taken without proper contemplation of all the consequences. Of course I shall be consulting, but I believe that it is quite clear that action is necessary.

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the guarantee that he has sought in respect of imported meat. I have no intention of backing down on the issue. I made a concession when I accepted a delay in implementation from 1 October to 1 January, but I am not prepared to make any more concessions. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I therefore expect that decision to be implemented.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to ensure that I reconsider supermarket practices. I hope in the course of this evening, if these matters allow, to have consultations and discussion with a number of leaders of the food industry in this country. I have no doubt that they are listening to what is being said in the House about the matter.

As for the support for hill farmers in general and beef producers in particular—I understand why the hon. Gentleman has legitimately raised that matter—let me say again that the Government are providing in this financial year, for all the relevant measures, about £1.5 billion in total. That is substantial support, by any test; he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have spent that contingency reserve 10 times over on their various requests.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

While supporting the right hon. Gentleman's concern about public health and expressing the sympathy of everyone in the House for the victims of CJD and their families, may I particularly welcome his statement that all scientific evidence must be followed up? He must be aware that SEAC has pointed out that the evidence linking the cattle feed to new-variant CJD sufferers is tenuous.

Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to investigate the fact that a large historical collection, known as the Corsellis collection, of CJD material—9,000 specimens of brain tissue—taken from people who died from the disease in the 1950s and until recent times, before the current outbreak could possibly be attributed to their deaths, is held at Runwell hospital in my constituency? It remains to be investigated why those people died of that disease. Is the Minister aware that a scientist at Charing Cross hospital, Dr. Claire Royston, is unable to proceed with that investigation for want of resources? That research could be extremely significant in either confirming or refuting the current thesis as to the cause of the CJD deaths.

Dr. Cunningham

We are pretty clear that there is a connection between BSE and new-variant CJD. The burden of scientific evidence leads to that conclusion. As for the doctor to whom the hon. Lady referred and the history of CJD, I am happy to receive advice and to look at evidence and scientific research, from whatever quarter it may come.

The Ministry is sponsoring a considerable amount of research into those matters, and we shall continue to do so. I am in no doubt about the connection between BSE and new-variant CJD.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

The Minister is obviously reluctant to compensate the industry for the new costs imposed by the extra ban. Would it not have been possible to make a contingency payment for the evolving science of BSE from the £400 million underspend on agriculture, rather than letting the Chancellor have that money for use on another pledge in his green Budget?

Dr. Cunningham

I am not aware of any £;400 million underspend in my budget. If the hon. Lady is referring to the recurring nonsense uttered by the Conservative spokesman, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), let me tell her for the removal of any doubt that there was not a word of truth in what he said. Such an underspend just does not exist.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Why cannot the rules that affect the export of British beef to the continent of Europe be applied immediately to imports of beef from the continent of Europe? Why do we have to wait for 1 January? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his comment to the effect that that delay is some kind of a disappointment to the industry is the understatement of the year? The industry is now on its knees and surely he should do something about it immediately.

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Gentleman has not taken much notice of what has been going on. If we are to get a European Union-wide agreement—

Sir Michael Spicer

Why do we have to have such an agreement?

Dr. Cunningham

Because there is a single market for beef in Europe, and that is the best way forward. In order to reach a European Union-wide agreement, it was necessary to agree on an implementation date of 1 January. I repeat to the hon. Gentleman and the House that the previous Government had every opportunity to take my approach to beef imports, but they signally failed to do so.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is considerable sympathy and understanding for the difficulties in which he has been placed because of constantly changing scientific advice? That sympathy might be greater if he recognised that his need to follow such advice of the day was matched by his predecessors, who also followed it.

If we are to avoid the situation in which the Minister and his successors have to come to the House every six months from now until eternity to announce yet another new scientific development, will he look again at the scientific budget of his Department, which represents a small proportion of the £1.5 billion that he mentioned? He should think about expanding research so that he might get some final, consistent answers and so that policy could be consistent. Then, scientists would not keep on changing their minds and forcing him, as they did his predecessors, to change his mind.

Dr. Cunningham

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that the scientific advice is constantly changing. The science and understanding of these terrible problems is evolving and developing; it is not changing. Scientists are becoming more and more systematic in their examination of the possible location of infection. I welcome that research programme. The way to resolve the problems is not to call for more expenditure, but to work deliberately, consistently and ruthlessly to eradicate BSE completely from the national herd. When we do that, the problems will have been resolved.

As for my Department's science budget, the hon. Gentleman says that it is small in comparison with £1 billion, which is true; but it is still a substantial science budget at £130 million a year. It is the budget predicted and supported by his right hon. and hon. Friends when they made their public expenditure proposals for this financial year. As a scientist, I am keen to extend, wherever possible, support for scientific research, but, in the present straitened circumstances of public expenditure, we in the Ministry have to look carefully at every pound we spend, whether in science or anywhere else.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Does the Minister accept that I do not take issue with his need to come to the House and make a statement in the light of information available to him? However, may I report the despairing phone calls that I have received from farmers in my constituency today and a call from Paris on a mobile phone from the chief executive of what used to be our biggest beef exporter? He is now struggling to export lamb and salmon to the continent and asking whether there is any point in keeping his business going, because he cannot cope with this trickle of announcements. We need to reach a position in which, first, we have a real prospect of eliminating BSE from the herd, and, secondly, we have in place a traceability scheme that is accepted by the European Union and will enable us to get back into the marketplace.

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman think again about the cut in the compensation scheme for cull cattle? That has had two potentially damaging effects: it might halt the decline in the incidence of BSE just at the moment when the incidence is becoming extremely small, and it is devaluing the capital value of many farmers' herds, leaving them unable to survive. Will he think again?

Dr. Cunningham

I am pleased to be able to say that I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman says. To the constituent who called him on a mobile phone from Paris I would say, yes, there is a point in continuing. I recently attended the food fair at ANUGA in Cologne, where a great many Scottish food producers, from Orkney to the borders, were displaying their products and demonstrating with considerable skill and success their ability to export food from Scotland. I made a point of visiting several of the stands, some of which displayed lamb and salmon products. There is a great deal of point in continuing, because there are enormous markets to be satisfied.

We are pressing ahead with all possible speed and deliberation to eradicate BSE from the national herd, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is the way to resolve the problems. He is also right about traceability, and from our first days in office, my hon. Friend the Minister of State engaged consultants and took their advice. He has made a decision about where the traceability centre is to be located, and the buildings are being established as we speak. It will soon be operational, and I am delighted that we have made such good progress.

As for the over-30-months scheme, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that decisions about that scheme are made by the Beef Management Committee in Brussels and not by me personally. At the time of these changes, I said to the National Farmers Union that if it could come up with a different way—one that its members thought was fairer—of applying the decisions, I would try to get those proposals implemented instead. I should say here that I welcome the statesmanlike response of Sir David Naish to these problems and the measured way in which he has acted, which stands in stark contrast to the conduct of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). Sadly, however, the farmers could not agree on a different way of proceeding.