HL Deb 28 April 1999 vol 600 cc310-3

3.5 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, namely: Whether the Welsh Assembly has the power to revoke or amend the beef on the bone regulations?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, the National Assembly for Wales will have the power to revoke or amend the controls on the sale, use and disposal of beef bones in Wales, including the ban on beef on the bone. The Beef Bones Regulations 1997 are made under the Food Safety Act 1990, which is included in the transfer order made by both Houses. But in considering whether to take such a step no doubt the National Assembly for Wales will take into account the advice of the relevant Chief Medical Officer.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House warmly for allowing me to ask the Question and the Minister for his reply.

With some sadness and temerity I must ask the noble Lord why, in Hansard on 2nd June 1998 (in columns 214,215, 226 and 229) the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, assured the House that the beef on the bone order would not be devolved. The Government opposed an amendment that I and my fellow Back-Benchers supported and won a Division so that it would not he devolved. This was followed on 21st April of this year by a Statement in the Commons that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, was wrong and that, as we have heard from the noble Lord, the order will be devolved. I am greatly confused. The Minister may or may not know that, as the matter has become a political football in Wales, the Welsh electorate wants to know exactly what Westminster has decreed.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I apologise for the absence of my noble friend; he is unavoidably abroad. Perhaps I may explain the matter. At the time my noble friend made his Statement to this House in June last year it was indeed the Government's position that this issue would be a joint responsibility between the National Assembly and MAFF. That position was subsequently changed and it was decided that it would be devolved to Wales. That fact was stated to the House of Commons by Alun Michael on 24th February of this year. It was decided that that responsibility would be transferred to the National Assembly for Wales. The matter is explained by the passing of nine months and the evolution of policy. When my noble friend made the Statement, that was the Government's position and their advice to him.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that what he has just told us is quite amazing? Anyone can make a mistake in making a Statement, I appreciate that, but he is telling us that the National Assembly of Wales will be able to allow Welsh people to eat beef on the bone—presumably it will be the case in Scotland—and yet Welsh and Scottish MPs can come to England and vote to prevent English people from eating beef on the bone. That surely cannot be right. Is it not about time that Ministers took hold of themselves, had some guts and told the medical officers that in their view—I know it is the view of my noble friend—the ban on beef on the bone is absurd and ridiculous? Beef on the bone is of no danger to anyone and the ban should be removed. Why do they not do that?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am sure that before taking any decision on this matter the National Assembly for Wales will take advice from its relevant medical officer and will act accordingly. I should point out to the House that the then Chief Medical Officer for Wales at the time of the decision to ban beef on the bone supported that decision. I am sure that in both areas the evidence will be considered again. We have already stated that the evidence will be considered again in a few months. The risk had declined when it was last assessed but was still considered by the Chief Medical Officer to be such as to justify the ban. That will be considered again in a few months. That advice will influence the decisions we take and I am certain will influence the decisions taken by the National Assembly. I cannot conceive that it will take decisions other than on the best medical advice.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, does not the noble Lord understand that the answer he has given raises serious issues, for four reasons? The first is the one given by his noble friend Lord Stoddart a moment ago; secondly, because by its decision the Welsh Office seems to have totally undermined the position of his noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, who is a man of the utmost integrity, and indeed of all those Ministers who voted down my noble friend's amendment which would have transferred these powers to the Welsh Assembly; thirdly, because candidates are campaigning in Wales at the moment on the basis that they will use powers that this House was categorically assured they would not be given; and, fourthly, because the Lord Chancellor yesterday asked us to accept that the House of Lords Bill meant what he said it meant. Is it now the Government's position that they can change their mind every 10 months about what they want a Bill to mean?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord with regard to the complete integrity of my noble friend Lord Williams. That is not in question. Policies evolve, as indeed they evolved under previous governments. But we know what the policy is now. This position has been the public position since February. Candidates in the Welsh elections are or could be aware of that. It is certainly being discussed now. Though I have taken my noble friend's advice and have tried to take hold of myself, I do not see the matter in the same light as the noble Lord opposite.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the Minister realise that he has my sympathy in having to come to the Dispatch Box to undo the words used by his noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn when the noble Lord himself should have come to undo the words he used? Those of us who were present for that debate remember that it went on for some time. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, was very, very clear in what he said. Should not the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, have made arrangements to come to the House when this decision was changed in order to inform the House, which was totally misled on that evening? Furthermore, does this Welsh U-turn not open up the interesting position that in Wales beef on the bone will be allowed, in Scotland it will be allowed—I can assure the noble Lord that it will most assuredly be allowed—whereas in England it will not be allowed? Is this a subtle plot to help Welsh and Scottish beef farmers and disadvantage English ones? Should I get a larger suitcase so that I can bring down beef on the bone every Monday morning for noble Lords here?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am sure that all decision-makers will approach that decision responsibly and will take on board the best scientific advice available. As I said, my noble friend Lord Williams is abroad. I have made a Statement on behalf of the Government. My noble friend did not mislead the House. That was the position at the time and that was his advice at the time he made the statement.

Lord Winston

My Lords, I had no intention of rising to speak on this issue. That was the last thing on my mind. But is it not the case that one of the misconceptions is that science is about certainty? The problem of course is that science is largely about uncertainty and government have to do the best they can with the uncertainty that science may present.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. We were dealing with uncertainty. We have scientific advice that there is risk. The Government's first priority is public health. Forty people have now died in the most horrendous circumstances from the related disease. The Government act, as my noble friend said, in a situation in which there is no certainty but there is risk. We were not prepared to take that risk with public health.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, we have had 10 minutes on this Question which, as noble Lords will realise, is the normal practice when taking Starred Questions in an oral form. I think my noble friend has replied to the points which have been substantially made.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I have obviously looked up the Companion and taken advice from the Clerks. There is no time limit on this matter.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, with respect, I am advised that, except in a case where a Private Notice Question in another place is repeated as a Statement in this House, the normal practice is to follow the conventions which apply to Starred Questions and Oral Questions.