HL Deb 21 October 1999 vol 605 cc1289-92

3.15 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

asked. Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is the advice of the Chief Medical Officer that beef on the bone is safe to eat and, if so, whether they will allow it to be offered for sale in England.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, Professor Donaldson's advice, which the Government have already published, is that the ban can now be lifted, although it would be prudent to retain it for manufacturing uses as a precaution. We consider that it would be preferable for consumers and for the beef industry to lift the ban at the same time in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that sad and most disturbing reply which further depresses the very demoralised industry of agriculture. Will she say why we have to wait until the rest of the United Kingdom falls into line? Does not the Welsh Assembly seem to be undisciplined on this matter rather as, perhaps, your Lordships were on the first Question this afternoon?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I hope that it will not be depressing for the industry. We believe that it is in the industry's best interests that we take a United Kingdom view. Further scientific evidence is scheduled for November. Provided that that evidence and the medical advice are favourable, it will be the Government's clear and firm intention, and the clear and firm intention of the First Minister in Scotland and the First Secretary in Wales, to lift the ban throughout the United Kingdom.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, does not the fact that we still have the ban on beef on the bone look suspiciously as though we are worried about the state of beef, thereby giving ammunition to the French in banning our beef?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I do not agree. I believe it is absolutely clear that it is because we have had the highest standards, based on an extremely precautionary approach, that we have been able to persuade the European Commission that our beef is safe for export. The beef which would be exported under the date-based export scheme has no link to the beef on the bone issue. That beef has to be deboned; it has to come from animals under 30 months of age which were born after 1996; and it has to come from dedicated plants. That presents a separate issue, and one which we need to pursue, but I do not believe it is related to this particular one.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, in asking a supplementary question I must declare an interest, having been a member of the Southwood working party which reported to the Government on BSE in 1989. Will the Minister agree that for a time it was a wise precaution to ban beef on the bone because of the possibility that the bone might have been contaminated by spinal cord tissue and posterior root ganglia? However, in the light of all the precautions that have been taken over the past 18 months or so, is it not now evident that the risk of eating beef on the bone is so minuscule that the ban should be lifted? Will the noble Baroness press her colleagues in Scotland and in Wales to lift it as soon as possible in the light of the CMO's advice?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, are very wise. The spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee suggested that it was a sound precaution to take. The Government imposed the beef bone regulations because of that advice. We have received advice from Professor Donaldson that the risk in lifting the ban on the retail sale of beef on the bone would now be so low as not to be significant in any quantifiable way. We hope to be able to proceed on that advice. The chief medical officers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland want a little longer to consider the data which will be available from the Oxford epidemiological group in November. We believe that it is sensible and prudent to give them those few weeks to see if we can go forward on a United Kingdom basis.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, is it not a slightly farcical situation when the Chief Medical Officer for England, who has overall responsibility for health in the United Kingdom, says that beef on the bone is fit and all right for us to eat, but two of the assemblies among Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—which were elected on the basis that they would allow beef on the bone to be eaten as soon as they were elected to power—now prevent those in England who want to eat beef on the bone from doing so? How are we to resolve those sorts of questions in the future?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I do not answer from this Dispatch Box for the policies of either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. The Chief Medical Officer advises the United Kingdom Government as a whole but legislative competence and policy in food safety is the remit of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, advised by their own CMOs. Obviously, it is preferable if we can go forward on a United Kingdom basis. I return to that point. We are all working together and hoping to achieve that.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, I am absolutely certain that the Minister understands the difficulties that arise from different chief medical officers having different opinions. Does the Minister agree that if we embark upon a policy that responds in a piecemeal manner and which is somewhat divisive, that would make a difficult situation much worse and would not achieve anything? Secondly, how long does the Minister believe it will take before the chief medical officers present a united front? How quickly can we

respond and lift the ban when the other chief medical officers come into line with the English Chief Medical Officer?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, consumers would experience real difficulties were there to be different regimes in different parts of the United Kingdom. For that reason we believe it is preferable to go forward in a united manner. We hope that when the new data are published in November the chief medical officers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be reassured and will take the same view as Professor Donaldson. Then we shall be able to move speedily to lift the ban on retail sales.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I want to press the Minister. Is the Chief Medical Officer responsible for the whole of the United Kingdom, or does he have to go along with his subordinates in Scotland and Wales? Secondly, does the Minister realise the difficulties caused by the delay? We have no idea when the ban will be lifted, although the suggestion is that it should happen in November. Does she not accept that in the meantime many farmers are going to the wall? In this country farming is in crisis and this Government are doing nothing urgently to help.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I take issue with the noble Baroness about this Government doing nothing to help farmers. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture announced a substantial package of aid to farming industries whose difficulties I would not underestimate.

A Noble Lord

My Lords, it was only £1 million.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it was not only £1 million, but £150 million as well as the compensatory money.

The noble Baroness asked about the position of the Chief Medical Officer. He is the adviser to the United Kingdom Government. It is absolutely plain that in the past food safety policy has been the remit of Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and Northern Ireland Ministers and it has been possible for them to take different advice from different CMOs. In November we expect additional evidence on which we hope that the CMOs of the other countries will be able to advise their chief Ministers to lift the ban. Then we can move speedily to lift the ban.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, is not the purpose of devolution that each country should have responsibility for looking after its own affairs? That being so, why should England, and English farmers, have to depend upon the decisions of Scottish and Welsh Ministers?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, they do not have to depend on the decisions of Scottish and Welsh Ministers. However, in this case it is sensible to act on a United Kingdom basis. I give an analogy. It would

dhave been possible to set up separate food standards agencies in each of the four countries. Because of issues of food safety and food standards, the decision has been taken that it is sensible not to have different regimes in different countries and for us to act in a concerted, United Kingdom fashion. That is what we want to do in this respect. The law says that it is possible to act in a different way. The views of the First Minister of Scotland, the First Secretary in Wales and the United Kingdom Government are that it would be preferable—I say that seriously—for the industry to move on a United Kingdom basis.