HC Deb 10 February 1998 vol 306 cc251-77

[Relevant document: The memorandum relating to this instrument contained in the Nineteenth Report of Session 1997–98 from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (HC 33-xix).]

10.4 pm

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

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Beef Bones Regulations 1997 (S.I., 1997, No. 2959), dated 15th December 1997, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th December, be annulled. People from the outside world looking in at the proceedings of our House and Parliament must feel somewhat bemused. It is only now, well into February and some considerable time after the event, that the House of Commons has got around to debating something that has excited great public and consumer controversy and that has, in effect, legal force, following the decision of Her Majesty's Government. When some of our European colleagues examine the way in which we do things in this House and Parliament—not least on matters agricultural—Ministers will have difficulty in defending and explaining their activities to their European counterparts. A procedure such as this can only add to Ministers' difficulties and to our difficulties as a House.

The purpose of our prayer is to give the Government in particular and the House in general an opportunity to agree, on Division, that it is never too late to think again about the regulations. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I welcome that generous response from the Conservative Benches, because I want to introduce a note of cross-party harmony between the Liberal Democrats and our friends in the parliamentary Conservative party.

When the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food came to the House before Christmas and made his initial statement, in response outside the House, the leader of the Conservative party wobbled a little, saying that the Conservative party may have had to give the statement a bit of support. However, a much more trenchant response came that afternoon from the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who replied on behalf of the Conservative party in the House.

None the less,I and other Liberal Democrats who were present noticed that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), the previous Minister of Agriculture, endorsed the Government's actions. I notice that he is not in his place. I can only wonder whether the parliamentary Conservative party or the Government feel more embarrassed by his endorsement of the Government's proposals. Given his uncharacteristic absence from a debate such as this, I wonder whether the 1922 Committee has him under house arrest.

Both Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members will vote in favour of the humble address; they support our motion. I welcome the fact that the Liberal Democrats, in that spirit of generosity that characterises our approach, are happy to be able to offer the parliamentary Tory party two things that it has lacked so much during this Parliament: direction and leadership.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

I welcome the opportunity to return to the hon. Gentleman the thanks of the parliamentary Conservative party for the support that his noble Friends in the other place gave to the Conservative party when it prayed against the same order there.

Mr. Kennedy

That is a particularly decent contribution from the Conservative candidate whom I defeated in 1992. The generosity of the Conservative party knows no bounds.

There is much that the Conservatives are on the back foot about because, before 1 May, they had been in government for a long period, but this is one aspect of agricultural policy where the Government of the day have had sole control, and it is therefore right that we hold the Government of the day to account and clearly state our opposition to their proposal.

Let me make it clear that the opposition of the Liberal Democrats to the measure—here we part company and I shall leave the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) to make his own case—is both practical and philosophical. It is not what has been characterised in certain newspapers such as the Evening Standard as a personalised attack on the Minister of Agriculture. I note that he has been described as "Dr. Jack Boot" in certain editorial columns—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] I assume that he is consoling the former Minister of Agriculture.

It is not a cheap, opportunistic campaign against the Minister of Agriculture. I acknowledge that he has reflected carefully on the matter. The Liberal Democrats are not arguing that the Government should have pursued a policy of anti-disclosure or secrecy when the scientific and medical evidence was passed on to them during the second half of last year. For a party that has long since argued the case, now taken up by the Government, for a food standards agency, that would be a perverse thing to do.

Our objections on the practical level, however, arise first from the fact—as the Minister said in his original statement before Christmas—that SEAC, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, as well as giving him the evidence and the medical advice from the chief medical officer, set out three options, which the Minister outlined in his statement. The Government decided on the toughest, the most radical or the most extreme option. [Interruption.]Labour Back Benchers may say that it was sensible, but the people who are probably best placed to judge the sense of it are those who will have to enforce it. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health described the measure as "practically unworkable". That is not a good basis on which to proceed.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

If the hon. Gentleman finds my right hon. Friend's decision so unreasonable, why did the Liberal Democrats oppose the previous Government when they said that there was no danger of transmission from one animal to another or from animal to human? Yet now that my right hon. Friend has taken the decision, they oppose it.

Mr. Kennedy

I defer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), but I think that our stance on the issue during the last Parliament shows that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are glaringly wide of the mark. The Liberal Democrats never pursued that case, nor are we doing so tonight.

First, the practicality of the measure is fundamental to judging its worth. Secondly, there is a fundamental philosophical point to be considered. Although individual citizens are right to look to the state and the apparatus of Government for security, advice and support, when it is necessary, when the element of risk is defined as being as minute as it is in this case, we decisively come down on the side of individual liberty. Provided that the necessary information has been placed in the public domain, the individual should be left to make the critical judgment.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Is it not the case that new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has such a long incubation period that it is extremely difficult to determine the risk? In saying that the risk is negligible, is not the hon. Gentleman misleading the House, because we simply do not know, and therefore we had to err on the side of caution?

Mr. Kennedy

I draw the hon. Lady's attention to the remarks at the National Farmers Union annual conference last week by the Government's principal adviser who chairs SEAC. He pointed to the fact that the incidence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and the concerns that have been attendant upon it are now, thank goodness, moving decisively in the right direction. Set against that backdrop, the decision seems all the more practically and philosophically perverse.

The third pointt is the nature of the consultations that were conducted not only inside but outside Parliament. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) mentioned the consultation, in the form of a debate, that occurred in the other place, which resulted in a vote of 207 to 97 against the Government. Most interestingly—I say this as a representative of a party that shares the Government's enthusiasm for getting rid of the hereditary element—even if one breaks down that vote and disregards the votes of hereditary peers voting, the Government would still have lost the vote. That should tell Ministers something about the force of their argument.

Let us consider the Government's practical consultation process. The statement was made in the House on Wednesday 3 December; the official proposals were faxed over the following weekend, with a response deadline of 4 pm on 12 December; the order was made on 15 December; and the ban was effective from 16 December. Mr. John Fuller, director of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders—who I should have thought would know a thing or two about the matter—described that as making a mockery of the consultation process bearing in mind SEAC's assessment of the minimal risk. Given that the Ministry, on a practical level, has not always covered itself in glory, I was amazed at the speed and the rapidity with which it assessed the replies to the consultation—not least when among the 300 very disparate organisations that it consulted were the Al Hasaniya Moroccan Women's centre and the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain. I do not know whether that was a case of the Ministry wanting to know whether lions in winter prefer their beef on or off the bone, but I think that, when they consulted so widely and—as the BBC "Food and Drink" programme reported in the past 24 hours—only seven of 104 responses supported the Government's ban, Ministers should have started a fresh consultation or thought twice before imposing the ban.

Perhaps, in passing, I may mention one other matter that is indicative of the debate on beef, of the ban on British exportation and even more so of the importation standards that are being applied to beef entering this country—which many hon. Members feel does not have to meet the stipulations that we place on our own beef producers. The vast majority of imported beef is deboned. Once beef is off the bone, it is very difficult to ascertain whether the specified risk materials—on which, from 1 January, the Government have rightly taken action—have been removed in accordance with UK domestic practice.

Therefore, there should surely be a total ban on beef imports from member states in which the specified risk materials have not been removed to the standards that we are imposing on our own sector. Additionally, surely further spot checks of consignments of imported beef should be made at their final destination—which is permissible under single market regulations and not contrary to the provisions of the European treaties that we have signed.

I hope that, in responding to the concerns that have been raised widely in the debate, the Minister will be able to address that issue. Like hon. Members who have spoken to farmers anywhere in the United Kingdom in the past few months, he can be under no illusion that farmers are suffering not only from a sense of injury but from the sense of insult that accompanies that injury because of the lack of a level playing field. As we pursue a policy of removing beef from the bone, we are increasing the likelihood of not being able to check imports to the same standards that we apply to our own beef.

Another issue—perhaps the Minister will reply to it, too—is that, when the ban was imposed, more than a few farmers had cattle booked into abattoirs and butchers lined up to buy the carcases. They then discovered that those buyers pulled out because of the huge uncertainty that developed almost overnight. If the cattle were just under 30 months old, the farmers may well have had to enter them for the over-30-months scheme. We have all seen the cuts in that scheme under this Administration. Even if the Government resist repealing the ban, it should certainly not apply to cattle under the beef assurance scheme, which has already been established under SEAC regulations, because there is not the slightest possibility of contraction of BSE in such herds.

What of the risk factor? What judgment did the Minister make? SEAC concluded that there was a minute chance of transfer of the BSE agent via the nervous tissue attached to the spinal base tissue. What was the calculation of odds? After the matter became public, it became common parlance that the calculation of odds was 1,000,000,000:1.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kennedy

I will, for the last time, but not before pointing out that there is 100 times more chance of being struck by lightning.

Dr. Turner

As I am a new Member, will the hon. Gentleman remind me what the then Government said were the odds on CJD being transmitted to humans? As a member of the public, I remember being told that there was no chance.

Mr. Kennedy

I am certainly not here to defend the previous Government. The quantifiable difference between this state of affairs and the previous state of affairs is that the scientific evidence has been published and made available to the public. That was not so before.

The calculation of odds does not back up the case being made by the Government. As a previous Prime Minister famously said, advisers may advise, but Ministers decide. Ministers took this decision and Ministers have to face up to the fact that, within hours of taking it, consumers were voting with their feet, purses and wallets and stocking up for Christmas.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

I had the good fortune this afternoon to meet Professor Frank Raymond, who was a senior MAFF adviser and probably the best British expert on beef. He described the order as a travesty because it was not based on the soundest possible research.

Mr. Kennedy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I confirm that the two of us have met several delegations of farmers from different parts of Wales, the west country, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The same message comes through time and again. There is inevitable professional frustration at the way in which the figures are presented and the conclusions are reached. There is a sense that there is no genuine consultation in the minds of Ministers or the actions of the Ministry.

Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire)

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, will he deal with the inconsistency in Government policy on risk factor? The Government have banned T-bone steaks and oxtail, although, as the hon. Gentleman has said, they carry a risk of 1,000,000,000:1. The decision on smoking, as a result of which hundreds of thousands of people die every year, is left to the individual. We put warnings on the packets, but leave the decision to the individual. What is the difference in this case?

Mr. Kennedy

As a smoker, I have to be careful. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has pointed out, the risk for the smoker is not so much what we should be concerned about. We should be more concerned about the passive smoker who is sitting next to him. The hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate point; there is inconsistency. I suspect, having read the press statements of the right hon. Member for Fylde, that we shall be hearing more about that.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kennedy

No, I must make progress. It would not be fair to give way, as many hon. Members want to speak.

I direct my remarks to Labour Back Benchers, especially the newly elected ones who have participated fully in the chorus, whipped up by the Prime Minister, that they are members of the most rural, countryside parliamentary Labour party ever to have been returned under the coat tails of a Labour Government. If that is so, Labour Members should reflect carefully before tonight's vote. This is a litmus test issue, not just for farmers but, in its knock-on effects, for the rural economy as a whole.

Labour Members should ask themselves who will win if the motion is defeated. Farmers will not; they are experiencing yet another dent in the reputation of one of their principal products in an already weak market. The consumers will not win, either. They are denied a right to decide. Moreover, for the few days when they had that right to decide, they exercised it in complete defiance of the Government's advice.

There will be no winners in terms of the reputation of Ministers. By a perverse irony, the reputation of the previous Minister of Agriculture suffered because he was perceived as doing too little, too late, and now the reputations of a new set of Ministers are suffering because they are perceived as doing too much, too soon.

If the motion is defeated, the real loser will be Parliament itself. We should ask ourselves a serious question: if, after dubious and inadequate consultation, Parliament passes unworkable and unenforceable legislation, which does not command public confidence and which encourages otherwise law-abiding people to behave illegally, it is failing in the job that it should be doing. We are talking about a bad law. The Government should take the opportunity offered by this Liberal Democrat motion and—in the words of a Scots song—go home and think again.

10.26 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

I am pleased to have this opportunity—I understand the points made by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) in his opening remarks—to explain why the regulations were introduced, as, clearly, a number of misconceptions have been voiced in recent weeks and recent minutes. Given the short time available, I shall cover the main points as briefly as possible.

The Government have been accused of taking a rushed decision in response to a very small risk. We did not. There were indications last summer from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee that actions might need to be taken to remove the risk of a newly discovered BSE infective material entering the human food chain.

The picture became clearer in succeeding months. In late November, my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Health, with other Ministers, met to consider the issues with the chairman of SEAC, the deputy chief medical officer and senior officials. At the time, the research results were known, but SEAC's likely recommendations were not. When SEAC's recommendations were known and the chief medical officer's advice had been sought and received, a decision was taken by Ministers, including the Prime Minister.

There was therefore no ill-considered or hasty reaction to SEAC's report. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, was able to make a statement to the House on 3 December that had been fully and carefully thought out.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rooker

No, I shall not give way for the moment.

It may assist the House if I put SEAC's recommendations in the context of the research findings that led to them. New results from continuing research had shown, first, that BSE infectivity had been found in the dorsal root ganglia of bovine animals. Secondly—something that the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West did not mention—there were indications, which are still being evaluated, that BSE infectivity may also be found in the bone marrow of cattle. Dorsal root ganglia are in the channels within back bones. The preliminary findings of possible BSE infectivity in bone marrow apply to all bovine bones. SEAC reported that the risk to human health was very small, a point to which I shall return.

SEAC's advice came in two parts and not as the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West described it or as has been reported. First, SEAC recommended that the research results should be published and consumers warned of the risk—we did both at once. Secondly, the committee recommended that, if the Government decided that further action was necessary to reduce the small risk further, either: no beef with the bone in from cattle over 6 months old should be sold to the consumer; or 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". Frankly, it should have been no surprise to anyone either inside or outside the House or in the scientific community that we decided that further action was necessary. Ever since the introduction of the ban on specified bovine offal in 1989, Governments have always—I repeat, always—excluded from the human food chain any tissue in which BSE infectivity has been identified. The only way to ensure that that was done in the light of the new SEAC findings was to prevent bone-in beef from cattle over six months old from being sold to consumers.

That was one of the options SEAC had recommended. The other—the deboning of older cattle slaughtered between 24 and 30 months of age—was not a practical proposition owing to lack of cutting plant capacity and because the Meat Hygiene Service does not have sufficient qualified staff for enforcement.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Why did not SEAC recommend those options?

Mr. Rooker

That was not SEAC's view. We are making the decisions and that is what we are accountable for.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)


Mr. Rooker

I will give way to the hon. Lady in a moment.

The Governmenttook very careful account of advice from the chief medical officer, Sir Kenneth Calman. Sir Kenneth made it absolutely clear that he would be very concerned if any tissues that have been shown to transmit BSE were knowingly allowed to remain in the human food chain". Therefore, the action taken was fully in line with past practice and the chief medical officer's firm advice on the need for action as the natural history of BSE and new variant CJD is still largely unknown.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Rooker

I will give way in a moment.

Some people claim that there is no example in the past of SEAC giving a view without a recommendation. That is incorrect. In 1994, advice only was given on the use of calf intestines and thymus. However, the then Government operated a policy of extreme caution. In a parliamentary answer, the then Minister of Agriculture, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) said that SEAC had concluded that the theoretical risk of infection of man from food from infected calves is minuscule. They advised that the continuing results of the experiment should be carefully monitored to confirm this basic conclusion. The right hon. Lady continued: I have carefully considered this advice in consultation with my right hon. Friends the other Agriculture Ministers and the Secretary of State for Health. We have concluded while the assessment of SEAC and of the CMG is that any risk to health is minuscule, the Government's policy of extreme caution in relation to BSE requires us to ensure that the tissues in which infectivity might potentially occur are removed from the human and animal food chain."—[Official Report, 30 June 1994; Vol. 245, c. 654. ]

I greatly regret that the Opposition have now disowned that very clear policy.

Mrs. Browning

I have listened carefully to the Minister, and I understand his point about advice from SEAC and the chief medical officer and the need for a belt-and-braces policy. However, there is an inconsistency in the decision made by the present Government compared with decisions made by the previous Government in respect of different parts of the carcase. If there is a risk, however minuscule, why is the material not specified bovine material and treated properly, as the rose of the carcase which is considered to be at risk is treated?

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Is that what the hon. Lady is suggesting?

Mrs. Browning

No, I am not suggesting that. If the Minister is going to put forward an intellectual case for the risk, he must also explain why the material is not SBM.

Mr. Rooker

I shall come to that point—the hon. Lady has asked a fair question. We are being practical—about the nature of the bits involved. I notice that she did not refer to the potential problem in respect of bone marrow, which is conveniently ignored by most commentators.

To return to the risk to consumers, SEAC emphasised that the risk is very small; however, it is very real. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a terrible disease. The first signs of new variant CJD are often psychiatric, including anxiety, depression and behavioural change which progresses. After a period of weeks or months, difficulties in walking appear— [Interruption.] This is not a joking matter for victims' families.

The patient develops uncontrollable jerky movements, progressive stiffness of the limbs and incontinence. As the disease progresses, patients lose awareness of their surroundings, become unable to recognise members of their family and finally pass into a state of complete physical unresponsiveness. There is no treatment and, after one or two years, the patient dies. It is distressing to family and friends to watch someone they care for and love become so seriously ill. No one—I repeat, no one—has yet recovered.

The idea that we might be able to cook our way out of this—that we might be able to eliminate the risk by cooking—is a non-starter. The agent with which we are dealing is so powerful that surgical instruments used on new variant CJD victims have to be destroyed—they cannot even be sterilised. It would be quite wrong to expose people to the disease unnecessarily. I am well aware that many people believe—I hope that their belief is based on ignorance, rather than on callous disregard—that it would be enough to warn consumers of the risks and leave them to make their own decision. I fundamentally disagree with that.

One cannot tell which of the bones in a butcher's shop contain tissues that are BSE-infective. If we allowed free sales of bone-in beef, there would be no protection for the many consumers of beef that had been cooked on the bone—people who wanted to continue to eat beef would have no choice. With pre-prepared or manufactured foods, the problem becomes even more difficult, as without a total ban on the use of the bones or of beef cooked on the bone, it would be impossible for consumers to tell whether their food was safe to eat.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

None of us would discount the horrors of CJD, but would the Minister explain one technical point? I find it hard to grasp the distinction being made between the infectivity of the dorsal root ganglia and the infectivity of the neural process which forms part of the same cell but lies outside the spinal column and the autonomic ganglia, which also lie outside the spinal column. Why are they treated differently?

Mr. Rooker

Because the SEAC advice is specific to the dorsal root ganglia and potentially to bone marrow, to which subject I shall return.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Rooker

No, I want to continue. This is a very short debate and I am the one who will be criticised for using up time. I have already given way a couple of times, but I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman before I sit down.

It is far better in such circumstances for consumers to be able to rely on the fact that all the tissues that are known to carry the risk of infectivity have been removed entirely from the food chain. Not only does that give full public health protection but it serves to boost, rather than undermine, consumers' confidence in beef and beef products. At a time when the beef industry is facing difficulties, that is not something to be dismissed as lightly as I fear that it is dismissed by the Opposition.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)


Mr. Rooker

I shall give way in a moment—to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry).

I remind the House what I said earlier about potential marrow infectivity. We do not yet have confirmation of that point, in the same way as in the summer we did not have confirmation about dorsal root ganglia. We waited for confirmation before we acted. It would have done more damage to the industry and no service to the consumer if the Government had had to come back to the House a few short months later to deal with what was, essentially, exactly the same problem.

Opposition Members have claimed outside the House—and will probably repeat tonight—that it is not possible to enforce the regulations. That is far from the case. The media highlight a few individuals but the hype is at variance with what is happening in the rest of the country. The regulations are as enforceable as other public health and consumer protection measures. Guidance has been given to local authorities—which has been welcomed today by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health—and to the Meat Hygiene Service to help them in that task, and I am confident that they are doing it effectively and to the best of their ability.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)


Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)


Mr. Rooker

I repeat that I will give way, but to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon—in a moment. I admit that some breaches of the regulations have been reported, but the vast majority of food manufacturing, distributing and retailing businesses are complying willingly. I challenge any right hon. or hon. Member to deny that fact. Equally, most consumers appear to have accepted the need for the controls at the current time.

Any businesses that are found to be acting illegally are being advised of their obligations and warned to stop. Thereafter, the matter is not one for the Government but for the judicial process.

Mr. Curry

Have not the Government themselves redefined risk? I refer the Minister to the White Paper on the Food Standards Agency. The third guiding principle for the agency states: The Agency will make decisions and take action on the basis that … the Agency's decisions and actions should he proportionate to the risk; pay due regard to costs as well as benefits to those affected by them; and avoid over-regulation". If that is the case, how is it possible to conceive that the Food Standards Agency would ban beef on the bone?

Mr. Rooker

I take that point on board. If and when the Food Standards Agency and its officials know what I do not know and what nobody in the House or outside knows—the incubation period of new variant CJD—a proper decision can be taken. Until that is known, we cannot proceed on that basis. Opposition Front Benchers may wish to infect the population, but the Government will not do so. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. This is a serious subject and many people outside want to hear our deliberations. They should be taken calmly and in order.

Mr. Rooker

The Government have been criticised for going too far in the latest action, but we shall not be deterred by such accusations, nor shall we shrink from what I admit has been a difficult decision. We made it clear on taking office that we would treat consumer protection as our top priority. That was a change of policy from that of the previous Government.

Mr. Jack

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have just heard an outrageous slur on the former Government, and I invite you to invite the Minister to withdraw his remarks.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have only heard points of argument, which the right hon. Member may in due course catch my eye and have the opportunity to rebut.

Mr. Rooker

The Government's decision to give consumer protection top priority was a clear change of policy from that of the previous Administration. That we have done, and we shall continue to do in relation to both British meat and imported meat. I am confident that, as a result of the action that we have taken, British beef is the safest in Europe and probably among the safest in the world, which is why we remain frustrated at the delay in reopening export markets.

As a result of our action in the House tonight in approving the regulations, Ministers can go to Brussels, look the Ministers of other member states in the eye and say, "Our beef does not contain infectivity." Without the regulations, we cannot say that. The controls are fully justified by the need to protect public health and enhance consumer confidence. In doing so, we are doing the farming industry a real favour. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh no.''] Oh, yes.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Minister answer two specific questions? First, in relation to what he has just been saying, how many other member states that have BSE have had to introduce the same regulations? Secondly, if the regulations are so easily enforceable, how many successful prosecutions have there been since 16 December?

Mr. Rooker

The answer to the second question is, I do not know. It might be early days. I am unaware of any successful prosecution—I am unaware of any prosecutions taking place. One reason for that is probably the fact that very few people are not obeying the regulations. [Laughter.] Regarding the hon. Gentleman's first point, which is a legitimate one, three or four, or perhaps five, member states are considering introducing these regulations and are seeking advice. At present, no country has introduced the regulations that we have, although I know that Italy has in force some similar regulations regarding beef imported from Switzerland.

Earlier I referred to advice given in 1994, and I quoted the former Minister of Agriculture, now the shadow Leader of the House. I said that that advice—it was also in the press notice and the answer to the parliamentary question—clearly stated by the then Minister, said, on scientific and medical advice, that there was no evidence of BSE causing CJD in humans.

That was 1994. We now know that that is not true. We do not know the incubation period of new variant CJD. The fact that there have been—some say "only"—23 cases so far gives no confidence and no guarantee that the number of new variant CJD cases will not increase dramatically. Think about it. We cannot yet predict the scale of the new variant CJD epidemic. We must take steps to reduce the risks that we can identify, and the risk of beef on the bone is a risk that has been identified—small, I accept, but nevertheless real. This is a responsible Government, and we could not have acted in any other way.

I believe that the regulations—I hate to upset Opposition Members—represent a balanced response to the position that the Government faced when they received SEAC's advice. Of course, we expect the BSE epidemic to come to an end by the year 2001. The practice is in line with the prediction at the present time and, as cases decline, it will naturally be right to review all the protective measures taken by the House, including this one, to which I hope the House will agree tonight.

10.48 pm
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

It is always a distressing incident in the House when a Minister loses his cool and emotion overcomes reason. I give the Minister of State the opportunity to intervene on my remarks by saying that, when the Conservatives were responsible for dealing with BSE and all its implications, we took all the scientific advice into account in protecting human health. We took very seriously indeed all the questions connected with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. We do not treat the subject lightly. I invite the Minister to withdraw his scurrilous accusations against the previous Government.

Mr. Rooker

Every measure was too slow, and we have embarked on a damage limitation exercise to restore public confidence.

Mr. Jack

The record will show that the Minister cast a slur on the Opposition, and I shall demonstrate why we have taken a responsible attitude in this matter.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for giving way. In that context, will he explain to the House why, between 1986 and 1988, the previous Government did absolutely nothing to protect the consumer interest?

Mr. Jack

The hon. Gentleman should contain his enthusiasm and read the report of the Southwood committee, in which Professor Southwood praised the previous Government for the totality of their efforts on BSE. We are already seeing the Government's bullyboy tactics, which are designed to distract the House from properly considering the issues under debate this evening.

Before I entered the Chamber, I received a message from Mrs. Rolfe of Wantage in Oxfordshire. She said: On behalf of the farmers, butchers and customers I organised a petition at Millbrook Butchers of Grove in Oxfordshire. We collected 282 signatures! She sent a copy of the petition to her local Member of Parliament. She concluded her message by saying: The petition simply states that the ban on beef on the bone is an infringement of free trade of farmers and butchers and an infringement of the customer's right to choose. The Conservatives speak on behalf of the beef eaters and the consumers of this country.

It is regrettable that this evening we have been treated to an emotional outburst by the Minister of State who spoke in place of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Where is the Minister of Agriculture? He is clearly the one who took the political decision to go further than the advice of SEAC, and he should answer to the House this evening for his actions.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)


Mr. Jack

No, I will not give way. We have heard enough from Labour Members; I want to make some points in this debate.

The Minister of State gave the impression that sweetness and light surrounded the decision to impose the ban. However, he did not tell the House about the answer that the Minister of Agriculture gave me on 22 December. In the context of SEAC's advice, the right hon. Gentleman said: the advice I have received represented the consensus view of all the members of the Committee who attended the meeting."—[Official Report, 22 December 1997; Vol. 303, c. 486.] The word "consensus" is crucial: it means that there was not unanimity.

The Minister knows that there was disagreement within SEAC about the matter. He also knows that that is why the committee gave further advice to Ministers. The Minister did not put before the House the terms in which that advice was couched. According to paragraph 6 of the SEAC advice, using a series of "pessimistic assumptions" the committee worked out that there was a 95 per cent. chance of no cases of new variant CJD occurring as a result of people eating beef on the bone, and only a 5 per cent. chance of one case arising in the whole of 1998. The committee went on—

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)


Mr. Jack

I want to make this point before the hon. Lady tries to put me off my stroke.

I remind the Minister of paragraph 7 of the SEAC advice: We recommend that the new research findings from the pathogenesis experiment together with our assessment set out above be made public. I make it clear that the Opposition do not disagree with the public's being given that information: an informed choice is a vital contribution to public health. However, the advice continues: If the Government decides that action is necessary to reduce this small risk further"— a risk that we have already learnt is 1,000,000,000:1— we recommend"— and it goes on to give two other options. Therefore, the Minister of Agriculture clearly took a political decision that went beyond the basic scientific advice provided. It was unnecessary.

It is interesting that, shortly after the Minister made his statement, MAFF put on the internet advice that effectively said, "You have now heard the new scientific finding. If you have beef in the freezer or in the fridge, you can make up your own mind about what to do with it." That is the way that it should have been.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a news release in June 1994 stated: The Government's Chief Medical Officer continues to advise that there is no evidence that humans can contract Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease from an animal with BSE"? He was wrong then. How can he be so sure that he is not wrong now?

Mr. Jack

The hon. Lady is confusing an argument of yesterday with the advice of this Government. We are here to debate the failings of this Government. I wonder how many Labour Members have told farmers, butchers and meat eaters in their constituency that tonight they will come here and do the business for them. It looks as though all they can do is use derision against our argument.

There is clearly confusion in the way in which the risk is handled in the Ministry of Agriculture. I asked the Minister whether he could tell me to what extent the calculation of risk to mortality governs his approval of food for human consumption. So far he has been unable to give an answer to that question.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jack

Not to the hon. Gentleman.

Let us look at the inconsistency in the way in which the Government handle risk. Why are they prepared to sanction a risk of one in 200 of people dying from smoking cigarettes at the rate of 10 a day? With regard to food risk, why are the Government prepared to sanction death at the rate of one in 5 million from poultry meat infected by salmonella and meat infected by E. coli, yet, when it comes to a risk of 1,000,000,000:1, this Minister decides to act? He has told us about the risk of people dying, yet he turns away from greater risks of people dying.

It is a great pity that the Minister of Agriculture is not present. He has been a stalwart defender of the British Nuclear Fuels plant at Sellafield in his constituency. In my judgment the nuclear industry is safe, but the Library of the House of Commons confirmed to me that the additional risk of getting fatal cancer near Sellafield can be estimated in any year as one in 200,000. The Minister of Agriculture personally subscribes to a safe nuclear industry with a risk of one in 200,000, yet when it comes to negligible risk, he wants to decide for everyone else what risk is taken.

Once the risk is made public, people can make up their minds whether to live near Sellafield, and whether to eat beef. When the information on risk was made available, the Ministry put out on its internet site the following words: SEAC concluded that the risk is very small and did not say that the Government needed to act at all other than to make the results public. On this basis the action proposed by the Government is precautionary in the extreme"— those are the Minister's own words— and there is no need to clear existing stocks. The Government has spelled out the risks to consumers so they can make up their own minds about stocks in the kitchen or in the freezer. Why could the Government not have left it at that?

As to the chief medical officer, he has said that the risk to human health is "small, even negligible". Let us see what others say. The Scottish office of the British Medical Association says: There are many more risky behaviours about which the public remains uninformed and it would be sensible to let the public choose whether they are prepared to take what appears a minuscule risk. Northern Foods—after all, Mr. Chris Haskins is dealing with better government—says: Finally, we would comment on the draconian proposals for what is agreed to be an extremely low risk. Surely it would have been sufficient to make the findings public and let consumers make their own choice.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

My right hon. Friend rightly asks where the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is. He is in the Smoking Room. Should he not be here?

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) will decide whether to take interventions. We cannot have many hon. Members on their feet at the same time. There is a limited amount of time for the debate.

Mr. Jack

The Minister clearly knows where he wants to take his risks.

In reaction to the advice, Sainsburys, that reputable organisation in the sale of food, said: On this basis, we believe that where the risks in food available for human consumption are so low, that they cannot be statistically established, our task as a responsible food retailer is to highlight the implied risk to our customers and let them choose whether or not to buy the product. If such organisations say that the Minister should have left it to advice, what right has he to order consumers in this nannyish way to do what he bids?

On the media today, the Minister has been fond of praying the National Farmers Union in aid of his cause. In a letter of 12 December, the NFU said: Ordinary common sense would suggest that consumers should be provided with the facts and be allowed to make their own purchasing decisions. On oxtail, the Meat and Livestock Commission says that the science is not proven and that that should be taken from the ban.

If all that inconsistency in government is not enough, the Minister for Public Health, in introducing the Green Paper last week, tellingly said: People don't want to be bossed around or be told what they should eat". It is a pity that the Department of Health had not told the Minister of Agriculture what the new line was.

The whole of this advice is based on a scientific experiment which some have challenged. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister of State says in reply to the remarks of the noble Countess of Mar and the noble Lord Willoughby de Broke in the other place when they debated the matter.

The Government have tried to convince us this evening that they acted with speed. Why was it only today that they published the advice to local authorities on implementation? It took them a long time to get the rules right for this so-called well-thought-out policy. It is a shambolic performance.

The Minister of State serves a Birmingham constituency. Today I telephoned Birmingham's chief food safety officer and I listened carefully to what he said. He pointed out that, in terms of enforcement, his department works on a risk-based system. The risks of new variant CJD from eating beef on the bone are so low down on the risk scale that enforcement, will not happen unless people complain. The very people who want to buy beef on the bone are hardly likely to complain.

How many representations has the Minister had from his own Labour Back Benchers on the matter? I am sure that he has had lots of letters, and it is about time that we knew about that.

Let us consider enforcement. Paragraph 4 of the information that the Minister kindly sent me states: There is no requirement for increased food authority activity although there will be some additional demand for guidance". Even the Minister is saying, "Carry on as normal, lads. Don't go out and do anything you wouldn't do otherwise." When we inquire what that is, we hear that it is the odd visit every six, 12 or 18 months to find out what is going on in the butcher's shop or the restaurant.

We then come to the clincher on enforcement. Paragraph 12 states: Bone-in beef displayed for sale at retail food premises, for example a butcher's shop, is an indication to an enforcement officer that beef may be being sold there in contravention of the prohibition of the regulation. It goes on to say that, if someone puts up a notice saying, "I will not sell it on the bone," that is all right. It is a complete farce, and the Minister of State knows it. The enforcement measures are nothing more than a sham, and they undermine all the so-called "serious discussion" that the Minister prayed in aid of the measure.

The Government are inconsistent in the way in which they handle risk, and they are taking a nannyish approach to the matter. The Opposition stand for informed consumer choice, and I invite right hon. and hon. Members to join us in the Lobby tonight.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the flow of debate, but I seek your guidance. Given the good turnout from both Opposition parties—and the fact that the shadow Cabinet spokesman is present—the absence of the Minister of Agriculture must be for a good reason, departmental or otherwise. In normal circumstances, the Minister of State would make an obligatory reference at the beginning of his speech to the right hon. Gentleman's absence.

I was not going to intervene until two things prompted me to do so. One was the statement by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), that the Minister of Agriculture had been spotted in the Smoking Room. The second was that his absence from the Chamber is all the more remarkable since I am certain that, a few minutes ago, there was a rare sighting of that most exotic bird, the Minister without Portfolio.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must know that it is not a matter for the Chair who responds from the Treasury Bench.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I fully accept that it is not a matter for the Chair who is in the Chamber and who is not, but Madam Speaker has on several occasions expressed her concern at the cavalier attitude that has been displayed towards the House by Ministers of the Crown. Is it not the ultimate cavalier attitude for the Minister of Agriculture to be sitting in the Smoking Room while this issue—which is of enormous concern to the farmers of this country—is debated on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a matter for the Chair. The Minister of State is answering for the Government on this matter.

11.2 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I shall try to lower the temperature—and I shall probably bore people. I shall support the Government tonight and oppose the Liberal Democrats' prayer. I have re-read the speech made by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) on 3 December, and one would think that he supported the Government on that occasion. I read the speech three times and it suggested that he supported the Government—perhaps he could tell us otherwise. He then went on to carp, as he has just done. There has been a change in the attitude of the official Opposition.

We have to be ultra-cautious, because this House does not have a good record on BSE and CJD. We have what I would call a criminally complacent Opposition who were criminally complacent in government. I am sure that the public inquiry will find that.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Martlew

No, I am not going to give way. I wish to be brief and allow other hon. Members to speak.

Mr. Gray

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it parliamentary language for the hon. Gentleman to describe the activities of the Opposition as "criminal"?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have heard nothing out of order. It is a matter of argument, and it is not an unparliamentary word to use.

Mr. Martlew

If the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) is so thin-skinned, he should not have come into Parliament.

I have probably taken part in every BSE debate since the 1980s, and this House has done badly on the issue. I was a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture—I see the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), another former member of the Committee, in her place—which looked into BSE. We saw all the experts, scientists, farmers and butchers, and we concluded that British beef was safe. That was a wrong decision, and I apologise to the House for getting it wrong. Politicians rarely apologise, but that is what happened. If we are not careful, wrong decisions could be made again.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

First, is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Government's view is that British beef is not safe? Secondly, at what odds should the public's lawful activities be banned? Given that it is far more dangerous to drive a car to come to Westminster to observe the proceedings of the House, would the hon. Gentleman support the abolition of the motor car for the same reasons he supports the abolition of beef on the bone?

Mr. Martlew

That intervention does not warrant a reply. I think that British beef is safe now. It was not safe when we had the Select Committee, and we reached the wrong conclusion, although we made some good recommendations. Had our recommendation for tracing been implemented by the previous Government, our beef would not have been banned in Europe.

In a statement on 20 March 1996, the then Secretary of State for Health said that there was a strong possibility of a link between new variant CJD and BSE. That statement replaced everything that we had been told before. It was tragic because we have lost people. An 18-year-old girl in my constituency had her life before her—she was bright, intelligent and full of life—but she died from the new variant CJD. That may be why I take this matter more seriously than other hon. Members.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Martlew

I am sorry; I shall not give way again.

There are other reasons why I take the matter seriously. I am a Cumbrian Member of Parliament and I worked in the dairy industry for 20 years. We received a delegation of Cumbrian farmers and we had disagreement after disagreement, but one matter on which many of them agreed with me was that the Government were right to ban beef on the bone.

Dr. Fox

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Martlew

I shall not give way on that point.

Those Cumbrian farmers do not want their products going into butchers' shops with a Government health warning stamped all over them like a packet of cigarettes. That would be nonsense. They also realise that beef on the bone represents 3 or 5 per cent. of the market and that they need to get the European ban lifted. That ban will not be lifted if we sell potentially dangerous beef.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Martlew

No, I shall not give way.

If we are to put the beef trade back on its feet, the best that we can do is continue the ban of beef on the bone and get the European ban lifted.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

There is one point that the hon. Gentleman has not dealt with, which he must answer now. If he believes in the ban of beef on the bone, why have not the Government treated the bones in the same way as specified bovine material? If there is contamination, that is the only way in which they could proceed.

Mr. Martlew

I gave way to the hon. Lady because she was on the Select Committee with me and I was hoping that she would take the opportunity to apologise to the House for the fact that she, too, got it wrong on that occasion.

The ban is temporary; once we have eradicated BSE from the British herd, it will be lifted. In June 1996, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food released a press release, which said that the UK had had three objectives under its policy to control BSE, including: to protect consumers of bovine products in the UK and elsewhere against any risk, however remote". That was when the Conservatives were in government. If they were in government today, they would ban beef on the bone. The Labour Opposition would have been sensible and would have supported the Conservative Government. Conservative Members are now playing politics with this issue. I am fed up with cheapjack jokes about this serious matter.

11.14 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I had intended to deal with the weakness of the Government's regulations in terms of their enforceability. However, I am so concerned about some of the Minister's points about safety that I would rather address the issue of human health and the food chain.

The Minister put a compelling argument based on the advice that the Government have been given by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee about bone and the potential infectivity of bone marrow. I understand only too well that when such advice is given, the Government must act.

In the past 10 years, as further research has been made known, primarily through SEAC, different parts of the carcase and different organs have been deemed to be infective or potentially infective. Advice was given to the previous Government on thymus and tonsils. Not long ago, research showed that the retina in the eye was potentially infective. Orders were made that required the removal of that part of the carcase, and its disposal in such a way as to prevent infectivity from entering the food chain and from being a source of contamination.

The Minister said that the action that the Government have taken on bovine bone allows them to go to Brussels and say that British beef does not contain infectivity. I accept that statement. If he believes that this is a human health issue, and if he can make that statement with confidence in Brussels or anywhere else because of the requirement to remove bovine bones from the carcase so that they do not enter the food chain, it must surely follow that the Government should introduce measures to dispose of those bones in the same way as every other part of the carcase with potential infectivity is dealt with.

I cannot think of another organ or another part of the carcase that is deemed to be BSE-infective that is not disposed of in that way. I invite the Minister to name any part of the carcase that is potentially infective according to official advice, but which is not disposed of in the strict and rigorous way that he is familiar with and which I have outlined.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

He remains seated.

Mrs. Browning

Indeed, he remains seated.

The fact of the matter is that the Government made a political decision. The Minister invoked the name of the Prime Minister when referring to that decision. If it was a political decision, the argument about a potential risk to the food chain is not legitimate. It must be one or the other. He has not convinced the House of the genuine basis of his concern about infectivity to humans. If his concern was genuine, he would have classified bones as specified bovine material.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

In the immediate aftermath of the introduction of the ban on beef on the bone, the Meat and Livestock Commission carried out a full investigation through consumer research. It found that 40 per cent. of people who eat beef will continue to do so, come what may. However, a further 40 per cent. were uncertain, and would be worried by any rumours that might be spread. If that were a problem, consumer demand would have fallen considerably, whereas demand for beef in the past couple of weeks has been at its highest since February 1995. Is that consistent with the argument about problems caused by a ban on beef on the bone?

Mrs. Browning

The hon. Gentleman's colleague, the Minister of State, said that by taking this measure he could confirm that beef did not contain infectivity. If I accept that as a genuine statement in the interests of human health—and the Minister has invoked the advice that he has been given; not just the SEAC advice, but advice from the chief medical officer—I must accept that he genuinely believes that there is a risk. If he believes that, he should follow it through. I invite the Minister again to name any part of the carcase that has been deemed to be potentially infective in regard to BSE that is not properly disposed of. Otherwise, his argument on the grounds of human health and safety does not stand up.

Let me make a final point to the Minister. If human health is indeed at risk, I must invite him tonight to answer a named-day question that I put to him on 5 February: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, if the requirement to remove bone from beef applies to animals killed on the farm for the farmers' own consumption. Clearly, if there is a risk—as the Minister has said tonight—it would be indefensible for him to allow farmers to consume their own beef on the bone.

The Minister replied to me: I will reply to the hon. Member as soon as possible. In other words, on 5 February he was not sure whether there was a risk to farmers or to any other human being. I invite him to say now whether he believes that farmers who consume beef on the bone from home-killed animals are at risk.

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

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), I have been present at many—indeed, virtually all—the debates on BSE in the House over the past 10 years. The Opposition—the Government of the day—would have done better to listen more to the contributions of Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle, my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies)—who was here tonight—my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas), and, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who was a shadow Agriculture Minister for many years.

At many stages during the late 1980s and early 1990s, we warned the Government that they could never rule out the possible connection between BSE and CJD. We warned them relentlessly that that was always a possibility, but they dismissed it completely, and accused us of scaremongering. The Government's track record at the time was too little, too late. If the accusation is that we have erred too far on the side of safety, that is wonderful.

Dr. Fox

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Williams

No. Time is very short, and I have many important things to say.

I wanted to intervene on the Minister. I tried nine or 10 times, but he would not give way. I am glad that I have now been called. [Interruption.] I mean the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). He got into quite a huff over an allegation that my hon. Friend the Minister had made about the previous Government. I wish—I am happy to give way to the shadow Minister on this point—that the previous Government would have the decency to apologise to the families of the 23 victims of CJD whose deaths were caused by lack of action and by assurances that, at the end of the day, did not mean very much. We hope that there will not be many more victims, but the fact remains that the Conservatives have created an awful crisis in my constituency and throughout rural Britain.

Like most other hon. Members, I was taken aback when I watched the lunchtime news that day and heard the headline story that, in future, bones would have to be taken out of beef because of infectivity in both the dorsal root ganglia and bone marrow. I noticed on that lunchtime bulletin that, immediately after the Minister's interview, the president of the National Farmers Union, Sir David Naish, gave his support for the decision. In addition, the Meat and Livestock Commission gave its immediate support, and very important, Ruth Evans, director of the National Consumer Council, in a letter to The Guardian on 6 December, said: This Government is to be applauded for avoiding prevarication on the issue.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Williams

I will not give way.

I listened intently to the arguments of the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Fylde, in attacking the regulations. He based his arguments completely on the fact that the risk is infinitesimal; it is one in a billion. SEAC did say that, but it is speculation. We have no real idea what the true risk is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) pointed out in an intervention, there is a long incubation period: it could be three, five, 10 or even 30 years. There may be just 20 or 30 CJD victims or there may be thousands; we do not know. In that case, that one-in-a-billion risk becomes a risk of about one in 10 million.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Williams

I give way to the right hon. Member for Fylde.

Mr. Jack

Have I understood the hon. Gentleman correctly? Is he saying that all the SEAC advice is speculative? That is the import of what he has just said. He is undermining the whole basis of the Minister's argument.

Mr. Williams

I was saying that, when SEAC speculates that the chance is one in a billion, that is based simply on the fact that, to date, the number of new variant CJD victims is 23. The figure is based on that order of magnitude of incidence. If the incidence is 10, 100 or even 1,000 times as much as that, which we cannot rule out at this stage, that one in a billion figure becomes 10, 100 or 1,000 times less.

Mr. Keetch


Mr. Williams

As the hon. Gentleman has tried to intervene several times, I give way to him.

Mr. Keetch

Will the hon. Gentleman give me some advice to pass on to the beef farmers of Herefordshire? Are they more likely to die from eating beef off the bone in Herefordshire than from drinking and smoking in the tea and smoking rooms of the House of Commons?

Mr. Williams

Our beef is probably the safest in Europe, and it will be safer still if the regulations are passed.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is indefensible to say that we should allow the 5 per cent. risk, whereby there could be one more case of new variant CJD? Clearly, it is not sustainable to say that there should be another death on top of the other 23.

Mr. Williams

The problem with the previous Government was that, throughout the 10 years that they handled the crisis, they never adopted the precautionary principle. The most serious allegation that the Liberal Democrats, the House of Lords and the Conservative party can make against us is that we err too much on the side of safety, but it is about time that Governments throughout the world erred on the side of safety.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Williams

Time is running out, so I shall not give way again.

I am surprised that in this evening's well-attended debate, we have spent one and a half hours debating beef on the bone, when there are more serious issues affecting the rural economy. Because of the BSE crisis and the value of the green pound, and thanks to the previous Government and the problems that they caused, the rural economy is in a desperate plight. Our time would have been far better spent—

Mr. Tyler

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I do not accept that motion.

Mr. Williams

Our time would have been far better spent considering the European beef ban. The lifting of the ban would be the answer to our problem. We should also have been discussing the painfully slow progress on the certified herds scheme.

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 17 (Delegated legislation (negative procedure)).

The House divided: Ayes 196, Noes 312.

Division No. 163] [11.30 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Dafis, Cynog
Allan, Richard Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Arness, David Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Day, Stephen
Arbuthnot, James Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Duncan, Alan
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Duncan Smith, Iain
Baker, Norman Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Baldry, Tony Evans, Nigel
Ballard, Mrs Jackie Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Beggs, Roy Faber, David
Beith, Rt Hon A J Fabricant, Michael
Bercow, John Fallon, Michael
Beresford, Sir Paul Fearn, Ronnie
Blunt, Crispin Flight, Howard
Boswell, Tim Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Foster, Don (Bath)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Brady, Graham Fox, Dr Liam
Brake, Tom Fraser, Christopher
Brand, Dr Peter Gale, Roger
Brazier, Julian Garnier, Edward
Breed, Colin George, Andrew (St Ives)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Gibb, Nick
Browning, Mrs Angela Gill, Christopher
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Burnett, John Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair
Burns, Simon Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Burstow, Paul Gray, James
Butterfill, John Green, Damian
Cable, Dr Vincent Greenway, John
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Grieve, Dominic
Cash, William Gummer, Rt Hon John
Chapman, Sir Sydney Hague, Rt Hon William
(Chipping Barnet) Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Chidgey, David Hammond, Philip
Chope, Christopher Harris, Dr Evan
Clappison, James Harvey, Nick
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Hawkins, Nick
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth Hayes, John
(Rushcliffe) Heald, Oliver
Collins, Tim Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Colvin, Michael Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Cormack, Sir Patrick Horam, John
Cotter, Brian Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Cran, James Hughes, Simon (Southwaik N)
Cunningham, Ms Roseanna Hunter, Andrew
(Perth) Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Curry, Rt Hon David Jenkin, Bernard
Johnson Smith, Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Ruffley, David
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Keetch, Paul St Aubyn, Nick
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye) Salmond, Alex
Key, Robert Sanders, Adrian
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Sayeed, Jonathan
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Kirkwood, Archy Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Soames, Nicholas
Lansley, Andrew Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Leigh, Edward Spring, Richard
Letwin, Oliver Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Steen, Anthony
Lidington, David Streeter, Gary
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Swayne, Desmond
Livsey, Richard Swinney, John
Llwyd, Elfyn Syms, Robert
Loughton, Tim Tapsell, Sir Peter
Luff, Peter Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)
McIntosh, Miss Anne Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Mackay, Andrew Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Maclean, Rt Hon David Thompson, William
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Tonge, Dr Jenny
McLoughlin, Patrick Townend, John
Madel, Sir David Tredinnick, David
Maples, John Trend, Michael
Mates, Michael Tyrie, Andrew
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Wallace, James
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Walter, Robert
May, Mrs Theresa Wardle, Charles
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Waterson, Nigel
Moore, Michael Webb, Steve
Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway) Wells, Bowen
Moss, Malcolm Welsh, Andrew
Nicholls, Patrick Whitney, Sir Raymond
Norman, Archie Whittingdale, John
Öpik, Lembit Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Ottaway, Richard Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Page, Richard Wilkinson, John
Paice, James Willetts, David
Paisley, Rev Ian Willis, Phil
Paterson, Owen Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Prior, David Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Randall, John Woodward, Shaun
Redwood, Rt Hon John Yeo, Tim
Rendel, David Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Robathan, Andrew
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Tellers for the Ayes:
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Mr. Paul Tyler and Mr. Donald Gorrie.
Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Abbott, Ms Diane Betts, Clive
Ainger, Nick Blears, Ms Hazel
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Blizzard, Bob
Allen, Graham Boateng, Paul
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Borrow, David
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Bradshaw, Ben
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)
Ashton, Joe Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Atkins, Charlotte Browne, Desmond
Austin, John Buck, Ms Karen
Barnes, Harry Burden, Richard
Barron, Kevin Burgon, Colin
Battle, John Butler, Mrs Christine
Bayley, Hugh Byers, Stephen
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Caborn, Richard
Begg, Miss Anne Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Bennett, Andrew F Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Benton, Joe Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Bermingham, Gerald Campbell-Savours, Dale
Berry, Roger Canavan, Dennis
Best, Harold Casale, Roger
Caton, Martin Grocott, Bruce
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Grogan, John
Chaytor, David Hain, Peter
Chisholm, Malcolm Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Clapham, Michael Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Clark, Dr Lynda Hanson, David
(Edinburgh Pentlands) Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Healey, John
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clelland, David Hepburn, Stephen
Clwyd, Ann Heppell, John
Coaker, Vernon Hesford, Stephen
Coffey, Ms Ann Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Cohen, Harry Hill, Keith
Coleman, Iain Hinchliffe, David
Colman, Tony Home Robertson, John
Connarty, Michael Hoon, Geoffrey
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hope, Phil
Cooper, Yvette Hopkins, Kelvin
Corbyn, Jeremy Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Corston, Ms Jean Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Crausby, David Howells, Dr Kim
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Hoyle, Lindsay
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
(Copeland) Hutton, John
Dalyell, Tam Iddon, Dr Brian
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Illsley, Eric
Darvill, Keith Ingram, Adam
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Davidson, Ian Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jamieson, David
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly) Jenkins, Brian
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Dawson, Hilton Johnson, Miss Melanie
Dean, Mrs Janet (Welwyn Hatfield)
Denham, John Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Dewar, Rt Hon Donald Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Dismore, Andrew Jones, Ms Jenny
Dobbin, Jim (Wolverh'ton SW)
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Donohoe, Brian H Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Doran, Frank Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Drew, David Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Drown, Ms Julia Keeble, Ms Sally
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Edwards, Huw Kelly, Ms Ruth
Efford, Clive Kemp, Fraser
Ellman, Mrs Louise Kilfoyle, Peter
Ennis, Jeff King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Etherington, Bill Kumar, Dr Ashok
Field, Rt Hon Frank Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Fisher, Mark Laxton, Bob
Fitzpatrick, Jim Lepper, David
Fitzsimons, Lorna Leslie, Christopher
Flynn, Paul Levitt, Tom
Follett, Barbara Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Linton, Martin
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Livingstone, Ken
Galbraith, Sam Lock, David
Galloway, George Love, Andrew
Gapes, Mike McAllion, John
Gardiner, Barry McAvoy, Thomas
George, Bruce (Walsall S) McCabe, Steve
Gerrard, Neil McCafferty, Ms Chris
Gibson, Dr Ian McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Godsiff, Roger McDonagh, Siobhain
Goggins, Paul Macdonald, Calum
Golding, Mrs Llin McFall, John
Gordon, Mrs Eileen McGuire, Mrs Anne
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McIsaac, Shona
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McLeish, Henry
McNamara, Kevin Savidge, Malcolm
McNulty, Tony Sawford, Phil
MacShane, Denis Sheerman, Barry
Mactaggart, Fiona Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McWalter, Tony Short, Rt Hon Clare
McWilliam, John Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Skinner, Dennis
Mallaber, Judy Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Mandelson, Peter Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Marek, Dr John Smith, Miss Geraldine
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Snape, Peter
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Soley, Clive
Martlew, Eric Southworth, Ms Helen
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Squire, Ms Rachel
Meale, Alan Steinberg, Gerry
Michael, Alun Stevenson, George
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Milburn, Alan Stinchcombe, Paul
Miller, Andrew Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Mitchell, Austin Stringer, Graham
Moffatt, Laura Stuart, Ms Gisela
Moran, Ms Margaret Sutcliffe, Gerry
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) (Dewsbury)
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Mudie, George Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Norris, Dan Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Timms, Stephen
O'Hara, Eddie Tipping, Paddy
Olner, Bill Todd, Mark
Organ, Mrs Diana Touhig, Don
Osborne, Ms Sandra Trickett, Jon
Palmer, Dr Nick Truswell, Paul
Pearson, Ian Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Pendry, Tom Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Pickthall, Colin Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Pike, Peter L Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Plaskitt, James Vaz, Keith
Pollard, Kerry Vis, Dr Rudi
Pond, Chris Walley, Ms Joan
Pope, Greg Wareing, Robert N
Pound, Stephen Watts, David
Powell, Sir Raymond White, Brian
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Whitehead, Dr Alan
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Wicks, Malcolm
Primarolo, Dawn Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Prosser, Gwyn (Swansea W)
Purchase, Ken Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Quin, Ms Joyce Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Rammell, Bill Winnick, David
Rapson, Syd Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Robertson, Rt Hon George Wise, Audrey
(Hamilton S) Wood, Mike
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW) Woolas, Phil
Rooker, Jeff Worthington, Tony
Rooney, Terry Wray, James
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Roy, Frank
Ruane, Chris Tellers for the Noes:
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Jane Kennedy and Mr. Jim Dowd.
Ryan, Ms Joan

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you ask the Clerks to inspect the voting list to discover whether the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food voted? As the Minister responsible for a very controversial piece of legislation, which has upset farmers and consumers throughout the country, he had the discourtesy not to appear for the debate, although he was seen elsewhere in the precincts of the House. If he voted, he could clearly have been present for the debate.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House is relieved to see the Minister of Agriculture behind the Chair. May we have confirmation that, contrary to one rumour that ran through the Lobby, he has not resigned?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member's point of order takes the matter even further away from those on which the Chair rules. The record will be evident to everyone tomorrow.

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