Catalogue of disasters to beef about

Labour's deputy leader gives a sneak preview of the party's approach to tomorrow's Commons debate
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Tory government's record on BSE - popularly known as mad cow disease - is a tale of such incompetence, stupidity and waste that it stands as a fitting memorial to John Major's government. His is an administration that puts party before national interest, puts deregulation before safety, talks tough but acts weak in Europe, and fails to deliver on its promises. Britain's beef industry and the taxpayer have been left to pick up the bill.

According to the Agriculture minister, Douglas Hogg, all this will cost the people of this country more than pounds 3bn, equivalent to 2p on income tax - pounds 130 for every taxpayer in the land.

On 20 March 1996 when the latest BSE crisis broke, Mr Hogg told the country: "I do not believe that this information should damage consumer confidence and thus the beef market."

By April consumer confidence and beef sales had collapsed. Europe and other countries (including the British dependency of Hong Kong) imposed an export ban on British beef products.

The National Farmers' Union tell me there are 115,000 beef farmers in the UK. The TGWU, which represents rural workers, estimates that there are 675,000 employees working with cattle or in the beef-processing industry.

Future generations will wonder how Douglas Hogg, in less than a thousand days at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, could so undermine a beef industry whose history stretches back over a thousand years. In the process he has turned a few profiteers into millionaires, driven many farmers to bankruptcy, and cost the taxpayer a mountain of money.

Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, and I talk to farmers and people in the food industry and they are angry. After all, this must be the first Agriculture minister who has warranted a vote of no confidence by the NFU.

No wonder, because this was the government that scrapped draft safety regulations on cattle feed in the first place. When BSE was identified, they were woefully slow to act. They failed to enforce the safety measures they introduced, turning an animal health problem into a human health problem. They caused chaos and confusion by their handling of this crisis. To cap it all they talked tough in Europe, while failing to produce the steps agreed at Florence necessary to get the beef export ban lifted.

It was the Prime Minister who came back from the Florence summit in June last year waving his "peace in our time" formula for lifting the beef export ban. Douglas Hogg, backed by John Major, told us that the conditions for lifting the European ban on our beef exports would be met by November.

Four months later, there is still no sign of the ban being lifted. Only last week Mr Hogg arrogantly proclaimed that "We have put in place all the essential preconditions of the Florence agreement. We have done our bit and we now expect the Europeans to do theirs". That is a travesty of the truth.

Last Thursday Mr Major failed to deny any of the four simple points put to him by Tony Blair in the House of Commons. First, that since last June when he promised that the beef ban would be lifted by November, no part of the ban has been lifted. Second, that under the selective slaughter scheme, agreed at Florence in June, not a single animal has yet been slaughtered. Third, that no formal proposal has yet even been put to the European Commission about lifting the ban from the BSE-free certified herds in Scotland, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. And finally, that the cost of the BSE fiasco is now estimated at pounds 3.3bn and is currently running at pounds 4m a day.

As part of the "over-30-month-old" slaughter scheme announced in April 1996, 1.2 million cattle have been slaughtered, but the Government does not have the capacity to dispose of them safely. Only 4 per cent have so far been incinerated. Where are the rest?

Labour MP Helen Jackson has unearthed their location: a million condemned carcasses lie in 41 cold-storage, 10 dry-warehouse and two container sites up and down the country. Three of these sites are in my own city of Hull - giving the answer to the Government's question: "Where's the beef?" Now we know - it's in Hull!

Over the years we have had milk surpluses, butter mountains and wine lakes. Now we have pyramids of containers full of condemned cattle - Major's Mad Cow Morgues.

No one knows exactly how or where these carcasses and other remains can be destroyed. So we face a choice of turning power stations into incinerators, creating mass graves in our countryside, or maintaining mountains of containerised carcasses - without spreading fear of disease being passed by air, land or water.

Clearly, the Tories cannot be trusted to sort out the beef crisis, any more than they can to run the country.

On Monday Parliament will debate a Labour motion reprimanding the Agriculture minister for his incompetent record. We hope all parties will put differences aside and vote in the national interest. The Government stands accused of delay, ineffectiveness, talking tough but acting weak, incompetence and waste.

This is why the European Parliament set up a special committee to investigate the British government's record. But Mr Hogg refused to appear before it. No wonder the committee found the UK government guilty of incompetence and waste. It also recommended that the European share of compensation should be held back. The Tory MEP and former president of the NFU, Lord Henry Plumb, failed to turn up for the crucial vote on this issue. But for his absence, the committee could not have passed this recommendation - with Labour MEP Philip Whitehead leading the vote against.

Consequently, in the Strasbourg debate next week Douglas Hogg will face yet another vote of no confidence and Britain could be effectively fined pounds 1bn.

Labour backs Britain's beef industry. That is why we want to restore confidence and prosperity, by implementing proper arrangements to get the beef ban lifted. We want the public to know that beef and other food is safe to eat, with proper labelling and an independent Food Safety Agency.

It is about time someone in a government that has inflicted so much harm on this country could for once say "Sorry". But, with this government, that seems to be the hardest word.