§ 3.4 p.m.
§ Lord Richard rose to call attention to the need for consistent and coherent policies to deal with the crisis in the beef industry to ensure food safety and to protect the interests of consumers; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, the exodus of noble Lords from the Chamber is almost as bad as that from beef in recent weeks. The House clearly feels that this is a timely debate in view of the fact that there are no fewer than 43 speakers. It is not only timely, it is also extremely important. My noble friend Lord Carter will deal with the technical aspects of the matter in his winding up speech at the end of the debate. I wish to try to take an overview of the general situation as it has arisen.
§ It seems to me that there are three issues in this matter which the House and the country should consider: first, the state of the medical evidence; secondly, the Government's handling of the situation; and thirdly, what on earth we should do now.
§ In relation to the medical evidence, having read many of the papers which have been submitted to me on this matter and doing my best as a non-scientist, it seems to me that the position is fairly clear.667
When the matter first broke on 20th March Mr. Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, put the issue as follows:
There remains no scientific proof that bovine spongiform encephalopathy can be transmitted to man by beef, but the committee has concluded that the most likely explanation at present is that those cases are linked to exposure to BSE before the introduction of the specified bovine offal ban in 1989".
That was the considered view of the Secretary of State for Health.
Replying to that my honourable friend Ms. Harriet Harman said:
We must all be concerned, must we not, that 10 cases of a new strain of CJD have appeared. Will the Secretary of State confirm that what is worrying about this new cluster is that it has occurred in people under the age of 42, and that all the cases have occurred in the past two years and only in the United Kingdom? The conclusion that stares the British public in the face is that there may well be a link between BSE and CJD".
Responding to that, in turn, Mr. Dorrell said:
I believe that the hon. Lady's description of the cases that have led to the advisory committee's further revision of its advice is broadly correct".—(0fficial Report, Commons, 20/3/96; cols. 375–7.]
I do not think that that opinion has been changed since then. I do not wish to weary the House with quotations but, on scientific matters, the words of the Royal Society carry more weight than mine. Indeed in a paper I received yesterday from the Royal Society the issue is put as follows:
BSE has been found to infect other species fed on infected material, despite the barriers against prions from one species infecting another. It must therefore be possible that BSE could infect humans. Ten cases of an unusual form of CJD in subjects of no known risk factor have recently been confirmed in the UK, and have rightly given rise to concern that they could be attributed to BSE that has crossed the species barrier".
As I understand it, that is the state of the scientific evidence.
§ I think it is worth while for a moment to look at the facts about BSE in cattle as we know them. It was first identified in UK cattle by the Central Veterinary Laboratory of MAFF in November 1986. Epidemiological investigations indicated that BSE was caused by the consumption of infected feed, probably due to the inclusion in cattle feed of protein derived from scrapie infected sheep. A ban on the use of ruminant derived protein in cattle feed was introduced in July 1988 to prevent further transmission of the infected agent. Since August 1988 all suspect cases of BSE have been compulsorily slaughtered by Ministry veterinary staff and their carcasses destroyed. At the same time the UK also banned the use of brain, spinal cord, tonsil, larynx, spleen and intestine—known as specified bovine offal (SBO) in food for human consumption. Those are the facts up to that date.
§ The facts on the handling of BSE are, however, somewhat daunting. The appearance of BSE in cattle appears to stem from changes during the early to mid 1980s in the preparation of protein supplements for cattle feed from rendered sheep and cattle carcasses, including sheep with scrapie, and in the practice of rendering.668
§ If the House will forgive me, I should like to say a few words about the practice of rendering. Previously the carcasses had been processed to produce tallow, bone meal and animal feed, by the use of solvents to remove the tallow and high temperatures to remove the organic solvents. It appears now that this destroyed the infectious agent (the prion) from scrapie. However, driven by economic factors (a fall in the price of tallow, an increase in solvent and energy costs) and by safety factors (the exposure of workers to solvents) the process was changed to avoid solvents and to avoid the necessity for the high temperatures. The result was that the scrapie prion survived the new process and subsequently infected cattle, creating an apparently new cattle disease, BSE. As I said, I speak as a non-scientist, but I speak with the authority of many scientists and, indeed, of the Royal Society in putting it thus.
§ Had those high temperatures been maintained, it seems very likely that the infectious agent from scrapie would have been destroyed. Unfortunately, they were not maintained and the infectious agent was not destroyed. What was the result? The result was that the number of cases of BSE in cattle in the United Kingdom rose to no less that 160,000, a figure which is 422 times the number of cases in the whole of the rest of the world. The country with the nearest figure to that of the UK is Switzerland, where there have been just over 200 and in respect of which the infection can be traced to imports of UK cattle feed. Finally, there was the discovery recently of this new cluster of cases of CJD.
§ On the figures of BSE, I must say that to contend that somehow or other there are masses of concealed cases of BSE in other countries of the world seems to me to be totally fanciful. It would imply—would it not?—that there was a virtual worldwide conspiracy among vets and among public officials to conceal the true nature of the animal diseases which were appearing and to falsify the official record. I find that impossible to accept.
§ In those circumstances, and against that background, it seems to me to be impossible to contend with certainty that there is no risk. At best the verdict would have to be one of "not proven", and either way the issue resolves itself into the questions of whether that risk is an acceptable one and whether it could have been avoided.
§ So far as concerns food, there are no objective standards of acceptability. For unacceptability one can have objective standards; indeed, one can ban things that objectively and clearly do people harm. But people cannot be forced to buy one food in preference to another; not even the market—with respect to the other side of the House—can do that. Any question of accepting a risk in food must be a subjective and not an objective one, based as it is on matters of taste, the importance that one attaches to the risk, one's own views as to healthy food and a whole host of other concerns, all of which are essentially personal. The Government's major problem, and the start of the whole crisis, lies in their assessment of the way in which the public and Europe would react to the scientific evidence of that risk. They made a major miscalculation.669
On the same day, March 20th, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mr. Douglas Hogg, also made a Statement. Rather touchingly, in retrospect, he said:
The market will fall only if there is a serious lace of confidence in beef. That depends upon the judgment that the public make about the quality and safety of British beef and beef products. That is why my right hon. Friend and I have come promptly to the House to make the two statements that we have made and to tell the House that the best opinion that we have is that beef and beef products can be eaten with confidence".
He then went on to say:
If the public accept that advice, there will be no damage to the market, but, as I made plain in my statement, there are mechanisms within the common agricultural policy that can be brought into play if there is damage".—[Official Report, Commons, 20/3/96; col. 389.]
Mr. Hogg repeated the essence of that Statement on a number of subsequent occasions. Unfortunately, the public did not accept that advice and the market is in ruins as a result.
§ Clearly the Government expected plaudits for their frankness, openness and concern for the nation's health. They believed that things would then settle down and we could all go on much as before. That must have been the equation as the Government saw it, and they were clearly wrong. There were no contingency plans; indeed, there was not even a contingency approach, let alone detailed plans to deal with the matter—else why not lay the foundation for those announcements? Why wait until yesterday to announce plans for compensation? Why wait so long to settle the details of a slaughter policy which, up until today, still remains unclear? Why not consult more closely with Brussels in advance? The storm that took place clearly took the Government totally by surprise and, in a manner not totally unknown to this Government, they sought to blame anyone else but themselves. They blamed Europe, they blamed vegetarians and, of course, they blamed the Labour Party. May I say that I am sick and tired of the canard that, somehow or other, the loss of confidence in beef is due to the Labour Party. Responsibility without power is even worse than the other way around and, frankly, I refuse to accept it. The initial reaction of my honourable friend Ms. Harman was characterised by Mr. Dorrell as broadly correct and Mr. Strang's approach, as Mr. Hogg confirmed yesterday in another place, has been consistently helpful.
§ The fact is that the Government's assessment of public and European reaction was totally and massively wrong. That is where the responsibility for this crisis must lie. There is no way that they can avoid responsibility for their 17 years in office. One can argue—and it is a forceful argument—that the Government should have pursued a slaughter policy earlier on when the disease first appeared. A similar problem faced the Irish. They took slaughter measures and seem to have eradicated the disease. We did not. In retrospect that would have been the sensible policy to have taken here. But even without that, there is, as the House knows, grave disquiet about the extent to which existing regulations have been applied, particularly in the slaughterhouses. Tightening them up now is a bit like shutting the cow-shed door after the cattle have 670 gone to market. One thing that the Government should certainly have done was to have paid compensation at the full rate after 1988 and not merely at 50 per cent.
§ Following those Statements of 20th March, confusion has reigned both here and in Europe. Mr. Hogg assured us that British beef was safe, though how he could give that blanket and certain assurance in the face of those figures and the scientific evidence I frankly do not know. Later he went on television and talked about the slaughter of a large number of cows. The day after he again assured the country that beef was safe and said nothing about slaughter. That was, apparently, after the intervention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer who, not unnaturally, was concerned with the financial implications of a large-scale slaughter policy and, indeed, after the weekend meeting of the scientific advisory group which repeated its earlier opinions and advice.
§ In the face of all this confusion it is hardly surprising that there was a large-scale exodus from beef eating. The European Union imposed a ban. I am indebted to my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington for drawing my attention to the precise wording of the directives under which the worldwide ban was apparently imposed. Having read them, I am bound to say that there does seem to be considerable doubt as to the legal basis for the world ban which the Council of Ministers saw fit to impose. I am not sure whether the Government's reaction to that was as vigorous or as sensible as, perhaps, it should have been.
§ However, Mr. Hogg then went back to Brussels to try to persuade them to lift the ban. He failed and we end up with the worst of all possible worlds: a continuation of the ban and a commitment to slaughter a large number of cattle which the Government still assure us are perfectly safe. That is not exactly a triumph for British diplomacy. But what should they have done? The initial announcements were clearly made under the misapprehension that the scientific assessment of risks would be ignored as so minimal as to be meaningless. They were wrong. Why on earth was the matter not discussed with the Commission in advance of the announcements being made? As I understand it, the Commission was given precisely half an hour's notice. It surely should have been obvious that Brussels was bound to be heavily involved in any consideration of the issue and it would have been far better to have discussed it with Brussels in advance.
§ Thirdly, the Government should have determined a line on the assessment of risk and on a policy of slaughter and stuck to it. That is where we are now—confusion, and worse, confounded. It raises the inevitable question as to where on earth we go from here. There are three points which I think are crucial.
§ First, the Government have to take such steps as will lead to the restoration of public confidence. We really should not wrap cows up in the Union Jack as if eating beef was now somehow a patriotic duty. Nor, indeed, is it sufficient for the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, to suggest, as he did yesterday, that the saga started off on the basis of science but was blown off course by some rather idle comment. As regards idle comment and being blown off 671 course, it was a hurricane that hit the Government, not a zephyr. If restoring public confidence involves a selective slaughter policy, I think that most people would accept that. But why a herd of cows bred for beef which has been fed exclusively non-animal feed and which matures in 36 rather than 30 months should be sacrificed to get the Government out of this difficulty is frankly beyond me.
§ Secondly, whatever the Government do now has to be done in close consultation with Brussels and the member states. Brussels and the member states are not stupid, nor are they particularly malicious but, understandably perhaps, they see that a problem exists. To pretend that it does not in my view worsens, not cures, an already difficult situation.
§ Thirdly, they must recognise that this self-generated crisis has caused, and is causing, grave financial hardship to thousands of people in our agricultural and associated sectors. Yesterday's announcement—which was welcomed by us—goes some way towards meeting this problem.
§ Finally, the Government must at last be frank with the British people. The British people are not stupid either but they are confused. The lead given by the Government has been flabby and uncertain and still is. I give one example. How many cows are likely to be slaughtered this year under existing policy? I do not know, nor do I know what government policy on slaughter is. Nor do I have any confidence that it will remain what it is supposed to be after the next meeting of the Council of Ministers in Brussels. The industry clearly does not yet know what it will have to face. This is, I am afraid, a sorry tale of miscalculation and incompetence. I only wish I could see an end to it. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.22 p.m.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay)
My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition can hardly accuse the Government of failing to be frank with the British people or indeed of being flabby and uncertain after four agriculture Statements to both Houses and after two health Statements. Across those Statements we introduced some 28 measures. We have secured a commitment of rescue funding to the tune of around £1 billion. If the noble Lord opposite fails to understand what some of the measures mean and what the current practices are on culling, I think that is because he has failed to read the Hansard extracts or to listen to the Statements which have been made fully and honestly by Ministers in both Houses.
We understand the anxiety and the frustration that the BSE scare has caused to many people. We understand the irrationality that is driving people mad with concern. They do not understand why hysteria has entered into a subject which should best be left on the scientific basis from where it started. We acknowledge the extreme anxiety that has been caused by hysteria and irrationality. We also acknowledge that no one single measure could possibly provide a complete answer to 672 this problem. That is why over the 28 days we have brought forward a large series of targeted and effective measures. If there are other noble Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who do not understand all these measures, I hope that my noble friend Lord Lucas, who will have much more time to explain some of the measures, will cover those points where explanation is needed.
Suffice it for me to say that the 28 initiatives which we have brought forward over 28 days are designed to cover public and animal health. Vitally, they are aimed at consumer confidence and at market activity. They provide emergency support for those parts of the beef trade where viability is vital. We want to secure as much of the beef industry as we can and we want to provide as much help to as many parts of that complex and long chain as we can. We know that jobs are at stake and we want to secure those jobs.
Are these measures effective? Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who described the market as being in ruins, I believe that the measures are effective. The market is picking up strongly now. The domestic market at the consumption end is up to a figure of about 80 per cent., and in some cases is much higher. At the abattoir and processing end, activity is up to a level of about 60 per cent. By the end of this month when the various measures that we have announced are fully implemented—I refer to intervention, to the calf scheme and to the cull cow programme or the residual beef programme—that market activity will increase significantly beyond the current figure of 60 per cent.
There are some slaughterhouses in Scotland where I know for a fact almost the same number of cattle are being slaughtered now as were being slaughtered exactly 12 months ago. Confidence is returning strongly. To hear scaremongering speeches from anyone does not help the restoration of confidence. We have worked throughout this crisis with everyone who is most affected by it. We have worked with farmers and with those in different parts of the slaughter, cutting plant and processing industry. We have spoken to the banks about the measures that they can bring forward to help. We have worked with retailers, wholesalers and consumer organisations. We have also worked hard with Brussels and with our European partners despite what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, implied. We have listened and we have acted. We have a comprehensive commitment to the future of the beef industry.
One of the messages which has come back from the people we have consulted who are most affected by the crisis—beyond the shopping list that they delivered to us and on which we have delivered action—is that they are annoyed at the party politicking that this issue has attracted.
The Earl of Lindsay
My Lords, I suggest to the noble Lords opposite that if they talk to the farmers and those in the industry in rural areas, as I and other Ministers responsible for agriculture have done, they will find that those people are annoyed at the bickering 673 that has gone on while their livelihoods are at stake. They are surprised that the party opposite has become so interested in this matter when the extent of the commitment to UK agriculture in the 1992 manifesto of the party opposite amounted to two sentences. One could write what that party stated about UK agriculture in that manifesto on the back of a bus ticket.
It surprises farmers and others in the agricultural community when suddenly the party opposite decides this is a party political issue in which it wishes to become involved. Our commitment to that industry and to rural areas where the beef industry is so vital is complete. We want to maintain the viability of that industry and the jobs that it supports. We want the quality and the safety of the product to be paramount. We want the support that the beef industry gives to jobs and to livelihoods to be secure.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, made a useful contribution when he set out the scientific background to the current BSE scare. As I think he implicitly acknowledged, this is an area of complex science and of as yet unanswered questions, even as regards those who know more about this than the rest of their scientific colleagues. The noble Lord stressed that we should be pursuing a slaughter policy. However, the scientists have never suggested that. We know that the science that we have promptly taken on board is working in that the number of cases of BSE in this country has fallen considerably and quickly. The most surprising thing was that the noble Lord opposite failed to condemn the EU ban. It is disproportionate, illogical and irrational. It is based on not one shred of scientific evidence. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, will find it in himself to condemn that ban.
We shall not be bullied by Europe on this matter. In particular, we shall not be bullied into carrying out a mass cull which would devastate our national herd for years to come and place us at a grave disadvantage in the market, if there are no scientific grounds to support it. We shall not burn the sacrificial calf to placate European competitors who have ruthlessly manipulated health concerns to distort the market in their favour. If there is a scientific basis for such action, we shall of course do so. But if it is based on malevolence or on ignorance, it would be crazy to do so.
The beef industry is a great industry. It is almost part of our national identity. We know that the people involved in it are worried about their future. But we have brought forward the actions. We are determined to deliver to that industry the secure future that it deserves. It produces a great product and it deserves a great future.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, has been wise to put down this Motion today because it is a timely occasion for it. We are concerned to have an effective and sensible way of dealing with the consequences of panic. There is no doubt that that is the right way of putting it. I do not wish to go over the inept way—even the most partisan supporter of the Government cannot congratulate the Government Ministers—in which they dealt with the problem 674 initially. One cannot go publicly on television and talk about the slaughter of 10 million animals without any kind of reference to time and not expect public panic; and that is what happened. That panic extended to Europe and there has been a great deal of politicising about the issue since. Eurosceptics felt that they could climb on a bandwagon to blame Europe for a panic that was really started in this country.
All that is now water under the bridge. We are now concerned with the effective means of dealing with the situation. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, was right to call for consistent and coherent policies to deal with the situation that now faces us.
I deal first with the question of public confidence. Although no direct evidence of a link between BSE and the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease exists, there is serious circumstantial evidence to suggest a possible link with the new strain of human disease which has taken the lives of 11 young people. Therefore, it is quite right that we should take a very serious view and that the public should be safeguarded as reasonably as possible. But the whole issue must be kept in perspective.
On 3rd April, when commenting on the previous and much less constructive Statement made on that day compared with the Statement made yesterday, I quoted the letter from the distinguished Fellow of the Royal Society, Sir Christopher Cockerell, in The Times. It states:This means that on present data the odds against dying by eating beef are at least half a million to one against. Crossing a road is many times more dangerous".It is right that on the information that we have, the best scientific analysis that we have, it is much more dangerous to smoke, drink or to cross a road than to eat beef in any form. That is not to wish the problem away; but it is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, indicated, to have a pooling of information of the research done not only in this country but also on the Continent and in the United States. I hope that that will be done.
I believe that the measures taken yesterday are nearly all to be commended with certain reservations. The Minister of Agriculture announced yesterday that,So far as manufacturers are concerned, on 12th April I amended the Emergency Control Order to allow imports of beef from animals over 30 months of age produced in certain third countries traditionally supplying the UK in which there is no history of BSE".—[Official Report, Commons 16/4/96; col. 599.]From countries where there is no history of BSE, mature beef is being imported into this country for manufacturing purposes. I do not disagree with that. However, I wish to raise the policy of selective slaughtering. I raised the issue previously and I cited my own herd—it is in no way exceptional—where there has not been a single incidence of BSE during its 30 year existence. There are many such herds in this country. Some are extremely valuable. If we can import beef from other countries which supplied us which are not affected by BSE, why can we not use the same beef from safe herds in our own country?
The Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, asks for consistent and coherent policies. How can that particular policy of the Secretary of State 675 be described as consistent and coherent? Slaughtering millions of animals unnecessarily will cost a fantastic amount of money whether we or the Common Market find the money. If it is unnecessary, then we should be much more circumspect about that policy.
As I gathered, there has been a debate within the Common Market as to whether a selective policy of slaughtering was to be preferred. I understand that the Minister of Agriculture is still looking into the matter. The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, referred to the 20 per cent. drop in consumption; it is back to 80 per cent. If there were a 20 per cent. drop in the Stock Exchange there would be total panic. Weeks have gone by, and slaughtering now in certain areas is back to 80 per cent. of what it used to be; that still indicates a tremendous crisis. Therefore the Government owe it to the country and to the consumer to take a more measured approach to the problem. The consumers need reassuring; they need reassuring on scientific evidence; and the farming community, which has suffered the effects of the panic caused by the ineptitude of the Government, need more efficient and fairer proposals for compensation than they have been provided with at present.
§ 3.37 p.m.
§ Lord Grantchester
My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity to make my first speech in this House, on a subject which is of vital importance to the well-being of the nation and is even more crucial for the future of the beef industry. It is also of direct relevance to me personally and, accordingly, I would like to declare an interest.
I am a dairy farmer in Cheshire, where I milk 300 head of cattle on 400 acres. I was lucky enough to be awarded the Premier Breeders award at the Royal Agricultural Show every year from 1989 to 1994.
However, like every other cattle farmer, the future of my business has been placed in jeopardy by the Government's handling of the scares about BSE. I have had BSE in my herd—not when the disease was at its most prevalent from cattle born in the 1980s but, rather disturbingly, in 1995 from cattle born in 1991.
Farmers and consumers have, quite rightly, looked to the Government to offer advice and to set out clear policies to tackle the problem. Instead, the ministerial Statements made on 20th March and subsequently have caused complete turmoil.
The Government are supposedly making policy on the basis of scientific facts but this whole furore has been caused by a speculative and uncorroborated statement that CJD may—I stress, may—be linked to exposure to BSE prior to the SBO ban in 1989. Yet all the UK control measures have up to now been based on the assumption that BSE may be transmissible to man.
Since then, we have heard of cases of CJD in Europe, which shows that it is not just a British problem. And now we hear from Dr. Gareth Roberts of the London Medical College that it is likely that there has been quite 676 a lot of misdiagnoses of death occurring prior to the discovery of BSE in cattle that can now be attributable to CJD.
But Ministers made their Statements without consulting the farming industry, the scientific community or our partners in Europe.
The scientific community has consistently differed in its views on the disease. And it is still a matter for academic debate whether or not scrapie has in fact made the "species jump" from sheep to cattle.
The constant drip of further measures to be introduced has reinforced the perception that the Government are doing too little, too late. The end result of the Government's dithering and indecision has been to tear public confidence to shreds. The same applies in the farming industry.
There is also a widespread suspicion that financial criteria are more important to the Government than the nation's health. This was reinforced when the implications of the Government's proposals became apparent. Prior to the recent scare, it took 18 months to persuade the Government to raise the compensation paid to farmers from 50 per cent. to 100 per cent. of slaughter value, but even that is often below market value. How small is the £4 million saving during these 18 months against the cost of measures announced yesterday!
Nor can public confidence have been helped by revelations that sections of the industry have been less than scrupulous in adhering to the regulations. Let me mention just a couple of examples: the inclusion of potential contaminants in cattle feed; the hazardous handling of SBOs by abattoirs. A recent sample found that 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses were found to be failing in their handling of SBOs, and that as late as the end of last year.
There has been a lack of monitoring of feed mills. Feed merchants still do not openly declare the list of ingredients to farmers. Can the Government bring forward legislation on this as a matter of urgency? There has also been a lack of monitoring of the rendering process and of abattoirs. The staining of prohibited offals and the establishment of the Meat Hygiene Service only occurred in April 1995. There is also the possibility that waste products may have been included in mechanically recovered meat. Bonemeal was still included in feed for pigs and poultry right up to three weeks ago.
All these practices have, of course, been taking place even though so little knowledge is available of the disease. We know that just one gramme of BSE-infected material fed by mouth to a calf will produce BSE in that calf. But what do we know about the dosage, incubation periods and susceptibility in humans, and at the different stages in the process of changes in practices in slaughterhouses? Are scientists now convinced that every avenue of possible infection has been closed? Are Ministers convinced? The answers to those questions are crucial to restoring the public's confidence. But the public are still waiting and meanwhile dairy farmers cannot sell their cattle.
677 A lot of British beef has been replaced by imports as a means of allaying public concerns. But I wonder what thought has been given to the likely explosive reaction when imported beef is found to be potentially more dangerous than the British beef we now propose to destroy. Millions of tonnes of feed containing bonemeal were exported and used on the Continent while it was still being used in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. At the same time, vast numbers of breeding stock were exported. It would be logical to assume that there have been far more cases of BSE than have been declared. Thus, there is every possibility that BSE could he reimported. It is well understood by farmers that the authorities in Europe are not averse to making use of Lord Nelson's eye.
To restore confidence in British beef and the farming industry, the Government must insist that the European Commission publish the facts on the measures taken in Europe to safeguard public health. How well observed are the regulations governing abattoirs and the slaughtering process? How do our measures to safeguard the consumer compare with those in other European countries? We must stop being defensive and highlight the safety measures taken uniquely in this country.
It is a fact that the number of confirmed BSE cases in the UK fell from 36,000 in 1992 to 14,000 last year. That amounts to just 0.4 per cent. of the cattle population. Here in Britain we are at the leading edge of expertise on this disease. That expertise must lead the way and not be sidelined by Europe's Standing Veterinary Committee. The first priority must be public health. We need to restore the public's confidence. The survival of the meat industry depends on it.
What is needed is a major publicity campaign highlighting all the facts and focusing on the measures being taken to tackle the BSE problem. We must not pander to hysteria and I welcome the British Veterinary Association's call to halt mass slaughtering and mass rejection of all carcasses over 30 months of age. The problem is not about infectious diseases in cattle. It is about excluding risks from the food chain.
The public know that clinical cases are incinerated. But they need to know about the measures being taken to stop sub-clinical cases reaching their dinner plates. By this I mean the measures taken since 1988 to deal with the rejection of the host site for the ineffective agent. Now the European Union demands rejection from the food chain of all cattle over 30 months, supposedly to reduce further the potential risk of sub-clinical cases entering the food chain. But the meat will be clear of the infectious agent in any event, due to the safety measures already implemented. A mass slaughter would mean the rejection and quite immoral waste of millions of tonnes of healthy food. Surely we can be more intelligent than that?
Remember, my Lords, only 0.4 per cent. of cattle have been diagnosed as having BSE. The number of sub-clinical cases is estimated at perhaps twice the clinical number. Trying to find each one would be like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Only last week a breakthrough, as reported in the New Scientist, was achieved in the United States at the California Institute of Technology to diagnose sub-clinical CJD in humans with more than 98 per cent. accuracy. Can the 678 Government invite these scientists, with funding and facilities, to develop their tests for identifying sub-clinical cases of BSE? I fear the case to reject meat for sub-clinical cases only has been already lost, following the ill-advised statement of 20th March. Perhaps this can be achieved over time, should development of this test successfully identify sub-clinical BSE.
What the Government must do is to adopt and promote a set of consistent and coherent policies with the following objectives: regaining scientific justification for the measures needed to deal with the problem; restraining scientists from making ill-advised suppositions (the media are quite capable of that); ending the cost-cutting features of policies which override and devalue everything done to protect animal and public health; ensuring adequate research into BSE, covering such facets as I have mentioned, plus research into genetic links and research into vertical transmission; and undertaking regular monitoring and inspection of abattoirs and rendering plants to ensure maximum adherence.
From this it follows that the Government must address a number of issues: how they consider the results and implications of research before publication; how they announce findings; the public response to announcements; their proposals for action, including legislation; their implementation and enforcement of orders; and their monitoring of the impact of changes, especially including financial assistance so structured as to avoid the encouragement of deceit and fraud.
Most immediately, the industry demands an immediate end to the crippling uncertainty. The announcements yesterday go a long way towards stabilising the beef industry, but do not address those issues of public confidence. Administrative details still need to be announced. Agriculture is a long-term business that needs confidence in its future to undertake the necessary investment for returns that are often not immediate but materialise years later. If, or rather when, I hope, the ban on British beef is lifted, there must also be a lifting of restrictions on British genetic material, by which I mean stock and embryos which are also banned. What is the justification for leaving that ban in force? In the dairy industry, British genetics—by which I mean dairy cattle and embryos—have been banned from export for many years already due to the scourge of BSE. A prosperous industry demands unfettered access to the world market.
BSE is undermining the prosperity and recognition of a great British industry. I despair at the Government's handling of the situation. If they do not take measures to restore public confidence, the industry could be fatally undermined. It will take a long time to recover from this debacle in any case, but if the Government do not get it right and get it right quickly, it will not happen in my lifetime.
§ 3.49 p.m.
§ Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
My Lords, it is a delight to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, on a most thoughtful maiden speech. As a livestock farmer, he has brought to the House very personal and pertinent observations on how the BSE 679 crisis evolved. He also posed some critical questions of which I hope the House will take note. They certainly require answers.
The crisis that we face has its origin in what one might call media hyperbole, a total disregard of scientific facts on the part of the European Union and the imposition of controls mediated by political imperatives—as indeed was fully admitted by Franz Fischler, the European Union Commissioner. Some noble Lords may have seen a leader article in the Telegraph this morning stating:They will eat our beef, but refuse to eat their words".That is a very pertinent comment.
The present ban on British beef, Decision 96/239/EC, was imposed contrary to the advice of several committees. I shall not bore the House by listing them. It is of great regret to me as a veterinarian to note that the Standing Veterinary Committee of the EC voted 14 to 1 (the one vote against was that of our own Chief Veterinary Officer) despite the advice from the expert Veterinary Committee, which is slightly different from the standing committee, that spongiform encephalopathy is not derived from BSE cattle under the present regulations on dealing with cattle in our slaughterhouses.
It might be of interest to noble Lords to glance briefly at the evidence that was ignored, since it is pertinent to comments that may be made later in the debate. First, it is possible that BSE has been with us much longer than we think. Many veterinarians who are a bit longer in the tooth than the present number can recall cases which, in this modern day, would be described as BSE but in those days were not recognised as such.
Despite that, over the past 10 years there has been a massive increase in spongiform encephalopathy in cattle (BSE): 154,000 cases have been diagnosed and slaughtered. But in that time there has been no relationship of the human disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, to that massive increase in BSE. Indeed, there are more CJD cases per million of population in countries where there is no BSE or where BSE is present to a very minor degree.
Similarly, in a study of the occupation of CJD patients over the past 10 years, there has been no case of CJD in abattoir workers, in knackering workers, veterinarians or butchers. One might have expected such people, at high risk from contact with cattle and their various products, to have shown some indication of a susceptibility. Indeed, professional drivers are one of the groups at highest risk from CJD in this country, while vicars are the highest risk group of all—one is not too certain why that should be so!
Despite all the evidence, of which there is a great deal, public confidence is to be placated by what can only be described as a slaughter of innocents. Tens of thousands of British calves are to be slaughtered in Holland and France; in the United States all imported British livestock is to be slaughtered; and in this country 15,000 cull animals are to be disposed of every week. Admittedly, they would have gone into the food chain, 680 but they will be discarded. My profession feels that that is a waste of good beef. Among those 15,000, some 200 probably might suffer from BSE.
The Government's approach, as stated yesterday, is welcome in that it is a return to the scientific basis of BSE and CJD. However, much still needs to be done to ensure the return of public confidence with respect to British beef. While financial aid is welcome in the various sectors of the industry, very rigorous application of the existing regulations must be a coherent approach to the control of the disease and its eventual eradication. There must be very rigorous supervision by the Meat Hygiene Service and by veterinarians. And it is to be hoped that the manpower situation that has been threatening the State Veterinary Service, which is crucial in relation to this matter, will not be applied as rigorously as was indicated.
As the Royal Society stated, there is a need for more research on BSE and CJD, both at a basic level as to the infectious agent, about which still not a great deal is known, and also at the very practical level of the development of a diagnostic test. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, about a test being put forward as a viable means of diagnosing BSE in cattle, both in the living animal and in the carcass. Obviously, that must be undertaken and evaluated. Finally, as was mentioned by other speakers, positive steps must be taken to generate confidence by means of a much more aggressive and measured information service to the public based on the science of the situation. The British public will believe the science if it is put to them in an effective way.
§ 3.56 p.m.
§ Lord Winston
My Lords, time is short and I shall try to be as brief as possible. First, it might be helpful if I, as a medical person, try to give some background to the nature of the human disease. It is highly relevant to how we examine this issue. As noble Lords will understand, I know nothing about farm animals. The only animals I have kept have been rabbits—mostly for my children, and also, I must say, for certain breeding experiments of a very benign kind. So far as I know, rabbits do not appear to suffer from BSE, although many other animals, such as pigs, do.
The curious thing about this disease is that it is an entirely new phenomenon. It is caused effectively by a prion protein that is present in the brains of all of us; it is a normal protein. It is not the usual kind of infective agent, microvirus or bacterium. That is why, when the prion protein was first proposed—"prion" stands for "proteinaceous infective material"; it is a kind of portmanteau word—many people did not believe that it could exist because nobody could understand how a protein of this sort could exist without a previous genetic structure to cause it. However, it seems that that is so. What happens is that the protein in some way changes its shape. It expands, combines with other prion proteins in the brain and forms large cysts, and hence the spongy nature of the degenerative disease that has been so well described.
681 The human variation of this disease can be manifest in many different ways. It is very important for the House to understand that at least 25 per cent. of CJD is genetic in origin. It is related to a particular mutation on chromosome No. 20, and is quite unrelated to any infectious agent. It is also very clear from the medical literature that there are very strong possibilities that particular individuals, in both the animal and the human world, may have a genetic predisposition to forming this protein. That is very important; apart from anything else, it may actually be why by its nature this disease has been peculiarly strange and sporadic.
Clearly we must have more research into prion disease. That is taking place and it is important that it should do so. I would say cautiously to the House that we must be careful when we assess the latest reports of tests. We have just heard about a test being developed in California in conjunction with NIH. But there is no clear evidence at this stage that that test has been sufficiently developed and, indeed, it has not been published and subject to peer review. It is important, when we consider any scientific development, that there should be proper peer review.
One of the problems about the whole issue is that there has not always been adequate peer review. That has only come out afterwards and, consequently, there has been much more alarm than there genuinely needs to be. It is important not to knock the scientists, but to obtain collaborative ideas from other scientists as to just how important those observations are. There is some anxiety that the test in California may not be viable. I understand that one of the reasons it is being held up is because the scientists concerned want to draw out the patent before they publish.
It is clear also that we need to look at research as to how the disease is conveyed to humans, particularly whether oral ingestion is important, whether there is a predisposition in the gut—for example, if one smokes or drinks—which may change the mucus membrane. There is a range of conditions that we must consider as to what triggers the onset. There is a great deal to be done. Above all, there is a great need to look at the epidemiology. One of the problems is that no good epidemiological studies have been published.
Good medical opinion says that the hypothesis linking the human prion disease is by no means compatible with what we know in animals. If there is a clear link, one would have to say that the incidence of sporadic CJD and the incidence of BSE (the animal form) or scrapie, should be constant in the various countries. I have just taken one report from the Lancet which shows that in Iceland, where there is a high incidence of scrapie, the CJD incidence is only 0.27 in humans. In Britain, where there is an endemic situation, the scrapie incidence is 0.93, some three or four fold; in New Zealand where there are far more sheep than anywhere else in the world per head of population, the scrapie incidence is virtually nil but the CJD incidence is almost as high as it is in Britain. That is important because it argues that the link has yet to be clearly established.
I do not want to go on for too long, but I want to draw one important comment made recently in the British Medical Journal by Paul Brown. Paul Brown is 682 an important individual because he is the medical director of the United States Public Health Service. He comes from NIH, which is a respected body. In a leader in the British Medical Journal he says,1 am still astonished, in view of all of the earlier negative epidemiological and laboratory evidence concerning the risk of human infection from scrapie … and from the failure to detect infectivity in the muscle of cattle … that human infection might be occurring from the ingestion of beef (or, even more improbably, from milk). Especially distressing is the fact that no unusual dietary history characterises these cases…for example, the regular ingestion of calf brain, black puddings, sausage, tripe",or indeed of offal. He goes on to point out that it would be an ironic event if 11 million head of beef were slaughtered in a pre-emptive strike to eliminate the risk of zoonotic Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, only to find belatedly that the true villains were pigs or chickens which had been fed meal at a young age and the disease had not yet become manifest in those species. It is important that we recognise that.
I should like to conclude by making a few brief suggestions. First, if we slaughter herds we must monitor the situation carefully by random testing of the animals. We must avoid playing Russian roulette with those cattle; we need to develop in vivo and in vitro tests for looking at the disease and there must be European co-operation. It is not fair to point to the Labour Party and say that this is party political. It is confusing to the public when very little information is given out. Frankly, we were disturbed on this side of the House by the paucity of the information in the original Statement from the Government and we said so.
Above all, there needs to be better promulgation of scientific evidence. The noble Lord, Lord Prior, made an important point yesterday when he pointed out that much of the problem related to the lack of information. We have to recognise that these expert committees meet in private; the evidence is kept under wraps and their conclusions are published in short, bald statements. It is only subsequently that we obtain the peer review information. Perhaps we should look at a way of promulgating the information so that we do not experience more medical scares of this kind in the future.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Lord Porter of Luddenham
My Lords, first, I apologise that, owing to a long-standing engagement for this evening, I am unable to stay until the end of this important debate. I very much regret that.
Many people, rightly, looked to the scientific community for guidance in relation to BSE and its possible connection with CJD—the form found in humans. The Government acknowledged that guidance, though other less reasonable factors—political or emotive and far from scientific—unfortunately often take charge.
The Royal Society, to which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, kindly referred, has been concerned with this subject for some years. Indeed, it held authoritative briefings for science journalists as well as international conferences of the leading experts three or four years ago. The facts to date were 683 summarised on the 2nd of this month by the president, Sir Aaron Klug. It is worth referring to what he said, though it has already been referred to in part. Sir Aaron Klug said that, while it is well established that, although the sheep form of the disease known as scrapie is known not to affect humans, it is entirely possible that BSE could affect humans. That is as far as he would go and as far as it would be wise to go. Unfortunately, I fear, it is not far enough for the general public to be reassured.
BSE is particularly difficult to study. However, scientific experiments currently under way are due to be completed within the next year and should help to establish whether or not there is a connection. That is the good news from the Royal Society; we may only have to wait until next year. In the meantime, rigorous implementation to remove infectious material from the human and animal food chains should lead to a considerable lowering of the risk of exposure of humans to BSE.
Several possible approaches to inhibiting or treating BSE are being actively investigated. Further approaches could emerge from continuing basic research in the general area of prion diseases. The message from all that is loud and clear: basic research in this area, as in all areas, should be supported fully so that, when problems of this kind arise, the basic information is available when we need it. What we know today has come from research undertaken on the initiative of individual scientists and the institute of animal health supported by the biological and medical research councils over the past 20 years. Without that research today's debate would be taking place in total darkness. The obscurity that remains—and it is great—can only be removed by further research aimed at understanding rather than by a short-term fix.
It is doubtful whether that kind of research would ever be undertaken by the private sector, whose priorities are naturally based on wealth creation, as are those of government exercises like technology foresight. I have been unable to find, after a rather cursory examination of the reports, any reference to the importance of extending research on CJD, presumably because it was not perceived to be wealth creating. That is surely a very big mistake. A better understanding could perhaps have saved the billions of pounds that our ignorance is likely to cost us.
In conclusion, perhaps I may quote from a speech given some time ago on the importance of supporting fundamental research:If we disregard the need to carry on fundamental science and continued research, we shall deny ourselves the solutions to many problems which will arise years hence. We do not know what the application will be. We only know that unless we continue this kind of research and put a good deal of money into it we shall lack the capacity, in years to come, to make the maximum contribution to the future".Those are the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, spoken 20 years ago, and they still need to be heeded today.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Lord Biddulph
My Lords, we have all been following the BSE crisis with considerable concern. As news came in of the reports by government scientists on the possible link between CJD in humans and BSE in cattle, followed by the Government's Statement and then swiftly the EU ban on all beef products to Europe and the world, I was not surprised that the British public were confused by what the media had to tell them. I wholeheartedly support the measures which the Government will be taking and which were given to us in yesterday's Statement and feel sure that they will help to reassure the farming industry and the general public, thus averting the collapse of the entire beef industry and its satellite industries on which the countryside depends for employment and a way of life.
Though I must confess I feel as nervous as a bull contemplating whether or not it might have BSE, I stand up and speak in defence of an industry which I know represents Britain at its best. British beef is the finest in the world, and I congratulate the Government on their determination to regain swiftly the public's confidence. We are told that already consumption of beef is at roughly 85 per cent. of pre-crisis levels and that cattle throughput in the markets is nearing 60 per cent. of previous levels. The goal must be to work towards the total eradication of BSE in British cattle and I hope that other European countries will follow the British lead and implement such policies.
Since the ban on feeding meat and bone meal to cattle in 1988, incidents of BSE have been dropping in the UK, from a high in 1992 of 36,681 cases to a figure of about 609 cases this year. Last year in Scotland there were 664 suspected cases, 0.03 per cent. of Scotland's 2.1 million herd. This year only 41 cases have been reported. It has been mentioned that incidents of BSE were fewer in Scotland than in Belgium this year. I am greatly relieved to hear that there is not going to be a mass slaughter, rather a selective cull in tens of thousands instead of millions. That would have been devastating to the industry and needless destruction, distressing to both farmers and animal lovers. I welcome the aid package of £1 billion to assist the whole industry to get back on its feet and that it will be coming into operation this month. The whole industry will feel ready to recover with this support.
I feel sure that the £500 million scheme to destroy cattle over 30 months old is the key element in reducing the risk of BSE entering the food chain. I particularly like the idea that animals could have passports within quality assurance schemes. One third of Scotland's 18,000 beef farmers are already part of a quality assurance scheme run by the Scottish Beef and Lamb Association, quality certificates being awarded to those farms which can prove that there have been no cases of BSE in their herds in the past six years. I also hope that government scientists are working on a live test for BSE in cattle. This could be usefully added to such a passport scheme. Perhaps we could be updated on that as it has already been mentioned today but was not in yesterday's Statement.
685 In the light of the events of the past few days, especially the comments made by the EU farms commissioner, Franz Fischler, that British beef was safe to eat and that the ban on beef products was imposed to ring-fence Britain to protect European markets from collapsing and not on scientific but economic grounds, I feel sure that with the measures the Government are now taking this should be sufficient to convince the EU agriculture ministers totally to lift all restrictions on British beef.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Elis-Thomas
My Lords, it falls to me to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Biddulph, on his maiden speech and in particular on bringing to the House an analysis of the economic importance of the beef industry to the countryside. I certainly look forward to hearing from him again on this subject and on related country interests which I know are at the heart of his own interests. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Grantchester on his maiden speech. He brought an agricultural expertise to the debate. I certainly look forward to hearing him as an agricultural spokesperson for the Cross-Benches in future debates.
The trouble with this issue is that because of its complexity we are in danger of failing to realise that it is in a sense no different from any other issue of public policy in that there is an issue of science and information; there is an issue of public health; there is an issue of communication on the part of government and through the media; there is an issue of the consumer market; and of course there is the economic issue for the producers and distributors within the trade. All those issues come together. However, we should realise that within the context of the agricultural industry we are dealing with an industry that has been inherently European at least since the beginning of the CAP in the 1960s.
The last thing we want to have in this debate is an argument between the Eurosceptics and the Europhiles in this House or anywhere else or to see the debate about the future of the beef industry degenerate into the running of a pre-referendum on a common currency or on relations between the UK and the rest of Europe. We should not be surprised that the European Commission should take a lead role in what is, after all, a major industry within a single market. We have already heard of the extent of the transfer of cattle throughout Europe and throughout the world. Therefore, we should not be surprised that there should be serious political and scientific discussions taking place in tandem. We cannot say that all market decisions should be based on scientific evidence; neither can we say that scientific evidence should have no place in market decisions. Those matters have to be taken together.
Some noble Lords have referred to European Commissioners making statements on the basis of trying to safeguard the market. I say to the House that it is part of the responsibility of the European Commission to safeguard the beef market throughout Europe—and that includes the United Kingdom. It should come as no surprise that the European Commission's position 686 should be an attempt to balance the interests of consumers and producers with that clear determinant of public health.
What concerns me about the history of this issue is how and why there does not appear to have been much closer collaboration between the UK and the other member states of the European Union in advance of the Statements in this House and in another place on 20th March. After all, there was a meeting of agriculture ministers on 18th and 19th March. Surely technical experts in the veterinary field as in all other scientific fields are continually discussing among each other within the European Union. Had it been possible for the scientific evidence, which appeared to be fresh evidence, to be shared at a much earlier stage, it is not impossible that much of the negative impact on the consumer market might have been avoided, in particular the income crisis hitting beef producers both in the agricultural community, where I have been privileged to live throughout my life, and in other parts of the UK. It is important for us now to ensure that the position taken by the next scientific veterinary committee, by the next veterinary standing committee and by the next meeting of EU agricultural ministers is a positive one.
In that sense much of the quality of the debate in the British media, including the Daily Telegraph this morning, is not helpful in trying to develop a concerted European position on this issue. We have to understand that we are dealing not just with the domestic consumer in the UK, but that we should also be looking at the interests of Irish, French and German farmers who have pursued a policy of eradication. We have to take cognizance of the fact that they are suffering from the reduction in the level of the beef market from having to implement intervention policies at a high scale as a result of the BSE scare, which seems to have emerged mainly from the UK. So there is a common interest here that we need to safeguard.
Finally, I say to the Government that it is extremely important that the economic position of the areas producing hill and store cattle, and those areas which are dependent on the early part of the beef production chain, should be safeguarded. I am well aware that both the NFU of England and Wales and the Farmers' Union of Wales have had discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Welsh Office about the early payment of the relevant premiums to ensure that any cash flow problems caused by the present crisis are ameliorated. The Minister's colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, speaks for the Welsh Office as well as for the Ministry of Agriculture in this House on these matters. I hope that he shall be able to respond positively on that issue.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, as usual, I have to declare an interest in that I normally summer-fatten cattle, but have been unable to do so this Spring because of the BSE crisis. If we have to apportion blame—I suppose that on occasions I have criticised my Front Bench—my view is that, even with hindsight, this disaster was one of those things that I would call an act of God or maybe an act of the Devil. Whether the Government should have had a contingency 687 plan, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, suggested, I know not. But I believe that the noble Lord was wrong in saying that this new strain was confined to the United Kingdom: in fact, I believe I am right in saying that there has been a case in France as well.
Make no mistake: I, and my fellow farmers, are angry about the handling of the BSE crisis. But the main finger of guilt points to our totally irresponsible media—I go further that. the noble Lord—and the European Commission for banning British beef for public relations and market supply reasons rather than health ones, so bringing the CAP into further disrepute.
I would have preferred to stick with the Government's original policy of excluding the most suspect parts of the carcass but, like the noble Lord, Lord Carter, I have to visit slaughterhouses and most of them find this procedure physically and technically extremely difficult. So, if only to be doubly sure that such situations do not occur—and we are all human—I am prepared to accept that there is a case for excluding those animals most at risk, which includes all those which might—I am using a great many "mights"—conceivably be developing BSE which, again I understand, are those over 30 months' old.
I understand that the Government are being forced to do more than this by instituting a selective cull. I do not know and I cannot envisage such a cull being in any way related to preventing any possible BSE cross-infection. I sincerely hope that the Government will resist it. I realise that if they do not come up with such a scheme, the EC may refuse to lift the ban on British beef. I hope that the EC will come to its senses when it considers the possible cost of banning British beef based on PR reasons rather than health reasons, as stated in an incredible statement, so far as I am concerned, by Herr Fischler the other day. I welcome the Government's decision, therefore, to take the matter to court.
The beef industry has been—and probably still is—in chaos. The EU intervention proposals are useless; so I, like my noble friend Lord Biddulph, welcome the measures taken by the Government yesterday that should bring—indeed, I believe that they have already brought—some stability to the market. It is now up to the whole of the industry, including farmers, to do their part in ensuring a return to normality. In a small way, and to practise what I preach, I shall enter the market next week.
To conclude, I hope that the BSE crisis has taught us the following lessons; first, the vital role, both economic and social, that the production of food still plays in our national life. I hope that we shall remember this when our extreme environmentalists tell us that we should look after the birds and the bees and our stonewalls before we look after our food production. Secondly, the silence of the animal rights activists appals me at the impending slaughter of vast numbers of cattle in sharp contrast, I am glad to say, to the BBA which appreciates not only the dreadful animal slaughter that may occur, but also the position of the farmer who has had to contemplate the needless slaughter of his animals which may possibly have been his life's work.
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, in company with many other Members of your Lordships' House, I have received briefing from the Country Landowners' Association, the CLA, and from the United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association (UKASTA). Reading the briefing, a small contradiction occurs between them which I hope the Minister will be able to clear up for me when he responds.
The CLA reminds us that the use of animal protein, as we have all heard ad nauseam in the past few weeks, was banned in cattle feed at the end of 1988, which took effect in 1989. The Government have reminded us of this many times. But UKASTA says that until 20th March 1996, which has just passed, MAFF continued to assure the industry that the use of animal protein in its feed was safe. As a result, UKASTA is so concerned about this, among other things, that there should be compensation for the now unusable stocks of feed which it has on its hands. I hope that the Minister can explain that.
If we have continued to feed animal protein to other species (which is probably the likely explanation) can we be satisfied that none of this feed has found its way to cattle? I understand, for example, that the feed bags do not have a list of ingredients on them. In some cases the feed looks quite similar. We need to be reassured that this aspect has been taken care of or that it is safe to give it to any other species. My noble friend Lord Winston referred to the possibility of pigs having BSE. I do not know whether that is a possibility or not; but if they are being fed on this protein, it seems to me that there is at least a risk. Not so long ago we were assured that it was perfectly safe to feed this protein to cattle, and now we are having to withdraw from that.
As the noble Lord, Lord Granchester, indicated, we must be satisfied that regulation and inspection of the rendering industry is complete. Is it not time that we applied the precautionary principle in this case as we do in so many other matters? So many of the practices which have been uncovered in the past few years are unnatural and distasteful to most people. There is something peculiarly unpleasant in discovering that cattle—undeniably herbivores—have not only been fed on animal protein, but have been induced to devour each other. It is just as revolting to me to discover that until 1988, as my noble friend Lord Richard listed for us, products sold for human consumption contained parts of the animal which most of us would reject, such as the tonsils, the larynx, the spinal chord and goodness knows what else. If those are offered for sale, we can buy them or refuse them. But if they are minced up and sold to us in processed food, we have no choice. That should not have happened in the first place and we must certainly ensure that it does not happen again. Are slaughterhouses well enough policed to make sure that those pieces are not used?
I understand that the Health and Safety Executive and, indeed for that matter, the environmental health officers at this moment are seriously under-resourced and under-staffed. It is extremely important that those regulatory authorities should have the resources to do 689 their job properly. We are not learning from our mistakes. We heard in the debate only yesterday in this House that the use of organophosphates in fish fanning is causing concern in some circles; and only a week or two ago, speaking to Members of Parliament and Peers at a meeting in this House, an eminent gastrologist mentioned—just in passing, as a kind of throw away line—that high fibre diets might have to be considered with caution because of the agrochemical residues in grain husks. So far as I know, that has not been picked up by the press. But if the medical profession thinks that, surely it is time that we thought about it, too.
We must develop a more sensible and sustainable approach to food production. The Soil Association can show the way to at least part of the solution. The association banned the feeding of animal protein to cattle as long ago as 1983 because it felt that it was an unnatural practice which could only have undesirable results. That was five years before the Ministry took any action and three years before it even suspected that action was necessary. Recent surveys of organic farms have shown very promising results on the incidence of BSE. Perhaps I may quote from the Soil Association's text, which states that:there has been no recorded case of BSE in any herd which has been managed organically since before 1985 and where no animals have been brought in from outside sources subsequently".There have been cases in herds which have recently converted to an organic system, but the animals had probably been contaminated before they came in. But it does at least point in a hopeful direction.
There is a demand for organic produce of all kinds which, I understand, has to be met from substantial imports. We do not supply enough in this country now. Moreover, the quality of what comes in from abroad is often very suspect. Surely it is time for the Government to consider giving better economic encouragement to organic farming in this country. Our system of support is well below that of other major European countries. I know that organic systems alone could not at present meet our needs. But surely the whole farming industry must be encouraged to adopt a more sensible and sustainable approach to food production, so that the lessons of this disaster are not lost.
It is a disaster. It is a disaster in which I am completely sympathetic to the loss of income to the farmers, to the loss of jobs and indeed, although I am not an animal rights activist, to the healthy animals which must be slaughtered to no purpose.
§ 4.34 p.m.
§ Lord Crickhowell
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, spoke strongly of the innocence of Opposition spokesmen of any contribution to this crisis. But I put my name on the list of speakers because of my anger at the conduct of Mr. Blair who seems to me to have breached the convention that Leaders of the Opposition choose their words with great care when faced with grave emergencies. That anger has been reinforced by the ignorant antics of the Consumers' Association and by those sections of the media which so enthusiastically fuelled the panic. Careless talk can have devastating consequences. We have to find a better 690 way of dealing with legitimate public concern about health before we are overwhelmed by the next event in a cycle of scares of which this one will not be the last. The facts got lost beneath the screaming headlines.
CJD occurs worldwide at a rate of between 0.5 and 1 per million per annum. The UK's annual rate has remained within those limits. It was 0.92 per million in 1994, and the provisional figure for 1995 is 0.64 per million. Mike Painter, consultant in communicable disease control at Manchester and a member of SEAC, commented:It is fair to say that the risk of eating beef in 1996 has to be many orders of magnitude less than it was pre–1989 … whether that now equates to zero risk is impossible to say but it is enough for me not to stop eating beef.The World Health Organisation confirmed the judgment of our own experts, saying that,there is little risk of human contamination from BSE".And Franz Fischler, the EU Commissioner, has belatedly acknowledged that there is no medical reason not to eat beef.
The epidemic peaked in Britain in January 1993 at about 1,000 cases per week. The numbers fell 30 per cent. from 1993 to 1994; 40 per cent. from 1994 to 1995; and 27.5 per cent. so far this year, to about 300 cases per week. The evidence indicates that the disease is spread through feedstuffs and not animal contact and that the numbers will continue to decline sharply.
The British Parliament will need very convincing evidence before it agrees even to a limited and selective cull, tightly targeted on animals most likely to be incubating BSE, as my noble friend Lord Lindsay said yesterday. That evidence will need to show that such a cull would significantly speed up the already sharp decline in the number of infected cattle and, crucially, trigger a lifting of the European ban.
There has been much criticism of the Ministry of Agriculture. It has been faced with issues of great technical complexity, as the Statement yesterday so clearly revealed. In such circumstances it is far better to consult and get things right rather than be pushed by those who shout loudest into taking measures that are flawed. I believe that the Government have their package about right, but they now have to persuade the rest of the world.
It is easier to fight a war than a food scare. The rules of war are known; experience and expertise are almost unlimited. Science is different. It provides few absolute certainties. As A.H. Byatt has observed, it is like a story. It changes and develops as new facts are proved and old facts found to be false. The trouble is that with BSE and CJD we are not dealing with a story so much as with a myth of Wagnerian proportions.
Mr. Hogg has been criticised for not satisfying our European partners. He deserves our congratulations for standing firm against their unreasonable demands and challenging the intolerable ban on British beef. But the Europeans are angry and frightened too. The presentation of our measures will now need to he most skilfully handled, which, I suppose, is where a limited cull may play a part. Our European partners need to be reminded that, far from ending the crisis, they risk 691 making it worse across Europe as a whole. If they persist in demanding large-scale slaughter, what happens when it becomes clear that there are a larger number of cases of BSE on the Continent than have yet been detected or reported and that the recently reported death of a Frenchman from a strain of CJD similar to the British version is not an isolated incident.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, pooh-poohed the idea that there may be a significant number of cases outside the UK. But already the disease has been identified in cattle in almost a dozen countries and the evidence is that in only some of them did it originate with British exports. Without a tight control on the trade in feedstuffs, which I do not believe exists, it would be surprising if cases did not continue to appear outside Britain. To begin a policy here that may lead Europe inexorably down the road to the slaughter of millions of cattle across the Continent for no good scientific reason would be madness. That is a point which perhaps we should put to our European partners in the coming days.
Against that background of hysteria, I take comfort from the good sense of a large section of the British public. When offered beef at below the normal price, people rushed to buy so that sales are now recovering. I suspect that the Financial Times is right in suggesting today that it will not be long before we have a beef shortage and prices higher than people like. I do not believe that panic is removed by taking panic measures. For goodness sake, let us stick to those necessary steps demanded by fact and not by myth, or by selfish economic interests.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Lord Moran
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in that my wife has a small herd of Welsh black cattle, which is happily free of BSE. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said yesterday about the notably helpful replies given by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, to our questions throughout the whole of this crisis. It is a relief to learn from the last Statement that beef consumption in this country has recovered to the extent that it has, but we still have the problem of the monstrous EU ban. The prospects for its early removal appear to be dim. Our partners continue to insist on a mass slaughter of cattle in this country. The Minister made clear yesterday that that was an option which he absolutely dismissed. We learn that the United Kingdom proposes to go to the European Court. I am not a lawyer, but I understand that it takes a very long time for a decision to be reached. In addition, will it not be argued by the Commission that we have long since handed over responsibility for trade to the Community and therefore it can do what it likes, whether or not that is reasonable?
In view of the devastating nature of the EU ban, is it not essential to do something now to prevent further damage? Yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, suggested that retaliation ought to be considered. If we did that, I believe that we would be justified in stopping imports of agricultural products from the EU, including perhaps wine, until the ban was lifted. In the light of the enormous damage that has been done to our interests by this ban and the CAP and CFP 692 generally, should we not begin to take notice of those of our partners who appear to be convinced that we have no place in a fully integrated Europe and begin to consider a purely economic association with the Union?
Perhaps the noble Lord will deal with one or two matters when he winds up. First, what will happen to BSE-free herds? When will the restrictions be lifted from them? Will there be a register of such herds? What is to happen to rare breeds and pedigree herds? Will consideration be given to separating the beef sector from the dairy sector to a greater extent than at present? Above all, there is a question about labelling. Both consumers and farmers are entitled to know what is in what they buy. I have seen feedbags on farms which simply refer to 17 per cent. protein. That does not seem to me to be adequate or good enough. In an editorial in the New Scientist on 30th March 1996 it was said:If Science Week means anything, it is that people have a right to the facts, and should develop a critical understanding of the world they live in. More open debate on how our food is produced and processed is much needed … Another spin-off might be a move to eliminate the worst excesses of intensive farming".I believe that is right. In due course we need to be told more about the true origins of this disease. A lot has been said about whether it is related to animal feed or a rise in temperatures. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, described what was known at present. There still seem to me to be uncertainties. As with any other disaster, we ought to have an authoritative, independent and expert inquiry to establish the facts beyond any doubt.
Lastly, the other day there was talk of the Government getting rid of the Department of Transport. I believe that when all of this is over they should take a careful look at the responsibilities of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There is a widespread perception that the Ministry has been too cosy with big feed and chemical firms and that its responsibilities for food have not been given a high enough priority. I believe that a close look should also be taken at the Ministry's involvement in other high-tech experiments with animals which, in the light of this disaster, should be looked at with a very leery eye indeed.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Lord Middleton
My Lords, I too must declare a close interest in the outcome of the crisis in the beef industry, in that I am a director of a farming company with a dairy herd, a commercial beef breeding herd and a Charolais pedigree herd.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, called for coherence and consistency. I believe that his criticisms of the Government have been well answered by my noble friend Lord Lindsay. What has not been coherent or consistent with the best available scientific advice is the behaviour of the European Commission, in particular the Agriculture Commissioner and the Agriculture Ministers in Council. These Ministers represent member states which are in direct competition with the United Kingdom in satisfying an already shrinking European market in beef and veal.
Our home-produced beef has recently achieved notable penetration of this market across the Channel. Anything which damaged Great Britain's ability to 693 export live animals and beef could only be of benefit to our European competitors. What could be more damaging to the UK's export drive than a ban on our exports and a demand that our Ministers crawl back to Brussels with plans for what is called a targeted slaughter of productive animals from our national herd?
Together with my noble friend Lord Lindsay, I believe that these demands have little to do with public health and much to do with commerce. The demands of the Agricultural Council have also much to do with politics. There are some Ministers of member states who would link any financial contribution from Brussels to compensate a proposed hecatomb of British cattle with greater compliance by the United Kingdom in the wider field of policies put forward at the IGC.
I have two questions to put to the Minister following yesterday's Statement in both Houses. The first deals with scientific research, which has been referred to this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and other noble Lords. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government are aware of the recent work carried out by the California Institute of Technology which claims that CJD can be diagnosed with more than 98 per cent. accuracy? The scientists involved claim that the technique adopted could work equally well with BSE-infected cattle. If they are right, would it not be desirable that the claim be tested by inviting Mr. Harrington and his colleagues to this country to extend their work to BSE? It is vital to narrow down the policy of overkill which is so repugnant, not least to the veterinary profession.
If there is any inconsistency in the performance of the Government in an extremely difficult situation, it is the limited slaughter policy, coupled with the disposal of carcasses, to which the United Kingdom is already committed. It is inconsistent with scientific advice, which merely recommends removal of certain parts of the carcasses of older cattle. Yet it is an inconsistency that is fully supported by the beef industry as a measure which goes well beyond what is probably necessary to ensure food safety but which is an attempt to restore consumer confidence in beef.
On the question of confidence, an additional selective culling policy might well have the opposite effect. The public might assume that there really was a greater risk to health from our cattle than ministerial assurances have indicated and that those assurances are not to be trusted.
I turn therefore to the question of selective culling—that is, the slaughter of breeding animals in addition to those which have reached the end of their productive life. To agree to carry out, at the behest of our European competitors, a selective slaughter policy that would decimate our British herd and reduce our capacity to produce meat and milk without scientific evidence to justify it, would be looked on by our farmers as a disgraceful act of appeasement. I was therefore glad to hear in yesterday's Statement that the Government were not contemplating the slaughter of the whole herd. However, I must ask why additional selective culling is being contemplated at all. What scientific evidence do the Government possess to justify such a policy?
694 Listening to the Statement and reading the text, it might be inferred that the idea of an additional cull is being used as some kind of bargaining counter. In paragraph 22, the Minister said:I refer to the EC ban on UK exports and the possibility of selective culling".Referring to implementation of the additional selective cull, the Minister said in paragraph 25,So far as implementation is concerned, we would only go ahead … if there was a direct understanding about the lifting of the EC ban".—[Official Report, 16/4/96; col. 601.]That is like saying, "You lift the ban and we will shoot another few tens of thousands of cows". Is that what the Government are saying? I do not believe that that would be acceptable to the industry or to this House. I hope that the Minister will reassure us on that point.
The ban on our exports is wrong, wrong, wrong. It should be resisted. Its lifting must not be part of a deal. We must stand absolutely firm in demanding its unconditional withdrawal.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Lord Blease
My Lords, my intervention in this debate is directed towards the Northern Ireland aspects of the United Kingdom beef crisis. Like other noble Lords, I find that the time limit prevents me developing reasoned and constructive arguments in support of the brief points that I wish to make, points which I believe are consistent with the challenging and reasoned terms of the speech from my noble friend Lord Richard, the Leader of the Opposition.
I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful reply to the matters that I raised yesterday. It indicated that he is well apprised of the Northern Ireland aspects of the present problems of the United Kingdom beef industry. I was pleased to hear the tributes paid yesterday both in this House and in another place to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Denton of Wakefield, who is the Minister in charge of this issue in Northern Ireland. She is worthy of all the tributes that have been paid to her in that respect.
Whatever may be the relevant situation in this crisis for the United Kingdom as an entity, what has happened is indeed a disaster of increasing dimensions for the whole of the Northern Ireland economy unless widespread effective measures are immediately adopted and action taken. I am reliably informed that the beef industry in the United Kingdom accounts for 0.2 per cent. of the UK's gross domestic product. In Northern Ireland the proportion stands at 4 per cent. of the Province's GDP. It therefore appears to me that the Northern Ireland problem is 20 times greater than the United Kingdom figure indicates. That shows the serious consequences for employment in the Province and for the Northern Ireland economy. Perhaps the noble Lord who is to reply to the debate will comment on that.
It was claimed in the Statement yesterday that consumer confidence is returning. Mention has already been made of that aspect, but I think that it bears looking at again in the Northern Ireland context. Yesterday it was claimed that the UK consumption of beef stood at 695 85 per cent.—it is 80 per cent. today—of pre-crisis levels. The cattle throughput at abattoirs is now nearly 60 per cent. of its previous level. Although there has been some improvement in the retail sales of beef in Northern Ireland, it is far from the 85 per cent. figure that has been mentioned. Before the parliamentary Statement on BSE in March, the weekly throughput at Northern Ireland's abattoirs was 10,000 beef cattle. That was for the Northern Ireland, Great Britain and European beef markets. Today, instead of 10,000 cattle being slaughtered, a mere 700 cattle are being slaughtered per week. Therefore, the claimed consumption level of 85 per cent. does not in any conceivable way reflect the true situation in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the noble Lord who is to reply will reconsider the position taken in the Statement in terms of the effect on Northern Ireland.
A few weeks ago, after the first impact of the Government's announcement on the BSE-related risk of eating beef and beef products, there was an immediate outcry of public concern with consequential consumer resistance to beef in the Province. I am pleased to say that positive steps were taken by Province-wide organisations in Northern Ireland, representative of farmers, food producers, food processors, retailers, employers, consumer organisations, public health bodies and the trade unions. Joint consultations were arranged and constructive public statements were issued by the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland and by the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and particularly by Northern Ireland government departments. They have helped to bring the crisis under some overall control in terms of remedial action in the Province.
Four weeks ago the Northern Ireland Department of Economic Development formed a food processing industry emergency task force, under the chairmanship of the Permanent Secretary, Mr. Gerry Loughran. The importance of that organisation continuing its work should be fully explored. Perhaps it could enlarge the areas from which it draws its representatives. However, there is a need for a particular body to be established in Northern Ireland, especially in the light of the mention of the Intervention Board in yesterday's Statement. That is borne out by the 1995 report of the National Audit Office on the Intervention Board and preventing, detecting and acting on irregularities in agricultural produce. That should be magnified greatly in terms of the new work that has to be done.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Lord Wade of Chorlton
My Lords, I too must declare an interest as a farmer and director of a trading company which handles a great deal of beef around the world. I am conscious of the fact that in 1967 I lost two herds as a result of foot and mouth disease and that in 1923 my grandfather lost his herd, which would have been the first pedigree herd of Friesian cattle in the country had they not been slaughtered because of the same disease.
696 My experience of those two incidents makes me aware of the devastating impact of having one's herd destroyed. I am delighted that the Government have decided not to implement a slaughter policy but to take out of the food chain the animals which would have gone to slaughter in any event. I hope that they will never be persuaded to introduce a slaughter policy in respect of a matter which in no way makes that necessary.
I recently received information from Professor Phillip Thomas who, when I first met him, was a professor with the Atomic Energy Authority at Risley near Warrington. He is now a visiting professor at the City University in London. Among other things, he is a statistician. He sent me a detailed analysis of what one could expect as regards the number of cases of CJD in humans on the basis of available evidence. It accords closely with the comments made by noble Lords. Assuming an incubation period of 10 years there would be a peak rate of four cases per year. If the incubation period were 15 years there would be peak rate of 12 cases per year. If it were a 20-year incubation period the number of cases would be 40. That is in line with the existing number of cases of CJD. It amounts to a maximum risk of one in a million, which is exactly the same as driving a motor car for 50 miles. I appreciate the argument that any risk is a serious matter but it is important that we put the possibility of contracting CJD into balance. I believe that when the Government announced the risk they should have given a clearer analysis of it.
As I said, I am associated with a company involved in meat exports, and it is on that matter I wish to speak and ask my noble friend some questions. What is not yet clear is the position of the large amount of meat which was in the chain, on the high seas, or delivered to countries but which will not now be used. The licensing and export refund position is unclear. My noble friend Lord Lindsay will be well aware of the implications of the export refunds which could have been paid on the meat. Will that be returned? If not, can we have clarification of the matter? We have heard the Government's view but we have not heard whether it coincides with the Commission's view. Unless there is unanimity nothing will happen because the instructions to IBAP come from the Commission, not from our Government.
South Africa is the largest importer of British meat and has been for the past 12 months. Seventy per cent. of the meat now in "limboland" had been ordered by South Africa. It seems to me that it is not beyond the wit of man to have a discussion with the South African authorities who desperately need the meat. We can see that by reducing the price people in Britain, Denmark and Germany have been enticed to eat British meat after all the false condemnations and therefore perhaps investigating the export refunds on meat to South Africa would be a good way of dealing quickly with a serious situation. Although my noble friend may not be able to comment at the end of today's debate, I should like him to inform me of the steps which the Government might take to clear much of the meat that is now in the pipeline. It is frozen meat and, by the very nature of things, likely to be cow meat and therefore more than 697 30 months of age. There is a desperate need within the industry for action. Large companies whose livelihoods depend on the export of meat are receiving no money for it; as a consequence they are not paying bills further down the chain. My noble friend will be aware that the meat represents 30 per cent. of the total meat production of the UK; it is therefore an important aspect.
I am delighted that all noble Lords agree that the issue is most serious. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, was critical of the Government's handling of it. When one sees a crisis of such proportion there is a natural instinct to blame someone for not having handled it properly. Perhaps looking back the Government believe that they could have handled it differently. However, in order to put the noble Lord's thoughts into perspective it would have been helpful to understand exactly what noble Lords opposite would have done in such circumstances. Would they have taken a view different from that of the Government in trying to remove the ban? Or would they have accepted the ban? Would they have adopted a different approach to dealing with the problems relating to the meat and the farmers? Would there have been a positive policy on creating a marketing campaign as regards British beef in order to inform people of the product and its quality? It would be helpful if, when the noble Lord, Lord Carter, winds up, we can understand what practical steps the Opposition would take to deal with the situation.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, since he has referred to me, I will tell him one thing that I would not have done. I would not have telephoned the Commission half an hour before I made the Statement. I would have been very sure that Brussels knew exactly what was going on before I stood up in the other place.
§ 5.7 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, the events which trigger this debate are tragic and the effects on the farmers of this country are not to be underestimated. But we may pluck good out of evil and I, for one, see two possible healthy outcomes.
The less important is on the purely political scene. The people of this country are aware that an important event has happened, which may or may not be the major catastrophe it is intermittently being called but which in any case is certain to bring ruin to many, and that, as far as they can see, the reactions of their Government have been muddled, ill thought through and incompetent. It cannot be said that the impression on those of us nearer the centre of the political machine are very different.
The much more important effect is the exposure to the public gaze of the effects of letting a country's agriculture be dominated purely by economic factors. As the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said, we do not like the thought of turning animals into cannibals and as we realise that this is what we have been doing we may be emboldened to look again at some of our other practices such as the factory production of eggs and chickens, the overuse of artificial fertilisers and the misuse of harmful pesticides.
698 It is time we called a halt to many of these practices, if necessary withdrew from the CAP and started to put together a sane and humane policy for the land. I do not propose that we should revert to the cry of the last Liberal Prime Minister of "three acres and a cow", but I do suggest that we need to move in the direction of more organic farming, more mixed farming and less specialisation, more small farms and therefore, as a result of all these things, more humane treatment of animals.
I am well aware that in order that these things should happen and that farmers should at the same time have an adequate as well as a satisfying living it will cost money in the short term. And when I am asked where that money should come from I, this time, have no hesitation in going back to Lloyd George and saying that it should come from the pockets of the rich, who exist in large numbers in this otherwise very modestly wealthy country.
But this, though satisfying and worthwhile in its own right, is merely a short-term solution to a short-term problem. During the next 20 or 30 years world prices of food will undoubtedly be soaring as China comes on stream as a market and what we have now is a desperately small window in time before agriculture is seen as a milch-cow of money (if one will forgive the expression) in which to insert a regime of humanity.
There are more things in life than money and most of them are a great deal more important, as everyone of us who counts our blessings knows. Our blessings are usually our families, our jobs and the country in which we live. These are usually more important than money, important though that is.
If there should be any civilisation in 500 years' time, which is becoming more and more doubtful as we let loose more and more pestilential viruses on the world, it will be better that it is said, "This was a humane country which knew how to farm its land for the benefit of all, which looked after its livestock and conserved its soil", rather than, "This was the farming factory of the world which turned its animals into grotesque single-purpose machines; which in an over-populated country denuded its countryside and which in the process benefited only a rich, largely urban elite".
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Lord Cochrane of Cults
My Lords, I fear that there is little on which I can agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken except the need for consideration of what we do in farming with the need for a proper degree of humanity.
Before continuing, I must declare an interest in that I am a farmer and a landowner. However, I have no direct involvement with cattle and have not had any for some years.
The BSE affair is an enormous disaster and I agree with an earlier speaker who said that it is perhaps the greatest disaster which has occurred in the farming experience of anybody here today. I fully agree with that. My experience is perhaps not as long as others, although I think that I now face my 47th harvest.
699 Over the years my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior has been kind enough to keep me informed about the development, advancement and retreat of BSE in accordance with calculations and forecasts made within the circle of great knowledge and distinction of the veterinary profession. Over the years, he has correctly predicted to me what was going to happen before it did. I wish that he were also a racing tipster.
We have heard about high risk occupational groups and how at present, ministers of religion seem particularly prone to this extraordinary disease, although probably just one extra person would be needed to tip the balance into another group. As noble Lords have said, the probability still remains at about one in a million.
Perhaps I may draw attention to a case about which my noble friend Lord Soulsby has told me recently. He was sent to a practice where there was a cattle beast in a dire state and none of the vets could think what was the matter. As a man of great experience, he walked in, looked at it, I dare say he pinched its ribs and said, "Rampant TB". The other vets did not know what the problem was because rampant TB has gone out of the general cattle stock in this country; although when I was a young boy, I can remember why tuberculin-tested milk was introduced.
That brings me to another point. Tuberculin-tested milk became possible only when a quick test of reasonable reliability for the existence of tuberculosis in cattle became available. As has been said, the need now, almost no matter what the cost, is to develop a tolerably reliable and quick test for the existence of BSE in cattle.
Perhaps I may now quote briefly from The Lancet of 6th April. Referring to new cases of CJD, it states:These cases appear to represent a new variant of CJD, which may be unique to the UK".We now know that it is not. The article continues,This raises the possibility that they are causally linked to BSE. Although this may be the most plausible explanation for this cluster of cases, a link with BSE cannot be confirmed on the basis of this evidence alone".We must go along with that as we must not build great programmes and edifices of destruction on conjectural evidence.
It is very tempting to indulge in an orgy of hindsight and say, "Of course, we could have dealt with this better; we could have dealt with it differently". It is my opinion that throughout this slowly growing and emerging disaster, which was not seen as a major problem initially because there was no reason to do so, the Government have acted with exemplary activity. They have taken sound advice and when suddenly overwhelmed by the media, they have, albeit that it has taken a month, produced a reasonably definitive answer. That has answered many of the points that have been made, although there are still a number of loose ends. However, that is an enormous step forward.
As I said, there is a mass of uncertainty in relation to this matter. Consumers are extraordinarily irrational sometimes. The behaviour of the European Community 700 defies reasonable description in your Lordships' House. The behaviour of the public is at best unpredictable and people act in their own interests.
Many years ago, at the time of the three-day week, it was rumoured that there was to be a salt shortage because sugar had become scarce. I cannot imagine how the two became linked but that rumour went about. The then Minister of Food made a Statement in Parliament saying that there was no shortage of salt. That resulted contrarily in panic buying and excellent sales of salt. After some time, the market collapsed. The Salt Manufacturers Federation tells me that even now there are 4 billion tonnes of unexploited salt under Cheshire. Therefore, we must not be surprised by the behaviour of consumers. We must do our best to make sure that information portrayed by all sectors of public information services is accurate and responsible. We shall then begin to see a way out of this fearful disaster.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, one of the intriguing facts or pieces of information to emerge this afternoon is that vicars seem to be more susceptible to CJD than other members of the community. There is a great temptation to suggest that this whole business is some act of God sent to punish the horrible farmers and our whole community for rearing animals in an unnatural way. I would argue that that is a rather nonsensical way to treat a very serious subject. It reminds me of the attitude that some people had when the scourge of AIDS started to appear on the scene.
One of the factors we need to consider when we think of vicars is that they are not well-paid. The risk is that they and their families will buy the cheaper cuts, the cheaper types of mince and so on. That may be a clue to their susceptibility.
It is all very well for large numbers of well-heeled government supporters to say, "Yes, we shall carry on eating beef." The chances are that the beef they will eat comes from pure beef herds bred for the production of nice succulent joints of beef. But that is not the reality for the vast majority of British citizens, or citizens of the European Union or the world.
I was absolutely appalled to hear on the radio this morning a report that British beef was offered to Danish consumers at vastly reduced prices and they actually bought it. That is likely to lead to fairly horrific results. If the worst fears of some of us are realised, effectively it will become a plague of poor people. It will barely touch rich people. We need to think very seriously about our response to that situation.
One of the difficulties we face is that the Government are almost institutionally antagonistic to regulations except, unfortunately, regulations as they apply to the payment of income support and housing benefit to poor people, which are very heavily regulated. When it comes to the regulations which provide for consumer safety in a whole range of spheres, the Government .are almost institutionally antagonistic.
In 1988 the Government told us, yes, there seemed to be a problem in relation to the feeding of animal protein-enhanced feedstuffs to cattle. It was not proved 701 but there seemed to be a causal link and therefore they were going to stop it. It was not exactly promised but it was implied that that would eradicate BSE from the British cattle herd. However, we heard this afternoon that BSE has not been eradicated. Eight years have passed since 1988, but I believe that we still had 14,000 cases last year. That is very frightening.
We heard the very able and expert information given by the noble Lord, Lord Granchester, in his maiden speech. He told us that he had a herd of 300 dairy cattle and that he recently had a case of BSE in an animal which was born in 1991. Given what the Government have said previously, that should lead us to have great cause for concern. It is probably true to say that the pure beef herds—if I may so describe them—which have no experience of BSE may be completely free and perfectly good to eat. However, I hope that the Government will accept, even at this late stage, that any herd which has any experience of BSE ought to be destroyed.
That would create grave problems for farmers like the noble Lord, Lord Granchester. But one way of alleviating the risk is for large herds, developed as the economic pressures of the common agricultural policy have come to bear, to be broken up so that no individual herd consists of large numbers of cattle. That would provide some means of protection initially to the Exchequer, but also to the farming community in that large numbers of stock would not be decimated.
We should heed carefully the words of my noble friend Lord Winston who, with the scientific authority he brings to the Chamber, said that we do not yet know the linkage between BSE and CJD. We do not know how BSE is, if you like, caught by one animal from another or, indeed, what is causing it. We must recognise that until we develop more scientific information we need to take action that will not just give confidence to the consumer in the British beef market but which will also ensure the safety of people, especially those poorer members of our community who may be very susceptible to purchasing cheaper cuts of meat and cheaper beef products which may, in the end, cause them to have a higher risk of developing CJD.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Lord Monk Bretton
My Lords, I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for initiating today's debate. I may not agree with everything that he said, but, nevertheless, I am happy to have the opportunity to speak. I have to declare an interest in dairy farming, and I duly do so. I should also say at once that, as things are, I am sorrier for the beef farmers than I am for myself as a dairy farmer. For that reason, there is one question that I should like to put to my noble friend the Minister. Will the Government monitor very carefully their package in connection with beef steers and heifers under 30 months, by which I mean will they watch what 702 they fetch in the market? Those prices could, possibly, go so low that to hold on to animals and not market them in order to draw the new allowance would become too attractive. That would be an undesirable situation and I hope that we may be able to avoid it.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, mentioned the 1980 decision about rendering plants. In that respect, I should like to say that I would not like to apportion blame over the matter. It was indeed a disaster, but I agree with my noble friend Lord Stanley in his attitude to it. There is one comment that I should like to make which arises from that issue. I am sure that one should commend the achievement of the central veterinary laboratory in identifying BSE in November 1986 and also commend it for the work that it carried out thereafter which led to the 1988 and 1989 regulations regarding taking blood and bonemeal out of cattle feed and taking offal out of cattle in the slaughterhouses. That was the linchpin that we got in place. It was most important for it to be done and I believe that it was done with great promptitude and ability.
I do not want to say very much in today's long debate, but I should like to draw attention to my interest in what is happening elsewhere in Europe. I suffer from somewhat of a dearth of information on the subject; and, therefore, I make various suppositions in certain areas. I am really anxious to know whether or not I am right. First, I am well aware that if you make a disease notifiable, introduce a slaughter policy and do not compensate, the disease goes underground. That is something that has happened a number of times in agricultural policies in our own country and, indeed, in others. I feel rather concerned and wonder very much about it when I gather that France has only reported 13 cases of BSE.
The second point that I should like to make about Europe is that we introduced slaughterhouse controls in 1989, but Europe introduced them last week. After all, it is known that Europe has the disease, although perhaps in smaller quantities than we have. When they find this disease in France they rush off and kill everything in sight around the reported case. That is really to go berserk and to take action beyond the needs of science. That is not a desperately intelligent policy. It is right to compare that situation—if it is not totally unfair, which I do not believe it is—with our actions here that I have already described.
I prefer British beef because I believe it is safer. I very much hope that one of these days McDonald's will take the advice that the Government no doubt originally gave. That might have a considerable impact on the public's view. I am glad that Commissioner Franz Fischler said what he did. It will help the beef industry and it will give us a case. We are right to take that case up. I am glad that the Government will do that. However slowly the wheels of justice grind, that will nevertheless put pressure on Brussels to do something about this ban. I am not anti-European; I am fully aware of the benefits that the European Community offers us all. However, I warn that the European Union's handling of the beef problem could 703 do the cause of Europe great harm with the British public if Brussels is not careful. That point must be made.
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Lord Poole
My Lords, I fear I must start with an apology because a longstanding engagement makes it impossible for me to remain for the whole of the debate. I apologise to the House and to the Minister.
If there is one truth that has come out of this episode, it is the fickleness of the consumer. Your Lordships will recall that four weeks ago Stephen Dorrell announced that there was an extremely small risk of contracting a rare brain disease from eating BSE infected meat. Since then, and on the back of that announcement, and reassurances from leading scientists that British beef was in the normal sense of the word safe, the beef market—as we have been hearing—has collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been put at risk and thousands of jobs have already been lost. A multi-billion pound industry has been brought to its knees.
There are signs that confidence is returning, as my noble friend Lord Lindsay said earlier. That is encouraging. Without a return of consumer confidence there can be no prospect of any sustained recovery at all in the beef industry. However, I fear that long-term damage has been inflicted on Britain's agricultural industry and it could take many years before rural economies fully recover.
There are of course implications for public expenditure in all of this. The very substantial package of support for the beef industry announced by Douglas Hogg yesterday is extremely welcome. Without it farmers, slaughtermen, renderers and others would have faced certain bankruptcy. I believe it is a well thought out and impressive policy and that we should commend Mr. Hogg for it. However, one cannot help but feel that hundreds of millions of pounds are to be spent because of a totally irrational spasm of public hysteria.
I do not blame the Government for that hysteria. In my view, Ministers had a duty to put any new scientific advice that they received from their experts into the public domain, and to do so immediately. Any cover up would have been a disaster. I am glad that Messrs. Dorrell and Hogg refused to countenance one. Having made the new information public, the Government have done everything possible to try to reassure the public that British beef is safe. I do not believe that any government of whatever complexion could—despite some of the remarks from across this Chamber—have handled the crisis better. But who is to blame for it, or should we be apportioning blame at all? There is no doubt that in this country public health scares can be sparked off by the slightest rumour or the remotest risk: witness recent scares over salmonella and the contraceptive pill.
However, I also believe that the media and some politicians have acted with what can only be called gross irresponsibility during this whole crisis. I remind the House of the front page headline in the 704 Daily Mail two days after the original Government announcement. It stated,It could be worse than AIDS".Other newspapers have behaved little better. There is some irony in the fact that it is only the Sun which has consistently urged its readers to act with a little common sense. The sad fact is that these days scaremongering sells newspapers. Gone, apparently, are the days when editors and journalists felt that they had a duty to report the truth as well as a duty to their shareholders.
However, it is not the media alone which has acted in this way. I believe that some politicians have behaved in an equally cavalier and irresponsible manner. The deliberate scaremongering by the Shadow Health Secretary and others was, frankly, a disgrace. The job of opposition is of course to scrutinise and criticise the Government. I have no problem with that; indeed, it is certainly an essential and good thing. But politicians who whip up public fears to serve narrow party political aims, and put thousands of jobs at risk in the process, are, frankly, the worst sort of demagogues. I hope that rural Britain will not forgive them.
Then there was the behaviour of the European Community. I fully understand the desire of other member states to shore up confidence in their domestic beef markets which have also suffered a crisis of confidence. However, the worldwide ban imposed by Europe on all British beef products has, I believe, done more than anything to bring about the collapse in consumer confidence in beef across the Union. It is wholly unjustified, either on scientific grounds—as indeed Commissioner Fischler and President Santer admitted over the weekend—or, I believe, on economic or commercial grounds. The European Union should lift that ban forthwith. I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement yesterday that the Government are to challenge the ban in the European Court of Justice. On the face of it, they must have a good case. The ban certainly goes against every principle inherent in the single market.
In conclusion, I hope the collective hysteria that has brought about the present crisis, and which is doing so much damage to our economy and our farming industries, will come to a speedy end. I commend my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture for the way in which he has tried to keep a calm head during all of this, and also for the comprehensive measures that he has taken to prop up the beef industry during these most difficult times. I call on all those who, through scaremongering and over-reaction, have done so much to damage British beef, to stop doing so immediately and to work with Mr. Hogg for a restoration of confidence.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the Minister of Agriculture saying on television that he would kill every cow in Britain added to hysteria?
§ 5.40 p.m.
Earl Baldwin of Bewdley
My Lords, I contribute to this debate, not as a farmer or scientist, but as someone 705 with a particular concern for health and the environment and with an interest in the way in which these issues are decided. Others of your Lordships have dealt with the twists and turns of policy and scientific advice, and I shall not take time in revisiting those.
In assessing what went wrong over BSE, and therefore what policies are needed in the future to protect consumers better, one can look, I think, at more than one level. I am concerned with the deeper level which so often gets overlooked, or if not overlooked, remains unstated for fear of being thought unfashionable or—horror of horrors in this modern age—unscientific. A columnist in The Times put it well the other day when he spoke of the importanceof working with the principles of nature and not against them".Now this is a difficult concept to pin down, I admit. But like many other principles in human life it is no less important for being hard to quantify. When the Soil Association, for example, took the decision in the early 1980s on no account to feed animal remains to organically reared herds, there was little science to support it. Indeed it could have been a classic case for that official, overworked and dangerous phrase, "There is no evidence to show"—in this case that cattle or humans would come to any harm. Rather, it was a decision based on common sense, on a feel for what was right and fitting in the natural order of things. This is the kind of approach that is all too often missing in our national policy-making, under the pressures of the market-place and a certain type of science. It is significant that the Soil Association reports no case of BSE among cattle born and reared organically—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, with whose arguments I felt myself very much in tune.
Let me give an example from quite another field, but one which I think has relevance. As a reader of the medical press, I have followed some of the recent debate about enabling women to conceive at the age of 60, or even older. Two things struck me. One was the contempt shown by some of the proponents for the reasoning of those who doubted the appropriateness of this. The other was that the argument that this might be against the principles of nature was nowhere to be seen. Whatever you may think of the argument, it was clearly too disreputable to be printed in a scientific journal. And so it risks going by default.
BST is another example: the hormone given to dairy cattle, for no therapeutic reason, to increase yet further their milk. I do not mind how many scientists assure us that "there is no evidence of harm to humans"—although, in fact, they do not all agree on this. It involves to my mind a degree of exploitation of long-suffering animals which goes beyond the bounds of acceptability, and should be resisted if need be on that account alone.
In farming, as in some areas of medicine, have we lost the wisdom in our pursuit of cleverness and profits? If, as I think, we have, then we need to get it back into our policy making pretty quickly, and this will involve a reappraisal of how much scientific evidence can be expected to achieve in an uncertain world.
706 I ought to add that I am no enemy of science, properly conducted, and that I see no conflict between it and common sense, intuition and morality. As joint chairman of the Parliamentary Group for Alternative and Complementary Medicine, I sometimes find myself begging practitioners to conduct their practice and research in a rational, scientific way. The two approaches should surely complement each other, and we disregard either at our peril.
I believe that the neglect of those basic principles is partly responsible for the distrust which the public feels towards both science and Government. Official assurances, as we know, are no longer believed. There are other strands, of course. One is the manifest conflict of interest in a Ministry with a duty towards both farmers and public. It is hard to see how any advice from MAFF on a subject such as BSE could be seen by a nervous public as other than tainted, especially in view of the secrecy—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston—that shrouds most official deliberations. While out of deference to time constraints I shall say no more on this, I would add my voice to those who call for an independent food agency as well as stronger consumer representation on committees such as SEAC.
This situation will not improve until the problem is tackled on a deeper level. We need wisdom as well as cleverness, sense as well as science. Only in this way will we get policies which have a real chance of ensuring food safety and protecting the interests of consumers. And in the long run, it will be best for the farming community too.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lord Burton
My Lords, first, I must declare an interest. If anyone wants to know my interest, I can tell them later, but it might take my full seven minutes.
My noble friend the Minister probably knows more about the subject than I do; he has worked untiringly on BSE over recent weeks. It gives me great pleasure to tell him how much his efforts, and the support he has had from the Secretary of State for Scotland, are appreciated. On behalf of many people, I should like to offer him sincere thanks.
I can only say that I am sorry that the Ministry of Agriculture has not shared in this appreciation. I have heard the Ministry described as being like a big ship without a rudder which has been fortunate to have had various NFUs working together like tugs to keep the ship straight; and the NFUs also deserve great credit for their efforts.
I am sure that more could have been done to enlighten the British public on the real state of affairs. To enlighten the European Union Ministers, who do not want to know, might have been harder. I have spoken with an eminent vet who has been at the heart of things in Brussels. His committee has consistently told its Ministers that there is little risk, little to worry about. I know that one vet from a country which I shall not name here has had a real up and downer with his Minister.
But only last Sunday lunchtime in the BBC programme "Country File", a retired neuropathologist—I think that was the description—told us that a calf could 707 be infected with BSE from its mother. I made a point of checking several eminent quarters and there seems to be absolutely no evidence for making that statement. It is totally irresponsible of the BBC to mislead the British public in that way.
It seems virtually certain that BSE is not transmitted by contact with infected animals. It is not transmitted genetically; indeed, it is caused only by eating infected food. Yet such information is, it seems, widely publicised. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, will take note. That is perhaps an example of how the public is not informed.
Surely it has now been found that animals which have developed the disease are mostly those known to have eaten infected food. One exception was a 27 month-old animal which developed the disease in 1993. But there seems to have been some chance that it ate pig food.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, in an excellent speech, told us that some of his cattle born in 1991 developed BSE. I wonder whether there was any possibility of access to poisoned food or even cross-contamination. If the disease comes from eating infected food only, why were feed pellets other than for cattle not banned until 4th April this year? Recently I bought pheasant feed and fortunately inquired as to what the protein consisted of. I had been supplied with pellets containing some of the meat and bonemeal which has caused so much trouble. Why was I not informed—along, I am sure, with many other buyers—of what was being sold? What would have happened if our cattle had got out and eaten some of the pellets or if we had possibly used the bags when we thought they were empty for transporting other animal feeds, as we did the previous year? We could quite easily have had BSE cross-infection. What the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said was timely.
What steps have been taken to ensure that manufacturers cleaned out their machinery before changing from one type of food to another? The proteins are sticky. Why were the first major outbreaks in 1988? Had it anything to do with the change in processing the feed following the explosion of a boiler in the premises of one manufacturer?
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moran, that food manufacturers have much to answer for. As further evidence of the trouble caused by cattle cake, there was an incident where a farmer changed from meat and bonemeal to fish meal with the result that only those of his cattle which had eaten the meat and bonemeal developed BSE. Those which had eaten fish meal showed no symptoms of mad cow disease.
Another example comes from Cumbria where a farmer died and left his herd to his two sons. The herd was divided, using alternative herd numbers. One half of the herd went to new premises. The brothers used different food mills. One brother's herd developed a bad case of BSE infection while the other had none. If one plays safe and uses 1989 as the cut-off date when meat and bonemeal were banned, then the only dangerous animals should be those of seven years and older which ate the contaminated food at some time during their 708 lives. A hundred and sixty thousand of those have already been removed from the food chain and old age is rapidly reducing the remainder.
Another limitation is that 80 to 90 per cent. of all cases have been dairy animals. If we are to have a cull policy, we will have to be careful that we do not upset the milk supply. Since the ban of 1988 there has been a 70 per cent. reduction in the annual numbers of cases of BSE in the UK. In Scotland, the situation is improving by leaps and bounds, with a steady decline from 2,200 cases in 1993 to only 48 cases in the first three months of this year. There are hopes that by next year Scotland will be almost clear of the scourge. All the affected animals have been taken out of the food chain and many Scottish beef herds have never had BSE. If one has a closed herd where one's animals are all bred on the farm and the poisonous feed has not been used, there is no risk of contamination. One such large herd of Highland cattle is now in trouble as all the cold storage the farmer uses for his animals is full and he cannot move his top class beef.
What can the Government do? They can urge clearing down the intervention and allowing more meat in. They can certify meat from Scottish farm assured livestock farms where there has never been and is never likely to be BSE, such as Orkney, or other closed herds and get meat from those farms moving. Since my time is up, I had better close.
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, although I have no direct involvement in the cattle industry, my brother is president-elect of the British Holstein Friesian Society, so I am glad that we are having this debate. However, I feel it is right to point out that the debate was introduced with the benefit of a great deal of hindsight, one of the few commodities that is cheaper than beef at the present time.
My brother returned on Sunday from the Epinal Agricultural Show, a major agricultural exposition which takes place near Strasbourg. There he met French, German and Dutch colleagues and, of course, he has other contacts across the world. It is quite clear that we are not discussing an exclusively British problem. BSE is international.
At Epinal, my brother's contacts were really angry at the way the subject has been handled in this country and they therefore supported the European Commission's action to ban all exports of British beef in the misguided view that that would help to protect the wider continental beef trade. Unfortunately, the Commission's action has given added credence to the possibility of a linkage between BSE and CJD, a linkage which, if there is one, is exclusively based on circumstantial evidence.
Consumer confidence has collapsed across Europe. Indeed, I saw evidence of that myself in France over Easter. Confidence will not be easy to rebuild, but removal of the export ban would certainly make a wide impression and would go some way to restoring the position. Both the Government and the NFU should have our fullest support in their work to that end—a task that ought to have been made marginally easier by the statement of Mr. Franz Fischler.
709 There is not time to discuss today the mechanics of BSE and CJD. Let us remind ourselves that CJD was first identified early in this century. It was not until 1980 that a Dr. Prusiner in the University of California postulated that CJD developed because of a presence of prions—a sub-viral protein, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, explained. That was regarded as heresy at the time. One point that we all need to think about is this. Science is developing all the time and as our knowledge increases so does our capacity to analyse and diagnose. There are likely to be other similar linkage cases of that type in the future. If they are all to be presented to the public in the hysterical way in which the media have presented this case, I fear for the future of science.
To return to BSE, as the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, said, BSE has probably been around for a long time. With hindsight, older cattlemen whom I know admit that they probably had BSE cases many years ago. The disease was covered by a diagnosis of "grassland staggers" and specific identification and diagnosis was only made in the last decade. Before that, diagnosis was beyond veterinary knowledge and practice. The proper diagnosis happened at about the same time as the consequences of low temperature rendering of carcasses were becoming apparent. Much of the machinery for low temperature rendering, which was in part developed in response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, was not of British manufacture. It was exported world-wide. That is not to try to apportion blame elsewhere because clearly other factors come into play. But I make the point to emphasise the international nature of the wider agricultural business.
In his announcement yesterday, the Minister went a long way towards reassuring farmers that their proper concerns will be met. But there remains the wider issue of public confidence in beef. Here, curiously, we probably have an advantage over the rest of Europe. Our veterinary services are sophisticated and knowledgeable and they understand what they are looking for. The reputation of those enforcing the regulations governing procedures in abattoirs is high. I have heard complaints in the past that the reputation stands too high, but we should be grateful for that. The fact is that British beef is today probably safer than beef from any other country in the European Community, where veterinary services are less developed, supervision of abattoirs is less high and reporting by farmers is perhaps less scrupulous. Indeed, in one country BSE is referred to as the "JCB" disease, after the well-known company manufacturing hydraulic diggers.
I must be careful not to minimise our problems which are clearly more severe than those in many other countries. However, they are on the way to being properly controlled and, we hope, finally eliminated. We are in an improving situation. The passage of time is permitting saner counsels to return to this field. I am glad that there is to be no ritual slaughter to appease the wilder flights of fancy that appeared early in the crisis. A controlled slaughter policy, however, might be valid if—and only if—it can be clearly demonstrated that such a policy would reduce dramatically the number of 710 infected cattle in the future. I support the Government in their consistent attempts to bring sanity to a ridiculous situation.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Rea
My Lords, the House might expect me, as a doctor, also to concentrate on the scientific aspects of BSE. While medical training is based on the scientific method, in fact a doctor (or a vet) follows a vocation that is as much an art or craft as it is a science. Decisions often have to be made when the evidence is incomplete, when a pure scientist, or perhaps a lawyer, would say: "Case not proven". That is certainly true of public health or preventive medicine. BSE is a prime example. (I hope noble Lords will excuse the use of that expression; it fell from my lips before I realised.)
There are some certainties in the scientific knowledge of this disease, and a number of uncertainties; that is, hypotheses with some evidence to back them but which are as yet unproven. Some of them are very likely to be correct and some very unlikely. For example, it is very. likely that the 10 cases of atypical CJD—I stress the point that they are atypical both in their age distribution and their histopathology—which sparked off the present crisis were due to the consumption of infected meat products. Noble Lords will please note that I did not say "beef".
However, it is highly unlikely that the disease can be transmitted by eating red muscle, which is what we usually understand as beef, although a hypothesis is held by a minority of microbiologists that it is possible, since muscle has peripheral nerves running through it which might conceivably carry the infective agent. So far as I am aware, no experimental animal has been infected by oral feeding of muscle extract from a BSE-affected animal.
I turn to some of the certainties which many noble Lords have already put forward. The infective agent is not destroyed by normal cooking temperatures and it does not provoke the production of antibodies. It proliferates in the brain and spinal cord of affected animals. Brain, spinal cord and a number of other tissues can carry the infection. It is transmissible to a long list of other mammals, both herbivores and carnivores, including a primate, the squirrel monkey.
The importance of that ability to cross the species barrier has been under-emphasised. Yesterday, for instance, the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, who, judging by his remarks, is a cattle owner, did not seem to think that the ability of the disease to cross species was important. But there is the example of at least 70 cats that have developed a spongiform encephalopathy, which they never used to. Presumably, they picked it up from proprietary cat food, which is made from the recovered meat that is under such suspicion.
The disease has a long and variable incubation period: from two to eight years in cattle, probably longer in humans. So far, there is no test that can identify carriers of the disease in the asymptomatic period such as can be found in people who test positive for HIV but have not yet developed AIDS.
711 It is of critical importance that such a test be developed and followed up as soon as possible if we want to clear British beef stocks of BSE. Without it, there may have to be unnecessary culling of many thousands of healthy animals which may be part of a herd that has a higher than average incidence of BSE. As several noble Lords pointed out, it is good to read that a possible test is now being developed in California.
In this connection, I raise once again the question of Dr. Harash Narang, the very able Indian microbiologist who was working in Newcastle to develop just such a test, having previously worked on a similar test for scrapie with distinguished American scientists. Since being dropped by the Public Health Laboratory service and MAFF, he has published a valuable review article on the origin and implications of BSE. I received it only this afternoon, so have not been able to assess it fully. Is there any chance that this very able man will be able to pick up his work again for MAFF? It could be extremely important in controlling the epidemic.
There are two further hypotheses in relation to BSE which government advisers seem to have regarded, possibly unwisely, as likely and which may have led to a degree of complacency that was not justified. The first is that BSE came from the rendered offal of scrapie-infected sheep only, and that therefore its infectivity would follow the same pattern as that of scrapie. As no case of CJD in humans arising from scrapie has ever been described, as my noble friend Lord Winston pointed out, despite the fact that sheep's head or brain has been an article of human diet for many years, it may have seemed unlikely that cattle scrapie (if that is what BSE was) would prove any different. However, there is now some evidence from the United States that the disease which cattle develop when infected with scrapie is not the same as BSE; and others, including today the noble Lords, Lord Soulsby and Lord Dixon-Smith, have suggested that BSE has been present for many years in cattle at a low prevalence and was greatly augmented when bovine carcasses were recycled and fed to cattle.
Another hypothesis that may have delayed useful government action is the complete belief that vertical transmission from cow to calf was rare or never happened. The scientific answer to that is sitting under our noses at the Central Veterinary Laboratory field station at Mailing, where the carefully controlled "blind" experiment awaits unravelling.
I see that I have come to the end of my time. This epidemic has been an expensive disaster and was due to government complacency and poor housekeeping over the whole period following the initial ideology-driven mistake that my noble friend Lord Richard described so well; namely, allowing the tight controls on the rendering of animal protein for cattle feedstuffs which existed until 1980 to lapse.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Lord Hamilton of Dalzell
My Lords, I declare my interest as a producer of beef. There is no doubt that beef farmers have taken a severe knock from the 712 appearance of BSE, as indeed have all the industries associated with stock rearing. In the West Midlands, where I farm, we have preserved the tradition of mixed farming. I am enormously grateful that I have done so. It has been much more fashionable to concentrate on single production. There will be an element of swings and roundabouts in what occurs as a result of this outbreak.
The Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, calls for,consistent and coherent policies to deal with the crisis".It has been noted during the course of this debate, particularly in the speech of my noble friend Lord Soulsby—and I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Rea, did not also bear out the fact—that the removal in the slaughterhouse of an animal's nervous system and offal, the parts attacked by the disease, is just such a policy. It is both consistent and coherent. It is the only policy backed by any sort of scientific evidence, and was in place before the recent scare started.
I agree with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Poole. The announcement that a new form of CJD had been discovered in younger people was bound to cause alarm. I cannot imagine what the reaction of the public would have been if that news had been broken through the press, without a ministerial announcement having been made. That rules out any prospect that a deal could have been patched up in Europe before breaking the news and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, is wrong to suggest that it could have been.
It came as a shock to me, and I suspect to other noble Lords as well as Members of another place, to find that the European Union had the authority to ban the export of British beef. I believe that move encouraged the panic to spread in other countries of the European Union and was therefore totally unproductive and damaging.
The Financial Times reported on 6th April that in Greece sales of beef have fallen by 60 per cent. since the Greek market inspectors seized at least 60 tonnes of British beef during raids on cold storage facilities around Athens. Greece imports only small quantities of beef from Britain but seizures of undeclared beef fuelled concerns about BSE. That has had a profound effect on the Greek economy and put its cost of living up by 0.5 per cent. from 8.3 per cent to 8.9 per cent. Sheep are being smuggled over the frontiers from Albania and Bulgaria in order to make up for the colossal rise in the price of lamb for the Easter celebrations.
It is easy to spread panic about food. We are constantly lectured by doctors, experts and, regrettably, even politicians on what we should and should not eat. We have become a nation prone to hypochondria. One could perhaps describe all the citizens of the European Union, after 50 years of peace, in the same terms as Walpole did the British nation during the long peace over which he presided; that is, as having its soul extinct but stomach well alive. It is a symptom of abundance and overabundance for which the malfunctioning of the CAP must be held responsible.
The CAP has been described as inefficient, extravagant and corrupt. The assumption persists that it can be reformed—indeed, that it must be reformed.
713 However, reform has two fundamental problems. The first is that the CAP is the cornerstone—or should I say the feet of clay?—of a single market based on the principle of the level playing field. That makes it politically difficult to change. At the same time it suffers from an inherent defect of which it can never be cured, except perhaps by a slaughter policy.
The CAP is based on the principle that, by a process of providing subsidies coupled with price controls and regulations such as quotas and set-aside, the balance of supply and demand can be controlled by government. The effect is to give European agriculture the nature of a quasi-nationalised industry. No government have ever proved themselves capable of successfully controlling the balance of supply and demand by overruling the market. I hardly need to persuade those on this side of your Lordships' House of that, given the Government's record based on that philosophy over the past 17 years.
We are currently in a phase when agricultural policy is aimed at lowering production to tackle the surpluses created in the past. We afford ourselves the luxury of thinking that the countryside, riddled as it is with experts, self-styled experts and interested bodies, is a potential theme park and the practices of farmers to be generally not in the public interest. Those people have not prevented the outbreak of BSE. It is only in that context that we can contemplate with equanimity the destruction of enormous quantities of food in Europe which scientific opinion declares to be wholesome.
Meanwhile, out of the corner of one's eye, one cannot help noticing that the world price of grain is above the European price and the mountains have all disappeared. The surpluses of yesteryear were not premeditated. Are we about to see another misjudgment? What are our responsibilities to the rest of the world, which does not enjoy the abundances of Europe?
My right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture fought hard for a settlement of this dispute among his European colleagues, and I commend him for that. But I can feel a change coming in the direction of the political wind blowing over this affair—the hurricane of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. The Minister is being forced against his will into compromises by our partners in the European Union. When the dust of battle has cleared, what will be the verdict of the press and public opinion on the Government's reaction to the outcome of a situation of such national importance over which they have had few options and virtually no control?
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Baroness Wilcox
My Lords, I speak tonight on behalf of the consumers that I have represented for the past six years. We are all consumers; we all have a part to play in the long food chain between grower and eater.
Most of us in Britain lead urban lives and are generations away from having grown anything to eat. Most consumers have visited the country and had a picnic in a field, but have never patiently watched a crop grow or seen it fail; we have never seen a crop decimated by disease; we have not struggled through an icy night lambing; we have not seen a fox take a chicken 714 nor have we seen a battery farm; nor, thank God, have we faced starvation. Instead, consumers ask and trust others to grow their food for them; to bring that harvest, good or bad, to the city gates to its market—be it super or stall. Some would say that consumers are spoilt for choice. Since the repeal of the Corn Laws we, the children of the Industrial Revolution, have enjoyed and come to expect cheap and plentiful food, at least until the system goes suddenly wrong.
To feed daily our nation—now at 58 million people—is and will continue to be a risky business; it always has been. There have been famines and plagues, infections and diseases, genetic manipulation, abuse, misuse, manipulation, carelessness, vandalism and now BSE. They have all seized us by the throat in their time. So in that long, complicated food chain, with so many interventions, where do consumers look for reassurance and comfort the next time and the next time, accepting that they too have responsibility to show care, to follow instructions and to accept that life will never be risk-free?
Consumers should be able confidently to look to firm enforcement and monitoring of measures introduced for their protection. I know that their representatives will be seeking to make sure that the enforcement authorities have adequate resources to monitor and enforce both the existing and new regulations. Consumers need information, and not just from the media. The further away consumers move from the growing and preparation of food, the more nervous and panic stricken they will be in delivery of their duty of care in feeding their children and the frail and elderly, let alone themselves.
In 1989, when I was chairman of the NCC, I expressed concern to MAFF that its responsibility for production/industry interests and the balancing of consumer interests was causing anxiety. I am delighted to tell your Lordships of the response I received from the Minister of the time and his team. They have continued to work closely with the consumer, setting up liaison groups and regular meetings, and making sure that Ministers and officials, wherever possible, led the consumer movement to believe that they were sharing as much as they possibly could with them.
It is a difficult area in which to share information, and that we have heard and understand today. But better understanding and earlier consultation may be less sensational and produce less panic. This food show will run and run; we will all continue to eat. With so many organisations involved in the fragile food chain, with their own goals and pressures, I suspect that new initiatives that refocus and bring confidence to the industry and to the consumer will be a good thing to come out of this troubled time. We will then be able to say again with confidence that buying British means buying best.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ The Earl of Kintore
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for enabling us to debate this important issue today. I declare an interest as a partner in a farm which has a small fold of pedigree Highland cattle.
715 I should like to concentrate on where we might go from here in respect of food safety and protecting the interests of consumers. I shall illustrate that by discussing how we rear our pedigree Highland cattle. We operate a closed herd, cow replacements being of our own breeding. We have to buy in our bull, either privately or at one of the society's specialist sales. The transfer of the bull will have to be reported to the Highland Cattle Society, and will be recorded in the herd book, as will any females born each year from which we will subsequently breed. Male calves are usually not recorded in the herd book unless they are of bull quality but are reported to the society at the end of the year and go on a computer record.
We feed our Highlanders on grass, and silage and straw in winter, and have never had a case of BSE. But if we did have one, we could, with the aid of the herd book and the society's computer, trace any animals and take whatever steps were necessary to eradicate a possible source of infection. I wish I could report that there had been no case of BSE in pedigree Highland cattle, but it is thought that there have been 15 cases in pure-bred and three cases in cross-bred cattle, which represents in the total herd one-tenth of 1 per cent. or 0.01 per cent. Some of the BSE infections are thought to have occurred following the feeding of infected feed to orphan calves. Highland beef is being marketed under a "guaranteed pure" label. I am sure that other pure beef breed societies will have similar schemes. The consumers of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, have only to look at the label.
Highland cattle are slow maturing. A recent Scottish Office approved marketing development scheme produced data to indicate that of a sample of 425 pure Highland steers the average slaughter age was 36¼ months. Pure Highland cattle will therefore need exemption from the 30-month rule as, without it, the taxpayers' money will be unnecessarily spent, producers will lose about 50 per cent. of their output and the consumer will be deprived of totally wholesome beef produced specifically off grass by very high standards of husbandry. No exemption will mean a waste of money and a waste of food which I find totally abhorrent. I beg the Government to obtain exemptions.
§ 6.23 p.m.
§ Lord Willoughby de Broke
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for putting down this subject for debate. I declare an interest. I am an ex-dairy farmer. I sold my dairy herd a year-and-a-half ago. It was BSE free. I retained my quota, which is now untradable, so that was a very neat double and I shall not be applying for Successful Investor of 1996. I am slightly better off than many other farmers because at least I have some arable crops to grow and, I hope, live off. However, the wreckage from the BSE débâcle is spread over a wide area, beyond simply the farmers themselves. There are the transport drivers, machinery dealers, vets, meat packers and feed merchants and there is also the trickle-down effect into rural communities which is quite serious.
716 I warmly welcome the measures announced yesterday by my noble friend Lord Lindsay. They will be equally warmly welcomed by everyone in farming and allied trades and will go a long way to reduce the difficulties of everyone who has been sucked into this rather ghastly and damaging crisis. But the fact remains that due to the so far unspecified requirements of our "partners" in Europe—here I part company from my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith—there is an element of ritual sacrifice because hundreds of thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible meat will be destroyed (in a world which still is hungry) and millions and millions of pounds of compensation will be paid by the taxpayer, by someone. It is waste piled upon waste. We still do not know whether what we are doing will be enough to satisfy our European partners. We are acting irrationally to appease irrationality without any idea of how much more irrationality will be required. Those are not my words but those of Simon Jenkins in The Times today.
The Council of Ministers has made much of the fact that the European Union will contribute 70 per cent. of the cost of the slaughter programme. When he replies, can my noble friend Lord Lucas confirm that after deducting our rebate, which is what we are told will happen, and our regular contribution to the EU budget, it is the UK which will pick up 80 per cent. of the cost of slaughter and that the 70 per cent. figure peddled by Brussels is just propaganda?
The President of the Commission and the Commissioner for Agriculture have both admitted that the ban on British beef was imposed for reasons other than that of public health and safety. The ban on our beef exports is unjustified and probably illegal, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, was good enough to point out. I strongly support the Government's and the NFU's challenge in the courts to get the ban lifted as soon as possible.
It gives me no pleasure to put inverted commas around our "partners" in Europe. I was at school in Switzerland for many years. I studied in France and in Spain. It is not the people of Europe who are causing such resentment in this country; it is the policies. It is the policies that are being forced on us, the drive from the top to a central, monolithic Europe, which are so damaging. Many of us want something very different—a Europe which is peaceful and prosperous and has a relationship between nation states.
§ 6.28 p.m.
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, I have an interest to declare and I declared it yesterday. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for giving us the opportunity for the debate today. It is not surprising, after what I can only regard as the irresponsible opening remarks made by him, that we have got ourselves into a fine old pickle over what can only be described as a potential hazard which is unquantifiable and is therefore, by definition, no risk to human health.
As my noble friend Lord Lucas is aware, I sent to him a letter, which I hope he has received, containing questions of which he had prior and detailed knowledge. They were prepared by Dr. Richard North, 717 and checked and agreed as sensible and pertinent by Dr. Jane Mellanby, vice principal of St. Hilda's College, Oxford. I should be most grateful if he would answer them in detail and send replies and the questions to anyone who is interested.
There is a growing belief that the epidemic of BSE—which has inexplicably struck British cattle but curiously not continental cattle, even though BSE has long been endemic in both places, and all have been fed on the same cake, with similar bonemeal—has been around for much longer than was originally assumed. Mr. Eddy, a vet from Wiltshire, drew attention to this in a letter to the Veterinary Record in 1990 and again in December of last year. Of the 13 replies he had from fellow clinicians to his original letter, 11 claimed to have recognised BSE before 1985.
As I have said, BSE, or bovine staggers, as it sometimes used to be called, has been endemic in this country for several hundred years. It jumped from endemic to epidemic in 1985, or, according to Eddy—and I believe MAFF is now sympathetic to this view—substantially earlier. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, tells me that in his youth he would refer to cattle which could be classed as having resistant manganese deficiency. But he would now recognise that as probably being BSE. Dr. North received reports of a BSE-like disease in Cumbria in the late 1970s. He has interviewed 100 vets, knackermen, farmers and similar people all over the United Kingdom, all of whom report BSE-like symptoms before 1982.
If that hypothesis is right—and it bears the hallmark of common sense—we should have seen a visible CJD epidemic by now if there had been any connection between BSE and CJD. Even if the epidemic started in 1985, and if the incubation periods are accurate—the Lancet suggests that the incubation period for the new form of CJD (if it is CJD) is five to 10 years, and that for kuru is four to five years—and there had been a spongiform encephalopathy transmittability to man, we should now be at the height of an epidemic. Even if there had not been a pre-1985 epidemic, there would still be a visible CJD epidemic now: after all, 1985 was 11 years ago. In the past six years, during which 3 million people have died, only about 300 have been CJD victims—hardly an incidence of Black Death!
Coopers & Lybrand, the Government's own accountants, has estimated that there will be 28,000 redundancies as a result of this scare. According to American research, for every 27 redundancies there will be one premature death, so by my reckoning this scare will have killed 1,000 people, more than 20 years'-worth of CJD victims.
Among the causes of the BSE epidemic seems to be cow cake residues, not necessarily sheep to cow residues, as cows provide much the greater proportion of bonemeal additive to cow cake. Incidentally, bonemeal is also present in fishmeal. But why, when the continentals fed the cow cake to their cattle has there not been a similar epidemic there; and why, if the US fed scrapie-based sheep bonemeal to their cattle, do they have no BSE? Does this not, as postulated by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, indicate a genetic predisposition of some of our cattle to BSE or some other factors?
718 These facts show that there may be a minute theoretical and unquantifiable hazard and thus no risk. From no risk we have seen cynical Common Market Ministers banning with protectionist zeal our meat from their tables, while at the same time subsidising poisonous tobacco exports to Albania. Her Majesty's Government's response should have been much more robust. They should have been prepared, if the EEC came up with extra legal methods of protectionism, to respond in kind. The economic consequences for great swathes of business, be they small butchers, farmers, hauliers, banks, slaughtermen and a myriad of others, has been catastrophic, this catastrophe being the consequence of behaviour reminiscent of nothing short of medieval religious hysteria. Only with a robust, commonsense rebuttal of the rubbish now being promulgated will the spectre of the hecatomb be removed and the prospect of the smoke of sacrifice rising from the Pantheon be dissipated.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Richard for tabling this Motion at this time and for his excellent speech. Over the past four years this Government have alienated most of their natural supporters. But, generally speaking, the farming community has stayed pretty loyal. I doubt that any longer. Anyone meeting some of the farmers who were here today will know how disappointed they are. That is understandable: the Government's behaviour over beef has undoubtedly undermined the confidence not only of farmers but of the people in the associated trades and professions. Can one wonder at it?
From the most tenuous of propositions, hedged around by a host of qualifications, the Government raised fears about the safety of British beef which were totally unreal and in contradiction of epidemiological evidence which apparently showed the number of cases of CJD declining when it should be rising if its cause was related to BSE. To pile disaster on calamity, we had the spectacle of Mr. Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, the weekend following the original statement, informing the nation and the farming industry that if his scientific experts recommended that all 11 million—11 million, mind you—of our cattle should be destroyed, then the Government would do it.
When I heard that, I, like many other people, was aghast. My heart went out to the farmers, their families, and all those other people who would be affected in their pockets, their businesses and their jobs. No wonder there was hysteria and panic. Such a step would not only destroy the beef industry, but the dairy industry as well and all the other industries associated with beef and milk. Ministers must learn that their job is not to be slaves to their experts but to evaluate the advice and to act for the good of the nation, taking all considerations into account. I hope that in future, bearing in mind the enormous damage that has been done on this occasion, they will resist snap answers to catch questions. Ministers should be capable of far better than that.
Perhaps I may ask about Professor Pattison whose references to half a million possible cases of CJD helped to cause the panic but who now, apparently, takes the 719 view that beef is safer than it has ever been. He said that it is safer than it has ever been. That was the statement made to the House on 3rd April. Does that mean that Professor Pattison has now changed his previous position of a possible 500,000 cases of CJD? We are entitled to have an answer to that question. The Minister did not give it on the "World at One" programme today. I believe that we should have it this afternoon.
The measures announced yesterday were certainly useful as far as they go. The assurance that there will be no mass slaughter must be welcome. I wish to ask one or two questions about the role of the European Community. Some have been asked already and I want to elaborate on them. My noble friend Lord Richard, after some consultation with my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington, mentioned directives 1989/662 and 1990/925, which deal with intra-Community trade. It seems that the Commission has gone beyond its powers. If it has, then the ban on beef should be lifted immediately. I hope that the Government will see that it is.
As regards the advice given to the Commission, was it on the lines spelled out by the agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, that British beef was safe but that it must be banned to protect the Continental beef trade? Was that the advice given to the Commission before it made its decision? If so, would the Minister care to comment on why the two British Commissioners voted for the ban, which was not necessary on any medical, health or safety grounds, but which was likely to devastate the British beef industry and associated industries? We expect better than that from the British-nominated Commissioners. Will the Minister also confirm—this matter was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke—that the agreement by the EC to pay 70 per cent. of the compensation cost is chimerical since 75 per cent. of that sum will be deducted from the British rebate, with the other 25 per cent. coming from the remaining EU budget to which Britain contributes a net £3.5 billion a year? Will he also confirm that that means that it is the British taxpayers who will pay 85 per cent. of the total bill, not just the 30 per cent. which Ministers would have us believe?
Finally, as a result of this catastrophe, will the Government now make an urgent evaluation of the huge powers that have been handed over to the European Union and which, as we have seen, can cause such havoc to our great industries? The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, in an opening speech which he made in a very spirited manner, said that the Government would not be bullied. Let him match his words by deeds.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, several noble Lords this afternoon, not least my noble friend Lord Onslow, have commented with varying degrees of force on the way in which this matter has been handled by the Government. Indeed, it must be said that it has been handled very badly indeed. But recrimination for the 720 past gets us nowhere. We must be positive and think forward. We can only hope that the lessons of the past will be borne very much in mind for the future.
We have witnessed a rather unedifying state of affairs since my right honourable friend Stephen Dorrell uttered those magical 24 words a fortnight ago, before we all went on holiday, which caused utter panic and despair not only throughout this country but also in the European Union. We saw politicians from all sides running around like headless chickens issuing one edict after another. Every little puff fanned the flames of panic. The press has been blamed for hyping up the whole matter. To some extent—I hear the words "hear, hear"—it has to be said that the manner in which the press was fed gave it plenty of ammunition. If the whole matter had been approached in a more pragmatic and rational way, the press would not have been given the opportunity to hype it all up.
Moreover, it had to be obvious that, whatever the outcome of the discovery, it would create a national crisis which would be most important to this country, apart from any other countries. Therefore, the right approach may well have been for the Government to have invited the other parties to come together in the first instance, so that a joint approach might have been made in the interests of all—in the same way as happens in war-time, when there is a joint approach. We could have stood four square to—I do not know what to call them—the people across the Channel. That may have been done. If it was not done, then it should have been done. If it was done, then the Opposition parties are not in a very good position to criticise the Government. However, I suspect that it was not done.
One welcomes many of the aspects of the measures which were announced yesterday. But I have some concern about the payment of compensation. It must be acknowledged, whether it is fair or unfair, that many taxpayers will feel that the farming industry is already extremely well looked after. The fact that I say that does not mean that I subscribe to that view the whole way. But that will be said; make no mistake about it. We must be prepared to answer that point. Therefore, I question whether the amount of compensation being offered or that will be paid should fall entirely upon the taxpayers—the Government—before an inquiry is conducted perhaps into the errors that may have been made, not least in the feed industry itself. I do not know whether or not errors have been made. I just ask whether that point ought to be looked at, so that we can satisfy the taxpayers that we are being fair to them as well as to the farmers.
Yesterday, my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter referred to the ban on the export of beef from this country and said, quite rightly, that it was a most intolerable situation for this country to agree to be dictated to and told to whom we should sell our beef. If other countries do not want to accept our beef, that is their right and prerogative. But why should any other country who chooses to buy our beef—if I may say so, if they so choose, they would be wise—be prevented from having it by people in Brussels, who say to us, "You cannot export it"? That seems to me to be a travesty of justice.
721 I should like, with permission, to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who yesterday pointed out that we are investigating—and, I hope, will carry out—an application to the appropriate courts challenging the legality of the ban. He very rightly—I trust that he will forgive me for cribbing his remarks—pointed out that such an application would take months to be heard, adjudicated upon, appealed and anything else that goes with the legal network. He suggested, and I repeat it, that serious consideration should be given to applying for an injunction against the Common Market imposing such a ban and that the matter should be held in limbo until such time as the case is properly heard.
My noble friends Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Willoughby de Broke questioned the level of slaughter. This is a cosmetic approach—cosmetic because there is no scientific evidence—in order to boost the confidence not of ourselves but of those over the Channel. We should be very careful about the indiscriminate slaughter of clean and healthy animals. The farmers will not stand for it. The vets will not stand for it. We must make sure that the slaughter is confined to herds that have cases of BSE. I hope that that will be done.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, coming so late in the batting order, I should like to associate myself with some remarks made and questions raised by several other noble Lords and particularly the speech made by my noble friend Lord Middleton.
The noble Lord, Lord Moran, in an elegant and farsighted speech, asked whether we were sure of the causes of BSE. In that respect I should like to draw the attention of my noble friend the Minister to an article in the Scottish Farmer on 30th March, which suggested that pour-on might be the cause of BSE rather than the result of cattle having eaten scrapie infested food. It seems that the pour-on treatment containing organophosphates was poured on to the backs of cattle to kill warble fly and other problems. I understand that a number of cattle farmers believe that the pattern of BSE in their herds has a correlation with their earlier organophosphate pour-ons.
I particularly associate myself with the question raised by my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke as to how much the European Community will contribute to whatever compensation has to be paid. The media seem to have it written into their computers that it is at least 70 per cent. I understand that the figure is rather nearer 15 per cent.
It will come as no surprise to your Lordships if I am among those who see the behaviour of our European competitors as the most significant element of our present misfortune in this as in other matters. Indeed, even the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who is among the staunchest allies of those European competitors, was forced to wonder about the legality of what he called "the directive", which ordered the infamous ban on our beef products worldwide. The legality of this disgraceful move by the Commission must in any case be doubtful when set against the GATT, especially when we now know that Herr Fischler and co. never thought that our 722 beef was dangerous in the first place. I thought that the remark of his side-kick the day before yesterday really took the biscuit. He said that if the European Commission had thought that there was anything dangerous about eating our beef, it would have banned it in Britain as well.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, perhaps I may intervene since the noble Lord has referred to me. I object slightly to the use of the word "even". I have an opinion as to the possible legality or otherwise of this regulation. It seems to me that in those circumstances I am fully entitled to express it. With great respect to the noble Lord, I am not forced to express it.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, I was attempting to pay the noble Lord a compliment on this occasion.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord does not read it that way because he may not agree with the rest of what I have to say.
My understanding of the legal base for the ban appeared to be confirmed by my noble friend the Minister yesterday in our debate when he said:The legislation that introduces this scheme is principally based on the Commission regulation which was adopted on 12th April by the Beef Management Committee".[Official Report, 16/4/96 co1.605.]In other words, this duplicitous act by our European competitors was authorised by a Commission regulation. I remind your Lordships that regulations are supposed to be purely administrative little devices issued under the delegated authority of the Council to tidy up the odd lack of clarity here and there in the vast mountain of Euro-legislation from which we suffer. They are not even deposited in Parliament for debate; they are immediately binding in all member states. But it is a regulation fixing nitrate levels which has compromised our lettuce-growing industry; it is a regulation banning Emtryl which threatens our gamebird rearers. Can my noble friend confirm my understanding that it is a regulation that has landed us in this predicament?
One thing that is clear is that this monstrous ban was imposed legally according to the terms of the Treaty of Rome, to which we have so foolishly committed ourselves. I commend my noble friend the Minister for his robust reply to the opening comments of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. I commend him doubly when he says that Great Britain will not be bullied by a malevolent and ignorant Europe into the slaughter of productive cattle. Those are brave words bravely spoken. My noble friend is nothing if not courageous. But I remind him that the terms of the Treaty of Rome cannot be avoided by lengthy appeals to the Court of (so-called) Justice in Luxembourg. As we know, that Court is nothing more than the engine of the Treaty.
I wish him well in his future negotiations in Brussels. But I imagine—I hope he will correct me if I am wrong—that he will find himself up against our old friend the qualified majority vote before the ban can be lifted. If that is so, I remind your Lordships that 723 countries with only 26 out of a total of 87 votes can block the lifting of the ban. We will have to get 62 votes on our side to carry the day. This is certainly the voting system which makes our lives so impossible whenever the Government want to defend our interests against our European competitors in areas such as agriculture, the single market, transport, external trade relationships and the environment.
I suggest to my noble friend that he tells his European counterparts that their behaviour so far in this matter has converted thousands of British farmers and millions of British people to the Eurosceptic cause. Any refusal to lift their ban will convert literally millions more.
Even if they do lift the ban, the whole story so far confirms that the only way to get out of the awful mess we have got into with Europe is to tear up the Treaty of Rome. We could easily retain our access to the single market for reasons I have given your Lordships on several occasions, with which I will not weary your Lordships again now. If we were to do that we could make our own agricultural policy and repair the damage done to one of our best and finest industries.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ The Earl of Macclesfield
My Lords, I declare an interest simply by saying that I have been in and around farming all my life. I start with one or two horror stories from the past and the present which, as a result of all this, I hope to see the back of. Back in the 1960s and 1970s we imported American salivary glands for inclusion in cheap sausages and burgers. Where did they go? At least one firm had contracts with schools and hospitals. It was a cheap food policy, but it was not very nice food. Belgian beef glands have been imported for exactly the same reason, except that in addition we do not extract those beef glands; we just throw them away. They have also gone into cheap food. If we as a country were not so insistent on eating cheap food, perhaps we would not be in this mess. In addition, cull beef livers face a 25 per cent. rejection rate and go into the pet food chain. Some slaughterhouses chuck the lot. It is just not worth their while to go through veterinary inspections. Others think it is. The purchase price paid by at least one—and probably rather more—major baby food manufacturer is exactly the same, give or take a penny, as that paid by a pet food manufacturer. We can all work out that those livers go into baby foods. That may be stopped. At least the French are feeding chicken byproducts back to chickens, including pellets. We are probably doing it as well.
I turn to mechanically recovered meat, in this case chicken. When the panic started one local authority rang up its supplier and asked whether there was beef in the sausages. The reply was no but that it contained fat from mechanically recovered chicken and a bit of pork. The response was, "Thank God". One thinks of barbecues etc., in which food may not be cooked properly. I refer to sausages and burgers. I found out only yesterday that mechanically recovered chicken was put into sausages and burgers. It would be a good idea to stop that 724 practice. Chicken is a salmonella risk. If we can get rid of that, it will be a step in the right direction to produce food properly.
I turn to one or two steps that could have been taken last month when this sorry mess started to come to light, with the press getting hold of one or two "facts". First, it should have been said that there would be no government Statement until there had been discussion with their advisers and the facts could be put together. I should have thought that anybody would have come to that view without thinking twice about it once a microphone was placed in front of him. The resulting consultations could have taken place fairly rapidly. The advisers would have been assembled. What kind of Statement should have been issued? In principle, we have heard the Statement from a large number of speeches here today. We have heard some science from the noble Lord, Lord Winston; we have heard commonsense from my noble friend Lord Granchester. Other contributions have come from the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith and so on. It is quite clear from what we have heard that had all of that come out loud and clear on the day, there is a very good chance that we would not be in this particular mess now.
In addition, one or two items have come to light only in Hansard following the Statement on 25th March. First, it has come to light that the medical advisers have said, for example, that there is no human activity without risk. Secondly, it is important to be aware that many foods are associated with health risks and that changing from beef to non-beef products is not necessarily without risk. It is fairly clear that those statements were made only to put into context their opinion of the potential risk involved in eating beef. Unfortunately, no scientific information came with it. If that scientific information had come out on the day, we would have been in a very good position to deal with the Common Market and Brussels when they began to make suggestions that there should be a ban on the export of our beef.
Looking at the other side of the coin and at what was actually fed to people, it is not altogether surprising that people panicked. Many people cannot read behind certain things that are pretty obvious to me. However, I do not think that it helped—not that anybody outside this Chamber would have seen it—when the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in commenting on the statement from the Chief Medical Officer that the term "safe" is not the same as "zero-risk", said:That will do for a degree in philosophy but how will that run in McDonalds and Burger King?"—[Official Report, 25/3/96; col. 1495.]In view of what was not said, the noble Lord has a point, although it would have been better if he had gone on to say that that would not have mattered at all, provided that the information was put before the public. However, as that statement reads, it can also be said that when the noble Lord, Lord Carter, gets up to speak, he is not going to have a heart attack, but all the same it is not zero-risk—
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, as the noble Earl mentioned my name, perhaps I should point out that I was simply 725 saying that that is the sort of phrase that can be used, but it does not help when one is trying to explain to consumers exactly what has happened.
§ The Earl of Macclesfield
My Lords, as I said, if more had been explained to the consumer about what had actually been happening, that would have been fine. It is a great pity that the noble Lord did not say all that at the same time. Indeed, it is a great pity that it was not said the week before by the government spokesman. As far as I can see, Her Majesty's Opposition had the information. They could have come out with it and got one over on the Government with such a statement.
I turn now to the problems that we have at the moment. In a sense, with continental friends like ours, who needs enemies? We have Fischler with his comment that beef is safe. A lot of this seems to run to political cowardice and appeasement. Appeasement is not a very good idea. It never was and it did not do one of my uncles any great good. We have to get stuck in and fight this one. We really have to fight this one.
We had a demonstration of guts earlier on today when we heard from my noble friend Lord Grantchester. Yes, he went on well over his time, but he said what was needed to be said and what is needed to be in Hansard so that everyone can read it. There was an awful lot of common sense in his speech. I accept that some of it was controversial, but I really do not see how he could have made a speech here today without being controversial. I entirely agree with every word that he said and I entirely agree that it all needed saying.
So, we get stuck in and we fight. It is no good just standing there and saying that we disapprove of the ban. We have got to apply some sanctions. They will come round the table to negotiate when they realise that we mean it and that we know that we are right, but they do not believe us because we fall down under everybody all the time. There should be no co-operation. We can leave that in the hands of Sir Humphrey. There should be no imports of continental veal. That is reared in circumstances that are unacceptable to us. If that is a level playing field for our farmers, presumably our Prime Minister learnt his football down at Yeovil Town. We can have the Spanish out of the Irish Box for the time being—they should not be there anyway but, to be fair, neither should we be netting tuna fish down in the Bay of Biscay.
What about other things? I imagine that certain things are imported which do not conform to British standards. We can boot them out of the window rather fast, no matter what. If we all come round a table, they will start negotiating, but they will lift that export ban first because life will get somewhat painful if they do not. Let us have some sensible compensation arrangements. We do not appear to have them at the moment. Such arrangements must include our farming, haulage, slaughtering, cutting and rendering industries, our beef wholesalers, exporters and all the others. Let 726 us face it: up to now we have had politicians who are fiddling while the British beef industry and the British fishing industry burn.
§ 7.3 p.m.
The Earl of Clanwilliam
My Lords, in his opening remarks the noble Lord, Lord Richard, divided his speech into three parts, the first and the last of which dealt with what we should do now. I should like to take that as my brief, so let us forgo recriminations on all sides about what has gone on in the past.
First, we were treated early in the debate to the expert advice of my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior who proclaimed that British beef was safe. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, did likewise. The noble Lord referred to chickens, as did the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield. The battery chicken is probably the greatest marketing deception of the century, certainly in terms of protein content. The protein has been reduced by 50 per cent. and transferred from the fat to the meat. It is probably the most unhealthy food that is marketed in the country. However, British beef is safe. We are all agreed on that. Eating British beef is safer than crossing the road, and it is safer than eating unpasteurised Camembert.
As to a coherent policy for the future, it is plain to see where that lies. There has been a disproportionate effort towards intensive farming policies, generated by huge subvention payments made under the CAP rules and the dash for growth in agriculture at the end of the war. That is self-evident.
However, there has since been a litany of disastrous drugs and pesticides which have been withdrawn. The words DDT, Aldrin and Deldrin, not to mention the most recent recommendations to reduce the level of OP concentrates, have cast a shadow over the scene. In the absence of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, perhaps I may make a point about the elimination of organophosphates, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will write to me to tell me how the epidemiological study which is being conducted in Edinburgh into the use of organophosphates on cattle is proceeding. I understand that it has only just started and has three years to run. I think that it should be hastened in the light of this evidence.
It is perhaps predictable that, having promoted the case of organic farmers so often in the past, I should say now that less intensive farming should be applied generally in this country. It has never been proposed by those who support organic farming that there should be a wholesale turn over to it. But a change in single figure percentage terms in the available arable acreage would provide the vital and critical mass of distribution that would make the produce viable and able to compete in the market place. Organic beef has benefited remarkably and, indeed, regrettably, for all the wrong reasons, from recent events. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister can tell me whether the organic aid scheme will he reviewed to bring the support that it offers to UK farmers up 727 to the level of support given to the Danes by their government and to some of the Länder in Germany who combine to supply some 60 per cent. of the total UK organic market. I support the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, in that respect.
The most immediate issue is that British beef is safe. I suggest to my noble friend that under no circumstances should the Government submit to any pressure—I am glad to have that assurance—to enact any plans that would materially damage the industry through unnecessary culling. Above all, we should not be impressed by the motives of our so-called colleagues in Europe or the Brussels Commission. We may be accused of being the only people in step but when the herd is stampeding whether or not one is in step is hardly important. We must pursue our own self-interest exclusively in this extraordinary crisis for our farmers and, indeed, for the entire nation.
§ 7.7 p.m.
§ Lord Lyell
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in that I have lived in the great county of Angus, where we produce prime beef, for 56 years. I am delighted that my noble neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, is looking at me, perhaps as a massive beef consumer.
Secondly, I declare an interest in that I have a suckler herd which might meet with the approval of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, since it runs into three figures and more.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for giving us the opportunity today to discuss all that has happened in the past three weeks. However, I should like in anticipation of his speech to thank the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for all the help that he has given on a bipartisan basis throughout the past three weeks across the Floor of your Lordships' House. Your Lordships have been well served by the enormous scientific knowledge available in this House, and the noble Lord, Lord Carter, brings to our debates also a sense of realism, professionalism and a great deal of competence.
I congratulate the maiden speakers. I congratulate first my noble friend Lord Biddulph, but, above all, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, whose notable maiden speech would have made his late father immensely proud. The noble Lord has certainly lived up to the great motto "Nil satis nisi optimum", which I translate for your Lordships as "Only the best will do". That refers to the noble Lord's Holsteins as well as to his other team. The figures 87 and three will be burned into his mind, but never mind.
I turn to the lessons that can be learnt from the whole affair. The first and most important lesson is that honesty pays. Whatever else has occurred, the opening comments made on 20th March by my right honourable colleagues the Secretary of State for Health and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were right. If the fact that there have been 10 cases of a hitherto 728 unknown or different strain of CJD had been concealed that would have been particularly ugly and reflected badly not only on this Government but on the SEAC—
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I agree that the information should not have been concealed but does the noble Lord agree that it might have been better delayed?
§ Lord Lyell
My Lords, certainly not. My neighbour has a great deal more professional experience than I. I hope that when he makes his speech he will be able to correct me. However, I believe that honesty pays. All of us are grateful for the comments of the SEAC and the expertise shown not least in your Lordships' House by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and others.
Secondly, I believe that professionalism pays, in particular as regards communications. Some of your Lordships may remember that in December 1988 a remark was made by one of my honourable colleagues about eggs. I remember receiving many deputations from the Northern Ireland fowl industry. There was a great deal of similar hysteria and we received many comments. For two weeks not one member of the Government took a grip except, eventually, my noble friend Lady Trumpington. She happened to be a junior Minister in MAFF and thank goodness someone of her stature began to take a grip. That indicated that when a story such as this breaks professionalism is required. That is why we look to the Department of Health and to MAFF for calm, authoritative "debunkers" of the remarks.
It is notable that during the past three weeks some of the more zealous pundits have been mysteriously absent from the airwaves and television screens. Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to Europe; not to a European Union country but to Switzerland. There I found hysteria over CJD. A marvellous newspaper called Blick, which one does not read but assimilates, had a headline stating, "My wife is dying from CJD". What did my Swiss colleagues give us? Lovely Swiss beef, two or three helpings of which were devoured by my excellent German colleagues. I was then given a huge dose of anglophobia—it is nice to be a Scotsman—by the wife of a member of the Bundesrat who said, "The whole of the BSE problem that you have in England is your fault. It's the fault of John Major. He deserves it all". I waited for the strains of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the European song of unity from Strasbourg. Alas, she could not wait to take her third portion of Swiss beef.
What is the case in Germany? A lady from Munich is being treated in Frankfurt for exactly the same strain of CJD. There are several cases in Lyon. We have mass hysteria but what is happening there? They are attacking the very industry that we are trying to support today. Yesterday the Meat and Livestock Committee gave figures for the sales of beef, which are higher than those in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France. I wonder why. Perhaps there is a message: think before you speak. In other words, engage brain. Only last night I heard a Member of the European Parliament from Brandenburg telling us that all the farmers in Brandenburg are furious. I wonder why. I refer to their 729 own newspaper. Each week when I fly home to Edinburgh I buy my local newspaper from the bookstall. Every week for the past year it has been telling us about CJD and rinderwahnsinn—the German name for cattle disease. The newspaper has been hysterical about the matter and then wonders why its readers are turned off beef. I believe that we could do with a healthy dose of normal, excellent, professional diplomacy and thought.
My noble friend Lord Lindsay has raised his profile in Angus. I can hardly pick up the Courier, that notable paper which circulates in the area, without seeing the headline, "Earl visits". The noble Earl has received some excellent comments from the Angus farmers and I am delighted that he is here. We are delighted for what he has done and for the points that he made yesterday and for everything that has been done by the Government to try to alleviate the problem. I believe that professionalism and, above all, engaging brain before speaking, will produce the required benefits. I hope that my noble friend Lord Lucas will give us some encouraging news in winding up.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, the crisis is not caused by confusion and party bickering, as was suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay. It is a matter of inconsistent and incoherent government policies. The whole sorry episode is riddled with inconsistencies. First, we had the loosening of the rendering laws in 1983. Then tighter regulations were introduced in 1989 regarding the use of offal in order to check the spread of possible infection. In 1993 the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food again introduced looser regulations designed to make meat hygiene enforcement less prescriptive.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, told us of the result of the loosening of regulations. In 1995 unannounced inspection by the state veterinary service showed that 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses failed to meet the bovine offal regulations. Obviously, inconsistent regulation has failed. Even the Government's assurances were inconsistent. For years we were given assurances that there was no scientific evidence that BSE could affect humans. When further scientific evidence cast doubt on those assurances the Government switched from "no scientific evidence" to "acting on the best scientific advice". Were the Government not acting on the best scientific advice all the time? I believe that we should have been told. No wonder consumer confidence collapsed.
With that collapse have come yet more inconsistencies. On the one hand, the Government speak of rebuilding consumer confidence. By that they mean the beef industry recovering to the same level of sales of British beef as existed before the crisis. On the other hand, consumers are concerned about safety and the spread of BSE to their children, born and unborn. That is hardly a meeting of minds. After such a series of inconsistencies, did the Government really believe that their assurances would be believed? Obviously they did because, as my noble friend Lord Richard told us, they totally failed to anticipate the public reaction to the Minister's announcement that BSE might be transmitted to humans. The Government had no comprehensive 730 contingency plan ready to be put into operation. Other noble Lords have pointed out that they had not even prepared a plan for the meat and the meat products in the pipeline. As a result, the Government were forced to react to events instead of being in control of events.
My noble friend Lord Richard rightly calls for coherence. I presume he is referring to the incoherent way in which the Government, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Poole, and other noble Lords, blame everyone except themselves for this disaster to the beef industry. First, it was the fault of the scientists because their work did not produce precise answers. However, when it was pointed out that that is usually the case in ongoing research the Government decided to blame the scaremongering on the Labour Party. When the Government realised that the Labour Party was only expressing the fears of ordinary consumers, they decided to blame the press for the scaremongering and the consumers for listening to them. Now, of course, it is the European Union's fault because it is not allowing us to put our national interest above public health. What a shambles.
What lessons can be learnt from this? First, like the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin, I believe that we must separate the interests of the consumer from MAFF. For years we have heard from many sources that MAFF is on the side of the farm and food manufacturing lobby and is less concerned about the consumer. The co-operation about which the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, spoke is obviously insufficient. There must be complete separation.
Secondly, I had hoped that that experience would encourage the Government to work with the European Union and the Commission and that we should have a joint approach, as the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, suggested. Much of this crisis is due to the Government keeping the Commission at arm's length. Sadly, it now appears that the beef industry is one more victim of the split in the Government over Europe.
Thirdly, the Government must question whether it is sustainable to produce cheap food using intensive farming methods. Part of the cost of that cheap food must now be recognised as a risk to humans because of the chemicals and other products used.
Next, I hope that the Government will become more respectful and careful of markets. It is no good blaming consumers' ease of choice, as the noble Lord, Lord Poole, did. Nowadays it is very easy for consumers to switch from one product to another. That is what the market is all about.
Finally, I agree with my noble friends Lord Winston and Lord Monkswell that we desperately need to understand more about prion-related diseases. Until fairly recently, the study of prions had little practical application. I echo the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Porter. Is our lack of knowledge due to encouraging near-market research instead of basic research? Is that ignorance the result of a short-term science policy? Also, is vertical transmission being researched properly? The noble Lord, Lord Burton, says that it is not a problem. Is he right?
731 At the end of the day, we shall have to get rid of BSE, as many noble Lords have said. Unless we do so, the dispute over its danger to human health will never end.
§ 7.22 p.m.
§ Lord Harlech
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for bringing an extremely important debate to the House. There is an obvious and enormous interest in this and many other issues. They do not emanate merely from the UK but also from our European neighbours, who I fear are somewhat hiding their own light under a bushel. Indeed, the rest of the world has important lessons to learn in this respect and may possibly be pro-active. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, seemed to imply that it is possible to foresee everything which may happen. I do not believe that that situation exists in any element of human life.
I congratulate our two maiden speakers from whom I trust that we shall hear more.
This issue is not just about the UK farming community. It is extremely important to those who supply it and who consume the products from it. As we have heard from all quarters, for those people, this is a very serious problem indeed. It involves the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people and is not just about the rearing and husbandry of all livestock. It concerns also dairy products; confectionery products; industry and synthesised products from industry; steel; engineering; and research and development. In all those spheres, and many more, there arise issues in relation to health and disease. Thousands of lives are involved.
We must be extremely careful not to lay blame in any one area of either the manufacturing or administration side of the beef industry. I strongly support the Minister when he says that this must not be a party political issue. We must ensure that all shoulders are put to the plough in relation to this issue to make sure that we get it right.
During the 1984 miners' strike things were kept going in a small area of Nottinghamshire because stocks had been procured in advance. It took a responsible government to carry out those measures. In referring to the energy crisis of the 1970s, my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said that heat treatment levels were altered or lowered in the rendering industry. However, the evidence is scientifically very flimsy. But that was an active measure. It could not possibly have been pro-active.
Society must take its share of the blame in the way that it demands food—its type, quantity and price. The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, should look to Europe, Russia and even China because in those regions, large quantities of food are eaten entirely as sausages. There are very few cases of BSE there or the human-related CID, or JCB as we heard it has been called in France.
It cannot be that society should take no blame in the way that it demands food and its type and quantity. Even scientific evidence cannot guarantee that all food is always safe. Whether another mutation, another virus, creature or process may be around the corner, I do not think that mankind can stop its agricultural husbandry, just in case.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Viscount Gage
My Lords, I declare an interest as a shareholder in a dairy unit. I ask the Government whether it is felt that the introduction of still more surveillance of the content of animal feedstuffs would be a means by which to reinforce confidence in the meat industry.
Last year legislation provided for the listing of ingredients used on packaging by compounders. Could that welcome decision, which did at last allow the farmer a personal choice in his selection of feedstuffs, be improved upon? For example, some compounders give more information than others. Moreover, the National Farmers Union argues that farmers do not have the technical equipment to test those raw materials for their contractual quality and that a statutory declaration of those characteristics would be helpful. Will the Minister give guidance on that matter?
Although the additional knowledge now available is encouraging, one is still left with the impression that more might be done in monitoring the safety of animal feedstuffs. In contrast to the one committee, SCAN—the Scientific Committee of Animal Nutrition—which, among its other duties, has that of testing ingredients in animal feedstuffs, there are 14 different committees existing solely for the safety of food for human consumption. I mention a few. There are the committees of the Department of Health on toxicity, carcinogenicity and mutagenicity; the committee of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on novel food processes; and, additionally, there is a consumer panel. We know to our bitter cost that sources of protein once considered completely safe have had subsequently to be withdrawn from animal feedstuffs. For example, bonemeal was withdrawn only last month. It is entirely possible to imagine that other ingredients presently approved in the feeding stuff regulations might eventually be found to be unsafe and similarly withdrawn.
I conclude by asking my noble friend the Minister: whether he considers that bodies of experts, parallel to those which examine the safety of food for human consumption, should be convened to monitor that of animal consumption, in the expectation that such a move might do much to restore faith in the minds of national and international consumers.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I rise to speak fortieth in this galaxy of talent. I must say that, if I say anything new, it will be a blasted miracle. However, I greatly enjoyed today's debate. A little touch of party acrimony does no harm at all, although I did not believe that even this Government were as bad as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, painted them. Nevertheless, it does them a little good I dare say.
We have heard admirable speeches from people who know about such matters; for example, the noble Lords, Lord Soulsby and Lord Winston, and indeed other noble Lords with learning that I cannot emulate. Those speeches have been both useful and enjoyable. I also greatly enjoyed the speech made by the noble Earl, Lord 733 Lindsay, who has been through a very trying time, I appreciated his burst into a spot of political acrimony. It was very good. It proves that he is not just a nice chap. I greatly enjoyed his 28 measures in 28 days. Indeed, I thought he should have put it to music; for example:28 measures, 28 days, hurrah, hurrah!It was really good stuff and it all added to the gaiety of the occasion.
Everyone who has spoken has pushed his own particular line. Of course the anti-Europeans have had a field day and blown up the reasonable pursuit of their own interests into too great a state, although I must say that the way that some of our scientists picture the possible effects was enough to throw panic into many people. The organic farmers and the environmentalists have also had a field day and have done very well. I agree with much of what they said. There is no questioning the fact that there are features in our modern farming which need control and which need thinking about. That is perfectly true. I thought that the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley, put it better than most people when he said that science cannot be rejected but that it must be used sensibly. That is also true; indeed, we need it if we are to feed the growing number of people in the world.
As I said yesterday—and as we all agreed—whether or not we believe that they could have been done better or earlier, the Government's measures are good and will do much to restore confidence. However, I believe that the great British public are the real people to be congratulated. I say that because: give them beef cut down to half price, and they will buy it. That is the sort of thing that does more good than any amount of talking in scientific terms. But although the beef market is recovering a little, we should remember, for example, the salmonella scare of lamented memory which resulted in a 50 per cent. drop or thereabouts in the total consumption of eggs.
Therefore, we must work very hard on the promotion of beef and in pushing its excellence, not the freedom from BSE. We should push the fact that, if you have an Aberdeen Angus steak which is well marbled with fat, it does you a power of good, especially if it is done to pink perfection. Indeed, it restores your faith in human nature. That is one of the lessons that we should learn; namely, that we can promote for excellence.
Of course, it is true that proper fears are aroused in the minds of scientists by new forms of CJD, and so on. However, as many people have said, there is no real absolute evidence that there is any link, although the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, seemed to produce a lot of evidence in that respect. I must say that I do not know why the noble Earl is sitting in the far corner rather than the corner at this end of the Chamber. I know that he is a "corner boy", but perhaps he is sitting there in order to conceal his shirt!
I should like to endorse the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Kintore, about the long breed of cattle—the hill cattle—Galloways, Welsh Blacks, Highlanders, and so on. I believe that the Government should think again on the matter. I say that because such measures take 734 three years. Of course, you can speed up the process, but, if you do, you must then put the cattle on a totally different diet; for example, you must feed them cake before you can get them away in that amount of time. I hope that the Government will pursue the common-sense approach which I see signs of emerging in their policy—I cannot be nicer than that—and that, in the assessing of age, we will not take the two-teeth test as absolutely essential. Noble Lords will all know that the way to tell the age of a beast is to open its mouth and look at its teeth. I say that because there is many a beast with four teeth which is well within the age limit. I hope that such practical measures will attract the attention of the Government.
There is no doubt that a policy of slaughter, especially to take suspect animals out of a range when they have finished their working life, is sensible. It may well come about without a great deal of extra expense if they are rendered into bonemeal which can be used for fertiliser; indeed, there is no better fertiliser on the market.
One of the essential requirements is to pursue a test which many noble Lords have mentioned. We know that the Americans are working on such a test. If they have something good to sell and are waiting for a patent, for goodness sake let us get over there and offer them money. Such a test would be the ultimate and sensible measure to have. It could be used in the same way as the test for TB many years ago which cleared up the herds.
I believe that the whole situation is moving towards a decent, common-sense resolution. As the noble Earl knows—and I cannot help mentioning Scotland—the cattle industry is worth well over £500 million to Scotland. However, the vital point is that the export market is much more important in Scotland than anywhere else. That is because £180 million of that figure goes for export. Therefore, we should try to make it appear to our continental allies that the attitude they are taking is ludicrous. We should go to law, try every other method of flattery or ridicule, if so wished, scientific arguments; but we must get this ludicrous ban lifted. We should also assure them that our measures are real; that our slaughterhouses are up to the mark; and that no infected beef or offal is getting into the market. I think that we can make progress. We need to do so because a great many people not only in Scotland but in the west country and everywhere else depend on beef, have produced good beef, and deserve to go on doing so.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, as always I declare an interest as someone who is involved in dairy farming. We have had an important debate on an important subject. The word "crisis" is somewhat overworked but if we do not agree about anything else I think we can all agree that the beef farming industry is in crisis, the worst any of us have known in our farming lifetimes.
We have heard many excellent speeches in the debate but none better than the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Grantchester and Lord Biddulph. I have the pleasure of serving on the council of the Royal Agricultural Society with the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. When he declared an interest he was much 735 too modest to point out that the Grantchester prefix is famous. Indeed one of his cattle holds the European record for milk yield.
The intention when we tabled the Motion was to enable the House to analyse the BSE crisis; to learn some lessons for food safety generally; and to pay particular attention to the all important aspect of consumer safety. As I never tire of telling the farming audiences I address, the consumer is not just our best customer. The consumer is our only customer. What we know as a result of salmonella, listeria, and, now, as a result of BSE, is that the concern about food—or, more pejoratively, food scares—can decimate whole sectors of the livestock industry overnight.
We have had six ministerial Statements in four weeks. There has been an adjournment debate in the other place and the debate here today. There has been endless coverage of the matter in the broadcast and print media. However, never once has there been the merest suggestion from the Government that they might just bear some responsibility for the present crisis. As other speakers have said, it has been the Opposition, the media, rogue scientists, the mad consumer, but never, ever, the Government. The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, in a contribution I thought well below his usual standard, was at it again. We heard about the irrationality and hysteria of the consumer. He mentioned the 60 per cent. throughput in the market. I do not know whether your Lordships heard the Farming Today programme this morning. An old friend of mine, Brian Pack, the chief executive of Aberdeen and Northern Marts, pointed out that his market is one of the largest in the country but now has a throughput of only 30 per cent.
If we believe the figures, 85 per cent. of consumer demand has been restored. However, exports, which account for 20 per cent. of the total market, are non-existent. Therefore it is likely that the whole market is only 65 per cent. of its former level. It is unfair to accuse us on this side of playing party politics on the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Lye11, was kind enough to say that I have tried to follow a responsible and bipartisan line. The noble Earl said that my noble friend Lord Richard did not condemn the EU ban. He did not, but he said that it was probably illegal. I think that is a much more productive approach than just condemning it outright, as so many noble Lords did.
Yesterday, the noble Earl was kind enough to give me the references from the relevant directives that I asked for. It looks as if the ban on intra-Community trade which the directives allow has been extended and that trade is probably illegal to third countries. The noble Earl referred to the malevolence and the ignorance of our European partners. That is not the way to get the Commission and the Council of Ministers on our side. I suggest that bluster is not a recommended form of diplomacy.
If the recent scientific evidence regarding the 10 new cases of CJD is correct, we shall not know whether there is a link between BSE and CJD for probably another three to five years because of the incubation period of the disease. It is possible that we were all eating 736 potentially infected beef in the mid to late 1980s and only time will tell if we were eating ourselves into serious trouble.
The Opposition have the right and the duty to point out to the Government where they think the Government have gone badly wrong. I entered this House nine years ago. As your Lordships will know, in all that time I have sat on the Front Bench and held the agricultural brief. I have dealt with BSE from the outset of the crisis; that is, from 1987 to date. The philosophers among your Lordships will know that a connection is not a cause. I wish to make a few brief remarks to show how we in the Opposition and others have expressed our concerns in the past. That gives us every right to criticise the Government now.
On 27th February 1989 my honourable friend Dr. David Clark—I was in his team—expressed the views of the Labour Party which called upon the Government to pay 100 per cent. compensation to farmers in order to ensure that there was no temptation for them to send suspected cattle to slaughter. A senior NFU official had been quoted as saying, "It is common knowledge in the industry that infected animals have gone into the food chain." Before the Minister replies to that point, I should say that I have mentioned before the 50 per cent. compensation which was paid for three years. At the time—this is not hindsight—we said that was wrong. The response from the Government is that when they paid 100 per cent. compensation the number of reported cases did not go up. But of course they would not because the compensation was only paid on the infected animals. To save £4 million the Government were prepared to run the risk of infected animals entering the food chain. That is the point. On 27th February 1989 we said that we wished to ban the sale of brains from cattle and sheep to the general public; investigate the whole question of feeding animal protein to animals; and increase the research and development into the effects of the disease.
On 12th July 1990 we produced a six-item package. The first item concerned the culling of calves from BSE-infected cows or restricting breeding. That was backed by the BVA, the Consumers' Association, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, the National Consumer Council, the National Farmers' Union and the Women's Farming Union. The Government refused to implement the measure and the policy has remained unchanged. That left the farmers and their vets to decide whether they should breed from BSE-infected cows.
On 12th July 1990 we suggested the introduction of a tagging and recording system to enable cattle to be traced. The Government announced that measure yesterday. We also said that offal should be banned from pet food. That measure was introduced about four months later. We called for the banning of cattle and sheep protein in pig and poultry feed. That was in 1990. The measure was announced on 20th March this year. We asked for the random sampling of cattle heads. I shall return to that matter. We asked then, in 1990—we first asked for it in 1988 at the time of the salmonella crisis—for the establishment of an independent food standards agency in the following words, 737Recent opinion polls have shown that public confidence over the Ministry of Agriculture … handling of BSE has reached a rock bottom low. Organisations supporting the establishment of an independent Food Standards Agency include: the Consumers' Association the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, the National Farmers' Union".In June 1988 an article in the British Medical Journal stated,ft has generally been accepted that the slaughter of animals showing characteristic signs of infection—such as behaviour changes—as well as the usual processes of sterilisation and pasteurisation, are enough to remove any risk to the consumer. Unfortunately, this is a view that is naive, uninformed, and potentially disastrous".This was at the time when only 50 per cent. compensation was payable. The article continued,It is the farmers who own the cattle who are responsible for bringing cases to attention, and they have a financial incentive to defer the diagnosis".With the slaughter policy of all animals over 30 months we now have the chance to obtain a statistically valid sample of cattle brains—as recommended by the Tyrell Committee in 1989 and by others since—to see whether we can find the true incidence of BSE in our national herds.
The noble Earl was kind enough to pass me a letter a few moments ago from Mr. Hogg to Dr. Gavin Strang, our spokesman, in which he deals with the point about random sampling. I have had to read it extremely quickly. I believe the reason that the Government are against it is that from the onset of symptoms and death there is only a three-month time window in which one can detect BSE in the brain. I have only just received that information. If that is the case, I find it worrying. I have a letter from Mrs. Angela Browning to Mr. Ancram, my local MP. It was sent on to a local farmer. It states:Of 843 animals born in 1990 which were slaughtered as BSE suspects and for which diagnoses are now available, 46.6 per cent. were confirmed positive and 53.4 per cent. were found to be negative on post-mortem examination of brain tissue".If there is only the three month window, how do we know that the 53.4 per cent. were negative?
We also have the problem of the 25,000 cases of cattle which were born after the feed ban. A recent article in the Farmers Weekly quoted a speech from Mr. Kevin Taylor, the Ministry's assistant chief vet. He told the Veterinary Public Health association conference that in 1994 MAFF worked out how much SBO (specified bovine offals) there should be based on the number of cattle slaughtered. When officials checked the volumes, they found only 50 per cent. of the expected SBOs. We must ask ourselves where the other 50 per cent. ended up. The article stated:Though there was no chance of all the missing SBO having ended up in the human food chain"—that is good news—it could certainly have gone into animal feed, Mr. Taylor admitted".Later there is a quote from the operations director of the Meat Hygiene Service who denied that the MHS was to blame. The article states: 738He said that although there was an MHS inspector in every abattoir, 'they have a number of jobs to do and cannot spend all their time making sure the plant is complying with SBO rules'".Only two weeks ago, the "Food Programme" replayed some interviews from 1988. It cited Dr. Hugh Fraser, the great expert on scrapie, of the neuropathogenesis unit at Edinburgh. He said at that time that remote does not mean negative. He said that we must not be too complacent as regards the link between CJD and BSE. It was stated on the programme that after that interview it was never allowed to speak to Dr. Fraser again.
We also have a change in the rendering process. It has been referred to. In the debate in another place in July 1992 the chairman of the United Kingdom renderers was quoted as saying:The original proposals"—those proposed in 1979 when we left office—were very expensive, but there was a distinct change of heart when the Conservatives came into office. They were happy to drop the idea of a code and settle for random testing".Mr. Field, an executive member, was said in that debate to have gone a stage further. Referring to the different technology permitted by the weakened regulations, he said:This was partly as a result of changes in animal feed technique, but the basic motive was profit".—[Official Report, Commons, 6/7/92; col. 79.]Those quotations from the past show that we in the Labour Party and many others have been expressing our fears for a long time. We are entitled to point that out. It is not party politics.
What can be learned about food safety generally? First, there must be an independent assessment of the safety of the whole food chain. We must separate the protection of the consumer from the protection of the producer. At the time of the salmonella scare in 1988 we produced our proposals for an independent food standards agency. For many years I have been saying on public platforms, to fanning audiences and to this House, that the Ministry of Agriculture has lost the confidence of the consumer.
I have spent all my professional life working with that department. Some of my best friends are officials there. We all know that every department of Government has a doctrine, a culture, a mindset. I would say that we have now seen the results of that in the recent past. If farmers do not believe that they would be better off with an independent FSA, let them reflect on what has happened to them in the past four weeks when they have been in the tender care of the Ministry of Agriculture.
I give some brief examples away from BSE where I think that the attitude of the Government is made clear. I refer to the importation of meat with growth hormones. We are the only member state—it is one against 14—which would be prepared to allow the importation of hormone-implanted meat. The Government's answer is that we rely on science—until it comes to BSE when they ignore the science and introduce a slaughter policy even though the scientists tell them that it is not required. As I pointed out in a Starred Question, if we ban athletes who use a growth promoter, why are the 739 Government prepared to feed such products to the rest of the population? We have been managing perfectly well without them for many years.
The same applies to BST. Again it is one against 14: we would allow the use of BST.
I feel at times that our negotiating stance in Europe can be summed up as everyone out of step except us. We must find a live test for BSE. I warned the Minister of this question. I refer to the test involving the use of cerebral spinal fluid in America. I believe that we have sent infected material to America. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister will tell us the state of play as regards that test.
We have heard already of the random testing of cattle brains at slaughter. We must have a quality assurance programme. That was suggested first by the Labour Party. We must have a system of traceability. We were asking for that in 1990. There must be adequate resources for the veterinary services. We all know the reduction in the numbers of vets in the state veterinary services. In December 1995, only four months ago, 112 out of 424 slaughterhouses were found to be failing to comply with the EC fresh meat directive.
As regards maternal transmission, what has happened to the test of New Zealand heifers which were imported for testing and the 600 calves that were taken at random to test for maternal transmission? It would be extremely helpful if the Minister could bring us up to date.
We heard yesterday that the Government are relying on the Food Safety Act as the power to introduce the over-30 month ban. I have had a quick look at that Act. It would be helpful to know which part of the Act gives the Government that power. There is not a public health risk because the Government have said that beef is safe. There is not an animal health risk because we all know that the disease cannot be transmitted horizontally.
To conclude, this is a sorry story. It is extraordinary that after salmonella and listeria there is no contingency planning in the department to deal with a food scare of this nature. It was a grave error of judgment to say that the Government would rely on the scientific advice, and within two days to ignore it and introduce a slaughter policy.
We have been accused of scaremongering. It has been referred to already, but I say it again. On Sunday 24th March Mr. Hogg's speculation on television about the mass slaughter of all the cattle in the country did more damage and caused more alarm than any other single statement. There was a failure to inform the Commission. We learned today that there will be a loss of 28,000 jobs. The cost of compensation this year is £550 million; plus the cost of unemployment for the 28,000 who will lose their jobs.
Arthur Young, the agricultural historian, wrote 200 years ago. He asked a farmer whether there had been an agricultural revolution. The farmer replied, "I don't know about that, but I know that last year I had a herd and a farm and this year I have none".
The ritual slaughter of three quarters of a million cattle and the destruction of thousands of tonnes of beef now in store is a sad commentary on a gross failure of 740 policy and administration. On this side of the House we certainly do not apologise for drawing attention to it and for making constructive proposals in the past and now to ensure that such a crisis never happens again. We are entitled to do that because as a Government we shall have to deal with the results of this crisis which will resound for many years yet.
§ 7.59 p.m.
My Lords, let me first thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for giving us the chance to debate this extremely important subject. It was noble of him to choose one of the rare Labour days in this House to devote to a subject which was of interest to so few of his Back-Benchers although to many others in the House. It was perhaps appropriate that the Labour Party should have chosen as the person to present this debate the old bull of their Front Bench.
Next I must compliment our two maiden speakers who entertained us extremely well. If they follow the examples they have given us today in their future speeches we shall be happy and delighted, our whole proceedings will be enlivened by them. The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, is clearly as well bred as his dairy cows and my noble friend Lord Biddulph gave us a speech which was both short and sweet. I see that he shares with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, being an old Cheltonian, the origin of their mutual oratorical skills.
There were many other excellent speeches to which I shall be able to do scant justice. At the end of my list of compliments perhaps I had better hope for a few myself. There was a complimentary article in the Yorkshire Post headed "Lord Lucas and the Cattle Scourge". That was on 4th July 1912 and I hope to be able to follow the example of my noble forebear.
There has been much discussion on the nature of food scares. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, got it right when he said that our policy had been one of frankness, openness and concern for the nation's health. He got it wrong when he said that we had acted under a misapprehension on what the consequences of the announcement would be. I believe that we have seen enough of these scares in our time to know very well what they would be. We were under no misapprehension as to how the media would react. We were pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the Sun but I cannot say that the rest of the newspapers surprised us by their reaction. We were generally pleasantly surprised by the actions of the Opposition, particularly in this House, who have acted totally responsibly throughout. Unfortunately, some senior members of the Opposition seemed to put party ahead of country at a time when the opposite order of priorities would have been welcome. But that is no less than we expect.
When this kind of information comes to our notice, there is always the danger of it leaking. Leaking has become a feature of our national life. Data becomes public before it has been properly considered because when you reach the stage where you need a wide discussion, it is no longer possible to hold that discussion in private. If you mention something to 741 someone in Brussels, you might as well print it in the News of the World; it is out there, in public. We have to deal with that problem.
Our policy is to be open and honest, to provide as much information as we can to the people who need it in order to make their own decisions about what food they should eat. The information originates with a small group of scientists. Generally, that is pretty confidential. They then talk among themselves in the appropriate group, in this case SEAC. That course proceeded without there being widespread leaks. They then came to talk to Ministers, who were able to discuss the matter in detail. But beyond that there is no confidentiality. Beyond that our reaction was to bring the matter before Parliament and the public. I am astonished that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, should think that we should put Brussels before Westminster in our order of priorities. Of course we have been talking to Brussels all the way through the crisis and we have been keeping Brussels informed, but when something as dramatic and difficult as this announcement comes before us we wish to put it to Parliament rather than having it leak out from Brussels into the media.
As regards individuals, we feel that the great British public have acted entirely sensibly. I join the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, in congratulating them on their reaction. Of course they need time to assimilate the information. Of course they need to give proper consideration to the many and various arguments. They need time to recover from the scare stories in the media. We have done our best to provide them with information. I join my noble friend Lady Wilcox in championing the cause of the consumers. It is their views and reactions and not some diktat from the Government which bring about the consequences for the beef market that we must deal with. That is what we have been doing, dealing with it. It is our responsibility to deal with the crisis that has arisen, it is our responsibility not to fight panic with panic, as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said in his excellent speech. We have acted carefully and competently and produced the right measures as soon as it was possible to do so.
What would the Labour Party have done differently? Would they have concealed information, dissimulated, presented disinformation? My noble friend Lord Wade asked that question and received no answer from the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I am not surprised.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, will the Minister give way, since we have plenty of time? I expressed extremely clearly the Labour Party's policy. We believe in clear information but we do not believe in releasing information without thinking first about contingency planning on what is likely to happen and the panic that is likely to result from an ill-considered ministerial announcement.
My Lords, as I put clearly, we knew exactly what the results of releasing the information would be. We released it at the point when we had held as much internal discussion as we could without the information leaking.
742 The difficult problems surrounding BSE have required positive and effective government action on a number of fronts. First, and most important, is the protection of public health from any risk from BSE. The measures we have in place are endorsed fully by our own scientific advisers on the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and by the World Health Organisation.
I consider the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, to be extraordinary. The idea that if we were told by our scientific advisers that we should destroy the entire cattle and dairy business in this country we would not do so, that we would risk consumers catching a dreadful disease in large numbers merely for the commercial interests of our farming community, is extraordinary. How could a government put forward that order of priority? It gives the lie to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, in a frankly ridiculous speech.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord. However, the Minister gave that answer to a question put to him by a television interviewer, without any thought or consultation with the industry, the Treasury, the Cabinet or anyone else. It was an extraordinary gaffe to make.
My Lords, it was not. It was a basic, obvious policy for an honest and straightforward government to have. It was one which puts the interests of the consumer first. Does the noble Lord suggest that a Labour government should deliberately poison thousands or possibly hundreds of thousands of consumers?
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, the noble Lord misunderstands what I said. I said that the Minister gave that reply to a question on a television programme. I contend that when one decides to destroy the whole of one's cattle herd one does not just say: "If our advisers tell us to do so then we will do it", without having properly considered the matter with one's colleagues, the industry, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Cabinet and anyone else who has an interest.
My Lords, some principles are so obvious that they do not need restating. Our second priority is the need to put an end to the BSE epidemic and we have taken steps to protect animal health and eliminate BSE completely. Our third priority is the restoration of consumer confidence in British beef and we have gone even beyond the scientific advice in introducing new measures further to reassure consumers of the safety of British beef. Finally, the Government fully recognise the major economic impact that this crisis has had on many in the beef industry. We have put in place a number of measures to help the industry get back on its feet again. I should emphasise that this support is to preserve the industry and not to compensate for individual losses.
I turn first to the protection of public health. The event which precipitated the crisis was the discovery of a distinct new variant of the human disease CJD, found in 10 people. It was not the old form of CJD which is 743 clearly not related to BSE, if that gives any comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. The SEAC concluded that the most likely explanation of the new variant was exposure of the sufferers to BSE before the controls on specified bovine offals were introduced in 1989.
That is an important point. Before 1989 it was possible that those tissues we now know are able to carry BSE infectivity—the brain and spinal cord—might well have gone into some meat products. These high-risk tissues are the most likely source of any new infection from BSE.
The evolution of our policy has always been based on the assumption that BSE was a danger to humans. In the face of scientific evidence we have always gone further than we needed to. And when there is a step change, as there has recently been, in the scientific evidence, we have gone further again. We have made sure that all the tissues that might be infected are now to be excluded completely from any human or animal food chain. We have made sure that all animals that might be infected at the end of their lives are kept out of the human food chain. We are instituting separate lines in slaughterhouses so that there can be no mixing up of animals that might be infected with those that we are sure are not. We have imposed a complete ban on meat and bonemeal use, so that there can be no further cases of cross-contamination, which I quite agree have occurred in the past, as my noble friend Lord Burton said. We have acted on the precautionary principle advocated by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and we are policing properly the controls that we are putting in place.
The SEAC statement is careful not to refer to eating beef. Beef is meat from the muscles of cattle. No BSE infectivity has ever been found in such tissue, even from animals clinically suffering from the disease. Samples of meat—that is, muscle tissue—tested for that infectivity included peripheral nervous tissue and blood vessels. It is not possible to exclude them. I hope that that gives some comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Rea.
It is not yet proven that there is any link between BSE and CJD. We shall, I suspect, have that evidence one way or the other in due course, perhaps through mouse tests and in a year or two. We have no quicker way of obtaining that. The SEAC conclusion was that it was the most likely explanation—not "a" likely explanation, but "the most" likely explanation.
There is much evidence against BSE being infectious to humans, as my noble friend Lord Soulsby reminded us. One can say that there is perhaps a bushelful of evidence that it cannot and a grain or to, now, that it can. My noble friend Lord Onslow pointed out the various points made by Dr. Richard North. Indeed, I shall be replying to him on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, pointed out that the science is still in a very early stage and that there is a great deal that we do not know about this disease. It appears that a prion certainly has something to do with it; but the prion hypothesis does not in itself explain how different types can occur in the same animal. The chromosome which the PRP protein is on is not the same as that which causes the genetic predisposition.
744 We are, I think, looking at a deeper, more fundamental level of the operation of cells and the brain to discover what is going on. There, the importance of basic research, emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Porter, is something with which we completely agree. We have been putting a lot of money into that. When we look at the state of research now, I do not believe that we could have arrived earlier at where we are now. We are right at the fringes of the understanding of cell biology. We very much hope that we shall be able to make progress, but we are not looking at a narrow field of endeavour; we are relying on advances made in the whole field of cell biology to be able to understand this disease.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, also asked about epidemiology. It is extremely difficult to run statistically valid epidemiology on a disease with an incidence of one in a million. That has been the problem to date.
The total eradication of BSE is the Government's aim. It is not a simple task. It is made more difficult by the fact that the incubation period of BSE, from infection to the appearance of clinical signs, is between four and five years on average. A slaughter policy, as advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, would not be useful. We cannot tell which animals have the disease. We have no diagnosis. A general slaughter policy would kill many, many more animals without the disease than have it.
BSE is a notifiable disease. Farmers must report all animals they suspect to be suffering from it. Diagnosis is difficult, even for experienced veterinary surgeons, so they must always err on the side of caution. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about random sampling. As he said, that is effective only a few weeks before death. Once a vet suspects an animal of having the disease, then it is present in the brain, if in fact it has BSE. The symptoms are obvious only a short while before death. In the earlier period, when the disease is asymptomatic, it is likely to be asymptomatic in the brain also. So sampling would tell us very little extra.
What we need is a live test. There are encouraging signs that a practical test for BSE in the live animal is possible, but it is unlikely to be available for widescale use for some time, and probably not for years. There have been recent media reports of work by an American group on a live test that may be promising. We welcome that, and we are in contact with those workers. We have provided them with material on which to develop their tests. I hope that that gives some comfort to my noble friends Lord Middleton and Lord Cochrane of Cults. If we were able to find a test like that, we should be dancing in the streets. It would solve so many problems that we face with this epidemic. We should be able to kill the animals that have the disease; we should know the animals that did not have it; and the whole matter would be much easier. We have been putting a lot of effort into this. We have the smell of it in our nostrils. We think we shall get there. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and others know, science is an uncertain business. There is nothing yet that we can promise.
745 We have even been in correspondence with Dr. Narang, a gentleman who has been characterised, as least so far as the Ministry of Agriculture is concerned, if not the media, by silence and refusal to communicate. He has now asked us to supply him with samples under an experimental protocol, and we are doing so. If his test turns out to be the one that works, we shall be delighted.
We know from our extensive studies that the cause of BSE was cattle eating contaminated feed. Other potential causes, such as OPs, have been investigated in depth, and just do not stack up. My noble friend Lord Gage said that we now list the ingredients in feed. Indeed, we do. It is an improvement, and perhaps it will help us avoid similar problems in the future.
We are comforted, in that all the current evidence is that there is no horizontal or vertical transmission within cattle. As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, there is an experiment going on, a "blind" study in 600 cattle, to test the maternal transmission hypothesis. We have a broad view from our studies in cattle as a whole that there is very little evidence of maternal transmission. The importance of that particular study is that it will provide us with a finer degree of resolution. We do not want to break it now, just a year before it finishes and when it will provide us with very little more evidence than we have at the moment.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, there was also the test on the heifers imported from New Zealand, where there is no BSE. I believe some were implanted with infected embryos, etc. We heard no more about that test. Does the noble Lord know the result?
My Lords, if I am not giving the noble Lord a complete answer, I shall certainly write to him.
The introduction of BSE-infected material into cattlefeed resulted from changes to the rendering process in the late 1970s—when, indeed, the party opposite was in power—and early in the 1980s, which allowed infectious material into the feed. Some have claimed that those changes to the rendering process were the result of the Government's relaxation of controls on the industry and that they were due to deregulation. That is simply not true. The changes to the rendering process were introduced solely for commercial reasons. The regulation of the industry at that time was focused on the prevention of bacteriological contamination, notably with salmonella. At the time no one could reasonably have foreseen that what seemed to be minor technical changes could have had the consequences that they did have. Changes in regulations that were being considered by the outgoing Labour Government would not have prevented the BSE epidemic. They, too, were concerned with salmonella.
Several noble Lords, notably the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley and the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, advocated a "back to basics" policy of farming without all the modern technological improvements. I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who said that that would result 746 in our being more humane to livestock. That is not my experience of some overseas countries with smallscale agriculture.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, I ask the noble Lord to remember the days when we had humane agriculture in this country. If he was old enough, he would know that there is a great difference and it is not the same as that which happens abroad. It worked in this country in those days.
My Lords, I was brought up on a farm, but I suspect not as long ago as the noble Lord. I certainly remember working horses and the pleasure of being with animals.
We are conscious of the need to be humane to animals. As noble Lords will be aware, that is a provision we are trying to attach to the Treaty of Rome. We also feel the need to be humble in the face of what nature can throw at us, as was King Canute, and to understand that the changes we make in agricultural practice will have risks that we cannot determine. Some noble Lords may wish to avoid those risks by not improving agriculture and the availability of cheap, good food for our people; others accept that the risks exist and the question is how we will deal with them.
BSE is not a uniquely British phenomenon. Switzerland, France, Portugal and the Republic of Ireland all have home-bred cases. Many other European countries have little or no controls over specified bovine offals. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said, there is no certainty that continental beef is not rather more dangerous to humans than ours.
Much has been said about the possibility of selective culling of certain animals at high risk from BSE. If that is to be undertaken, it will have to be carefully targeted at those animals at highest risk of infection with BSE if it is to produce a genuine reduction in the number of BSE cases over the next few years. We have no intention of indiscriminately culling entire herds. That would be extremely wasteful.
The only effect of a largescale cull would be to speed up the decline in symptomatic BSE. It would not affect public safety, given the other measures that we have in place. We are prepared to contemplate it as part of a deal with Europe. The deal would be worth doing if we could do it, but it is proving extremely difficult at the moment. The European Union ban on the export of British beef and products containing bovine material is unjustified and totally disproportionate. It flies in the face of unequivocal scientific advice from the EC Scientific Veterinary Committee. As my noble friend Lord Lyell pointed out, it is damaging the Europeans as much as ourselves.
The Government are pressing hard for the ban to be lifted. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, even the Commission President and the Agriculture Commissioner now admit that British beef is safe. It is absolutely clear, as we have always said, that the ban is motivated more by the interests of other countries' beef markets than by public health. We intend to challenge the totally unjustified ban in the European Court of Justice. We will draw on the helpful recent 747 remarks of President Santer and Commissioner Fischler in so doing. Substantive action may take some time so we shall also be seeking interim relief.
The ban is based on health grounds and, given what has been said in the scientific evidence, we clearly feel that we have an excellent case. I am extremely sorry that the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Hooson, felt unable to join us in condemning the ban. They did not say that it was undesirable.
This morning I had the pleasure of listening to the Breakfast News on BBC1, when I was entertained by Mrs. Dagmar Roth-Behrenbt, a lady who is the Social Democrat environment spokesman in the European Parliament. She claimed to have been briefed on BSE by the Labour Party in this country. Perhaps I can read a little of what she said. She began,[Mr. Fischler] would be happy to eat young British beef. This means beef which is younger than 30 months, he obviously thought. But nevertheless, what Mr. Fischler said is not backed by any kind of scientific research. At the moment, most of the scientists say there is a link between Creutzfeld-Jacob disease and BSE, and at the moment consumers in the European Union … are very concerned, very suspicious and they are not willing at the moment to buy beef, either if it is coming from Britain or beef of their own country".She added:[The ban on British beef] doesn't surprise me really, because [the British] haven't done anything in the past … My colleagues in Westminster from the Labour Party, and as well here, always asked the British Government to pay all farmers the real market value for every case of BSE".I believe her to be a little out of date in that regard. She continued:Then farmers will have been willing in the past, and able in the past, just to show and to kill those animals and then we would have avoided this case we have now".That is obviously not true, given our inability to detect BSE. She went on:what I expect the British Government to do is just to make clear scientific research, to support scientific research, to make sure that they are willing to accept that all cattle older than 30 months might have to be slaughtered".If she does not know that, then she is somewhat out of date and the Labour Party has not been doing its job in informing their European partners of what is going on in this country.
Mrs. Roth-Behrenbt said that Britain should be willing to do that because most of the funds for the farmers are coming from the European Union anyway. As my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke said, 80 per cent. of the funds are in fact coming from us. That degree of misinformation and misunderstanding in someone who claims to have been briefed by the Labour Party is shameful and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and his colleagues will do something to put it right fast.
We have put in place many measures to help industry. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked on what they were based. The parts of the Food Safety Act at which he should look are Sections 6(4), 13(1) and 48(1). I hope that he will find what he needs there.
748 I am conscious that I have not replied in detail to the questions raised by many noble Lords. However, I wish to trespass on your Lordships' time to respond to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, and mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and others; that is, late maturing cattle and cattle which have not been exposed to BSE and which are brought up in what might be called an environmentally friendly way. We are aware of the need to have special exemptions for those cases. We are urgently working on the technical elements of the scheme which will allow clearly defined exemptions to be made. But, as the noble Earl, Lord Kintore, said, BSE does occur in such cattle and our first priority must be that of public health.
The BSE issue raises many difficult questions. Most important is to ensure the protection of public health. That the Government have done throughout the BSE epidemic. We have to eradicate BSE. Again, measures taken since 1988 are ensuring that we can do that. We need to establish a healthy beef industry. The return of consumer confidence in beef will help achieve that, and we are working hard to see that that happens. In the meantime, help has been made available at critical points through the industry to farmers, abattoirs and to the renderers to ensure that that great industry can remain viable and effective.
I want to close by returning to the key point; that is, the safety of British beef. We have stringent control measures in place and they are enforced most rigorously. I can only commend to the House the comments of the chairman of the SEAC, Professor Pattison, who said,In any common usage of the word, British beef is safe".That message is clear. I commend British beef to your Lordships as a great, thoroughly enjoyable and safe product.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, I believe that I have 36 minutes to respond to all those who have taken part in the debate. I merely wish to make one or two comments. Primarily I want to say something in regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said.
The debate exhibited a number of different strands. One thing is perfectly clear. Apart from the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, everyone who spoke from the other side of the Chamber blamed somebody other than the Government—Europe, the broadcasting media, the press, and particularly the Labour Party. Now we are accused of falsely briefing a lady whose name I did not catch who gave an interview to a body in terms which the noble Lord admits must have been false. It seems to me to be stretching responsibility just a little far to ascribe to the Labour Party the views that that good lady—and I am sure she is—is supposed to have given.
The noble Lord said that the Government wanted to be as humble as King Canute. My recollection of King Canute is that his humility got him very wet feet. It seems to me that the Government have not only wet feet; they are soaked, sodden, and up to their eyebrows in a mess of their own making. But the really staggering thing that emerged, clearly set out by the Minister in his 749 brief, is that the reaction to their Statements of 20th March is what the Government expected. Ponder that just for one moment. my Lords. I am a naive, good natured soul. I give people credit for good intentions and have done since I became involved in politics 35 years ago. At least I thought they had got it wrong. Now the Minister tells us that they got it right and that what happened is exactly what they had anticipated and expected. That cannot be right. I cannot believe that even this Government expected and anticipated a crisis which would end up with 28,000 people being laid off, with £500 million having to be paid in compensation, with the meat market in ruin and with a ban imposed by the European Union on the export of British beef not only to European Union countries but to third countries as well.
My Lords, I hope that what I said was that we anticipated the media reaction. If I failed to say that, I misread what I had written in front of me, which was in my own words and was not my brief.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, that does not get the noble Lord off the hook. If the Government anticipated the reaction they were going to get from the media, why on earth are they complaining about it with such bitterness now? They should have done something about it at the time. If they knew they were going to be pilloried in the press, then a little modest preparation in advance of the Statements would have been quite desirable—but not a bit of it. If the reaction was what the Government expected, then frankly it passes belief.
We have had a longish debate and an interesting day. The Government's position has been totally exposed, which in a sense was one of the things the debate was about. I am delighted that it has had that exposure. In all the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.