HC Deb 09 November 1999 vol 337 cc871-4
5. Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

What discussions he or his officials have had with the Scottish Executive regarding the beef on the bone ban. [96349]

7. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive about the beef on the bone ban. [96351]

13. Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Ministers in the Scottish Executive about removing the UK-wide ban on selling beef on the bone. [96358]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. Brian Wilson)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I keep in regular contact with ministerial colleagues and the Scottish Executive on this and other related issues. Everyone wants to remove the UK-wide ban on selling beef on the bone as soon as it is safe and sensible to do so. It is right and proper that that should be done in an orderly fashion across the UK. To do otherwise risks creating uncertainty for consumers and confusion for the industry.

Mr. Paice

I thank the Minister for his response, but surely the Secretary of State sits in the Cabinet and so shares collective responsibility for everything that is decided there and for all Government policies. What is the point of devolution if it means that English consumers cannot buy beef on the bone because the Scottish Executive thinks that Scottish consumers should not?

Mr. Wilson

Every answer to a Tory today seems to he a tutorial in common sense. The Scottish Executive has nothing to do with the issue. It was the chief medical officers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who made the recommendations. Strangely enough, devolution has nothing to do with it because England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had CMOs before devolution. All that happens is that a consensus is reached on what is best on a United Kingdom basis. On the basis of common sense, most people would see that it is better to move forward together rather than to fragment the approach within the United Kingdom. That is what has happened. [Interruption.] It is devolution but not fragmentation, which we do not want.

Mr. Robathan

In that unsatisfactory reply to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), the Minister talked about common sense. How is it common sense for the medical authorities in Carlisle and Cumbria to say that beef on the bone is safe to eat while in Dumfriesshire in Scotland it is apparently not safe to eat? Does he understand the damage that this is doing to the confidence of consumers abroad in British beef and the harm it is doing to farmers throughout Britain? The Government fixed the leadership of Wales and is trying to fix the mayoral nomination for London. Why do they not use their fixing powers to good effect for British consumers and farmers by fixing the beef on the bone ban and getting it lifted?

Mr. Wilson

The one thing that would damage confidence in British beef would be if we got it wrong again and ignored scientific advice. The record of the Conservatives on this was appalling. Their Government led us into the crisis from which we are still trying to escape. If they have not learned by now to respect scientific advice, they will never respect anything. If two medical officers a short distance apart give conflicting advice, we must, of course, respect the advice that errs on the side of caution. That is common sense as well.

Mr. Bruce

I hate to say it, but I am going to try to give the Minister a tutorial. The Conservatives want Scottish—and all United Kingdom—farmers to be able to sell their beef in a sensible way. He cannot possibly tell us, when it has been decided by the House—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Secretary of State would give me a moment. The House has decided that each of the sovereign Parliaments or Assemblies can make decisions separately and have separate food standards, but when they want such separate standards, the Government turn round and say, "No. Because they have taken different decisions, we are not going to go forward. " That is nonsense, and we are spending a lot of money, particularly on the Scotland Office, to no effect.

Mr. Wilson

The difference between us is that we have absolute respect for the consumer interest. We are absolutely determined not to fly in the face of scientific advice. Of course it is theoretically possible to get four different sets of advice from four chief medical officers—

Mr. Bruce

So we take four different decisions.

Mr. Wilson

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is a sensible approach within the United Kingdom, he is distinctly lacking in the commodity of common sense. In the interests of British agriculture, the British consumer and the reputation of British beef abroad, it is clearly right that the United Kingdom should act as one.

I restate the point that the four chief medical officers were not invented by devolution. Those posts existed previously, and the Government are right to follow the line of common sense, which is to take the advice of three of the officers and to delay lifting the ban a little longer to ensure the absolute credibility of British beef when it returns to all the markets of the world.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

My hon. Friend will be aware that I sought a fatal accident inquiry because a young constituent of mine was orphaned when his mother was lost to new-variant CJD. Does my hon. Friend agree that the main motivation for lifting the beef ban should be dietary safety, not the anti-European diatribe that we so often hear from the Opposition Benches?

Mr. Wilson

My hon. Friend brings a necessary sense of proportion to the discussion, which is not about anti-Europeanism or about cheer-leading for farmers—it is about the protection of consumers. Let us not forget that, as a result of the policies of the previous Government, a large number of people have met a horrible death from CJD. Therefore, we should act on the scientific advice and not deviate from it. When the whole of British beef is back into the markets of the world, it will be on the basis of absolute confidence. My hon. Friend is right to recall that there have been victims in this fiasco.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

We need no lessons from the Conservatives on common sense; they gave us BSE. However, I must tell my hon. Friend that there is puzzlement in the south-west of England. I should like him to explain to my constituents why, when Scotland and Wales can vote extra resources for their farmers, we cannot also have a different policy in England if devolution is to mean anything for England on this matter?

Mr. Wilson

It is possible, just as it was previously, for four different chief medical officers to give different advice. If the Government were so misguided as to do so, they could have different policies for different parts of the United Kingdom on the reintroduction of beef on the bone. The view taken by the Government is that it is far better to move forward together, when there is unanimity throughout the United Kingdom on giving beef on the bone the all clear. To send out a message to France, Germany or any other part of the world that beef from some parts of the United Kingdom is okay, but that there are still doubts about beef from other parts would be confusing. Ultimately, such a message would do even greater damage to British agriculture.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

What is the Minister's assessment of the relative threat to health from beef on the bone and from beef emanating from a food chain involving human sewage?

Mr. Wilson

I have one thing in common with the right hon. Gentleman—probably only one thing—and that is that I am not a scientist. Therefore, I respect best scientific advice in both instances.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Was not the scientific advice that was given last week that British beef is the safest in Europe? Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that? If we are in the mood for tutorials, can he confirm that the citizens of no other European country are prevented from eating beef on the bone, so can we please chuck all this rubbish? Will the hon. Gentleman show his confidence in Scottish beef, which is perhaps the best beef of all, and join me when I am in Scotland over Christmas and eat a jolly good T-bone steak?

Mr. Wilson

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's T-bone steak would be considerably larger than mine. However, this is not a light-hearted matter. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy). Let us not forget that a substantial number of people in this country have died because the previous Government acted irresponsibly in the face of scientific advice. That is what happened. I want normality to be restored in this respect. We must act according to the highest standards of the most impeccable advice. For the sake of weeks or days, we must not send out mixed messages. We must get this right. Then, British beef will enjoy the confidence and respect that we all want it to have, and the problems will never recur. Those are the actions of a responsible Government. All that we see yet again from the Tories is that they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They think that they can fly a flag opportunistically for a minority interest in the face of the interests of consumers and British agriculture.