§ The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Stephen Dorrell)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the latest advice that the Government have received from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee. The House will be aware that the committee, which is chaired by Professor John Pattison, was established in 1990 to bring together leading experts in neurology, epidemiology and microbiology, to provide scientifically based advice on the implications for animal and human health of different forms of spongiform encephalopathy.
The committee provides independent advice to Government. Its members are not Government scientists, but leading practitioners in their field. The purpose of the committee is to provide advice not simply to Government but to the whole community on the scientific questions that arise in its field. The Government have always made it clear that it is our policy to base our decisions on the scientific advice provided by the advisory committee. The committee has today agreed new advice about the implications for animal and human health of the latest scientific evidence. Copies of the committee's advice, together with a statement from the chief medical officer that is based on that advice, have been placed in the Vote Office.
The committee has considered the work being done by the Government surveillance unit in Edinburgh, which specialises in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. That work, which relates to the 10 cases of CJD that have been identified in people aged under 42, has led the committee to conclude that the unit has identified a previously unrecognised and consistent disease pattern. A review of patients' medical histories, genetic analysis and consideration of other possible causes have failed to explain those cases adequately.
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. Against the background of that new finding, the committee has today agreed a series of recommendations, which the Government are making public this afternoon.
The committee's recommendations are in two parts. First, it recommends a series of measures to reduce further the risk to human and animal health associated with BSE. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make a statement about those measures that fall within his Department's responsibilities immediately after questions on this statement have been concluded.
In addition, the committee recommended that there should be urgent consideration of what further research is needed in this area, and that the Health and Safety Executive and the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens should urgently review their advice. The Government intend to accept all the recommendations of the advisory committee in full; they will be put into effect as soon as possible.
The second group of recommendations from the committee offers advice about food safety, on the assumption that the further measures recommended by 376 the committee are implemented. On that basis, the committee concluded that the risk from eating beef is now likely to be extremely small and that there is no need for it to revise its advice on the safety of milk.
The chief medical officer will write today to all doctors, to ensure that the latest scientific evidence is drawn to their attention. In the statement by the chief medical officer that I have placed in the Vote Office, Sir Kenneth Calman poses to himself the question whether he will continue to eat beef. I quote his answer:I will do so as part of a varied and balanced diet. The new measures and effective enforcement of existing measures will continue to ensure that the likely risk of developing CJD is extremely small.A further question has arisen about the possibility that children are more at risk of contracting CJD. There is at present no evidence for age sensitivity, and the scientific evidence for the risks of developing CJD in those who eat meat in childhood has not changed as a result of the new findings. However, parents will be concerned about the implications for their children, and I have asked the advisory committee to provide specific advice on that issue following its next meeting this weekend.
Any further measures that the committee recommends will be given the most urgent consideration by the Government. As the Government have repeatedly made clear, new scientific evidence will be communicated to the public as soon as it becomes available.
§ Ms Harriet Harman (Peckham)
I thank the committee for its work. I welcome the two principal new measures that it has proposed, on which the Secretary of State is acting. I also welcome the fact that he has made available to me the advice of the chief medical officer on this important and difficult issue. I appreciate that.
Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that public confidence on this issue is hanging by a thread? Public confidence must be restored, but the public have to be given the full facts and honest advice on which to base their decisions. That relies on two things. It relies, does it not, on the Secretary of State giving full disclosure of the scientific evidence? I hope that he will publish all that information and give clear advice and guidance.
Is it not the case that the time has passed for false reassurance? There must be no more photo-calls of Ministers feeding beefburgers to their children. The question whether there is a link between BSE and CJD is an issue, is it not, of immense importance to consumers, and particularly for parents of young children. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge, as I do, that it is also of immense importance for hundreds of thousands of people who work in farming and the meat industry? Does he acknowledge that the situation remains uncertain and that it is now apparent that there has been too much reassurance and too little action?
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.
The public have a right to know that there has been a comprehensive consideration of all the options. Will the Secretary of State tell the House the most radical option 377 that SEAC considered? In addition to knowing what the Secretary of State was advised had been considered and acted on, the House needs to know what the committee considered and what it ruled out, to be reassured that all the options were considered.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is not saying that there is no risk? Will he confirm that we are dealing not with absolute risks but with relative risks, and that the aim is to achieve the difficult feat of balancing the interests of the economy and the meat industry with those of health?
Is it not the case that, unfortunately and, I am sure, inadvertently, the House has been given yet more false reassurance? The Secretary of State said that Sir Kenneth Calman, the chief medical officer, would continue to eat beef as part of his balanced diet; but he should tell the House whether Sir Kenneth would be prepared to feed beef to his young grandchildren. It is not just a question of the safety of beef for adults; it is a question of the safety of beef for children. Will the Secretary of State confirm that SEAC members who are parents or grandparents are not giving beef to their children or grandchildren?
The right hon. Gentleman must take the public into his confidence. He must recognise that he must lead public opinion, so the public must not be left in the dark. Public concern is so great that Ministers have a duty to be entirely open about the considerations that are involved. If the facts are not fully disclosed, the public response will be fear, which will then be stoked up by ignorance and innuendo. [Interruption.] I appreciate that the position is difficult and the information uncertain, but it is clear that the Secretary of State has lost the confidence of the British people. While he was advising people that it was okay to eat beef, local education authorities throughout the country were withdrawing it from school meals. We need to restore public confidence in the advice of the Department of Health. If we are to do that, people must know that the Government are doing all that they can, that they will publish all SEAC's deliberations and that enough resources will be devoted to future research.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I thank the hon. Lady for pointing out that I had made the chief medical officer's advice available to her. I also thank her for welcoming the action that the Government are taking today, which corresponds precisely with the advice given by the scientific committee.
The hon. Lady said that it was important for Government actions and public information on these sensitive issues to be based four square on the facts, not on the reassurances of those without the scientific qualifications on which to base such reassurances. I entirely agree with that. It is essential that we rest our case firmly on the considered advice of the specialists in the advisory committee, who understand scientific connections which are often discussed but which very few of us are qualified to understand.
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. She asked whether the committee was free to consider all options in making recommendations to the Government. It was indeed free to consider any recommendations that it chose, and it considered a wide range of recommendations. The key 378 point for the House and the public to note is that the committee's recommendations are the result of considered deliberation by experts, and have been accepted by the Government.
In that connection, I shall deal directly with the question that the hon. Lady asked about children. The committee has not given us a specific recommendation about children. That is why I have asked it to do so at its next meeting. The evidence has become available only in the past few weeks, and it is important that there is proper consideration of all the different elements of that evidence. The specific question of children will be considered by the committee this weekend, and a specific conclusion will be reached and published.
The final question that the hon. Lady asked was whether the facts on which the committee based its deliberations would be made public. The answer is yes, as soon as proper arrangements can be made for their publication in scientific journals.
§ Mr. Paul Marland (West Gloucestershire)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members are deeply shocked by the tone and implication of what the Labour spokeswoman said? I urge him to continue not to overreact over this whole business and to base his decisions, as he said, on the latest scientific information. We have often discovered in the House that the rumour is different from the reality. Such health scares and food scares have occurred before. Will he bear it in mind that there is a big industry out there—the British beef industry—which will be listening extremely carefully to what he says?
§ Mr. Dorrell
My hon. Friend makes his own point about other comments in his own way. This afternoon, it is not appropriate for me to comment on that.
This key issue involves safety of food and legitimate economic interests. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is just as important for us not to overreact as it is for us not to underreact. The actions that we take must be based four square on an honest assessment of the latest science. That is the Government's position and will continue to be so.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
I share the Secretary of State's view that the worst thing that we could do would be to overreact. Therefore, I ask him about two specific things. First, the reports make it clear—I have had the advantage, for which I am grateful, of reading the other two reports—that six other pieces of work are needed and are in hand. Two will be undertaken by the advisory committee, to assess what further research is needed. The Secretary of State referred to another, where he has asked the committee to give specific advice in relation to children. Further advice is also sought from the Health and Safety Executive and the other advisory committee.
Will all that advice be given with the greatest urgency, because the greatest concern for people out there is what to do between today's announcement, which I accept had to be made quickly, and the remaining announcements, which will, as it were, see through this afternoon's announcement? Has there been independent advice from the Medical Research Council? If so, will the Secretary of State publish it?
Secondly, and perhaps most practically, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the public authorities and, especially, hospitals and local education authorities 379 should do, because, otherwise, they will have to use their discretion? Such advice would be helpful. Schools and hospitals need to know whether, pending further advice, they should continue to have beef and beef products on their menus for people who would eat them.
§ Mr. Dorrell
The hon. Gentleman referred to one or two further actions that the committee recommended and that I have assured hon. Members will be taken. He referred first to research. I have authorised an additional £4.5 million of expenditure out of the national health service research budget for this sector. The Medical Research Council budget is also available. Both the council and the NHS research and development division will urgently consider the next steps that are necessary following the committee's recommendations.
My statement makes it clear that the same is true of the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens and the Health and Safety Executive. All those involved have issues to consider in their fields of expertise. Following the committee's recommendations, all are asked to do so urgently and they all will.
As regards the action that people should take as a consequence of the recommendations, the right thing for any decision maker to do in the light of the findings is to act on the recommendations of the committee and of the chief medical officer. I have made it clear that neither of them is recommending a change of action from current practice in terms of food safety as a result of the findings. I have already answered directly the question on children by saying that specific advice on that subject is being sought from SEAC this weekend.
§ Sir John Cope (Northavon)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is quite right to publish the scientific advice that he has received and to act exactly on that advice, as the Government have always done? But can he also confirm, as I think he said in his statement, that the 10 new cases that have caused the immediate concern are all thought to have been infected before the 1989 precautions involving offal, and so on, were taken? That should be a considerable reassurance to the public, in avoiding the sort of overreaction about which we are concerned.
§ Mr. Dorrell
Yes, my right hon. Friend is right. I am grateful to him for his support on our approach. In terms of the likely pathological background to the 10 cases that are the basis of the revised advice, it would be a mistake for me to paraphrase the experts' advice. It is, as I quoted it in my statement, that the most likely explanation is that the cases may be linked to exposure before the specified bovine offal ban in 1989. But the statement and the chief medical officer make it clear that there is no scientific proof of that connection.
§ Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)
In welcoming the Secretary of State's presence in the House and that of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and in welcoming the measures that he has announced, may I tell him of the distressing case of Victoria Rimmer, now aged 18, who has lain seriously ill in Deeside community hospital for some three years? May I also tell him of the superb nursing skills practised in that hospital and the 380 splendid work of the team led by Mrs. Megan Jolly? The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that Victoria's former schoolfriends continue to come to the hospital, as do members of staff.
In an answer on this matter dated 3 February 1994, the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), said:Beef can be safely eaten by anyone, both adults and children, including patients in hospital.—[Official Report, 3 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 867.] Does that advice still stand?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I, and I am sure the whole House, join the hon. Gentleman in expressing sympathy to Victoria in her condition and in expressing our admiration both for the care that she has received from NHS staff and for the support that she will have received from the people in her own community. There is no doubt that the condition that we are talking about is extremely distressing and it is therefore essential that proper steps are taken to ensure that the risk of it being incurred is minimised.
In terms of advice as to how people should act, I give the hon. Gentleman the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)—the science does not justify a change in current practice. That is the advice that I have been given. I am not a scientist. It would be a great mistake for me or any other non-scientist to seek to second-guess the scientific advice that has been given to the Government and—this is the important point—through the Government to the nation.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having the political courage to come to the House and make this statement this afternoon as soon as the new evidence was available. I also applaud him on behalf of all on the Conservative Benches for having the moral courage to stick to his last in saying that the Government will always support the latest scientific evidence available. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the House that the risks of contracting CJD from whatever source are infinitesimal?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. He is of course right to say that the risks associated with this condition are extremely low, which is made clear in the scientific advice that I have received and have made available this afternoon.
§ Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)
Was not the previous scientific advice categorical that there was no possibility of BSE entering the human food chain? In the light of the possibility that the disease takes 10 years to incubate, should not stronger advice be given—certainly to schools and parents—on the possible effects and dangers of feeding beef to small children?
§ Mr. Dorrell
The hon. Lady raises two questions. The answer to her first question, on whether the previous advice was specific that it was inconceivable that there would be a link between BSE and the condition being transmissible to humans, is no. The advice that we have received all the way through has been that there is no proof, no evidence, of a link. But it was precisely to safeguard against the possibility that there might be a link that the various controls were introduced, the most recent 381 tightening of which was announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the autumn.
It has always been recognised that there was a possibility of a link and, in the past few weeks, the committee has been considering new evidence around the existence of that possibility. It has considered that evidence and, on the basis of scientific expertise, has drawn conclusions on the controls that are necessary to provide proper safeguards to both animal and human health.
It is precisely because I understand the sensitivity of the advice that SEAC gives specifically on children, and by extension to schools—I am a parent of two young children—that I have sought specific advice. It will be available this weekend.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
Will my right hon. Friend tell me why the impression is continually given that the problem seems to affect only British beef? In many conversations that I have had with people in the agricultural industry, I have been told that they regularly see symptoms of the disease in herds in France and other countries. Why does Britain always play by the rules? Just what are other EC countries doing to take products off the market if there is a problem? Such action certainly does not seem to be taking place in other meat industries throughout the EC to the extent that it is in Britain.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I agree with my hon. Friend that we must ensure that we recognise the condition in its wider international context. We must take proper account of the incidence of various different diseases and their possible interrelationships in other countries. One of the benefits of publishing the advice, as I have done this afternoon, is that it will invite evidence from overseas and allow a better understanding of the scientific evidence with which we are dealing. I believe that this is a British House of Commons and that it is responsible to the British electorate for the safety of what goes on in Britain. I do not therefore think that it is sensible for us to try to look for elaborate linkages. We have received urgent advice and we are acting urgently in what we believe to be the British national interest.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
The Secretary of State will be aware of the sad case of my constituent, the late Mr. Neville Price, who died a few months ago of CJD. He was a farmer, but I understand that there was no proven link to BSE. Against that background, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that all the scientific research being undertaken has been taken into account in the report that he published today, particularly that conducted on trans-species barriers in mice, which was being investigated and appeared to be showing a way forward? Will he also give an assurance that if the research undertaken requires much greater resources to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, the Government will make them immediately available?
§ Mr. Dorrell
The answer to the second question is yes. It is an urgent issue. I have already given the House the information on the further resources available in my departmental budget. We are acting urgently to ensure that the other agencies that are responsible for developing research act promptly. I can tell the House that a meeting has been fixed for April, to consider proposals on how 382 that research programme will be taken forward. It is important that that recommendation by SEAC is acted on, and acted on promptly.
I can confirm that SEAC reached its recommendations by analysing the science from all the different spheres, and that that science will be brought together in a published paper, to allow others from the scientific community to see the evidence on which SEAC reached its conclusions and to form their own judgments about SEAC's conclusions.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
May I thank my right hon. Friend for the measured way in which he delivered his statement and for having immediately brought this urgent advice to the House's attention? The advice is manifestly of importance to every family in the land, so I welcome the further action on children. It is also of crucial importance to the entire agricultural industry. Beef is a very important industry in every village and rural area in the land, and it is most important that no one should stir up unnecessary panic where panic is not required.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support. I cannot stress too strongly to the House my view that the right way in which to deal with the issue is to ask where the scientific evidence lies and then to act on that evidence. My hon. Friend is, of course, quite right to say that there are major and legitimate economic interests—which, if I may de-jargonise it, means jobs—associated with those industries. It is obviously essential that those interests are taken into account in our consideration of the issues. Having said that, I believe that the pre-eminent consideration must be our responsibility for human health, and that order of priorities has been reflected in the advisory committee and in the Government's position.
§ Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)
Given the Government's gradual realisation that we could be facing a potentially horrific health problem in future years, will they now abandon their policy on this issue of shooting the messenger, and take much more seriously the warnings that we have had for a long time from certain British scientists? Is it true that the Government knew three years ago of the strong possibility of a link with human health? It is absolutely essential that we send a message to the public and assure them that the Government take the issue seriously. People believe that the Government have disregarded the issue simply because they are more concerned with the interests of farmers and the meat trade than with the health of the nation.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I have just answered that question, in the sense that I made it clear that there is a legitimate interest on the part of those who work in those industries, but that the pre-eminent consideration, of course, must be human health and the health of those who consume British-produced food. There is no argument about that. I do not believe that the characterisation of the Government's record in this sphere as shooting the messenger is in any sense true.
We have set up a committee of leading experts. As I stressed, its members are not Government scientists and they are not placemen—they are distinguished practitioners in their fields. They have given us the benefit of their advice, and, right the way through, we have acted 383 on it. It is not entirely surprising that advice about a condition that is new has changed as understanding of the condition has developed. That is why I ended my statement by saying that if further advice and recommendations came from those scientifically qualified people, the Government would react to that and ensure that it was brought immediately to public attention.
§ Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must keep these matters in perspective? Will he confirm that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) has even less chance of contracting CJD from eating beef than she has of being re-elected to the shadow Cabinet in the next election? Will he also confirm that we have not forgotten the lesson of the salmonella in eggs fiasco some years ago, when an incautious word from a Minister devastated an industry for no proven benefit to the health of the nation—a lesson that has obviously been lost on Labour Front Benchers? Although the Leader of the Opposition yesterday posed as the friend of small businesses, the hundreds of thousands of small businesses that depend on the sale of beef cattle will have been undermined by the hon. Lady's words today. Therefore, the true friend of farmers and small business men is the Conservative party.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I have already said that, although it is tempting to speculate about the shadow Cabinet election chances of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), this is not the time or place for it. I agree about the importance of neither underreacting nor overreacting to the issue. We must listen calmly to the advice that we have been given and reach measured judgments on the basis of that advice. That is what the Government have done.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I welcome the Secretary of State's statement. If he had not come forward now, he would have been charged with covering up. As a grandparent, and with one daughter who is a doctor and another who is a science teacher, I know that we need a balanced diet. The CMO's advice is accurate in that context. However, I want to press the Secretary of State. In Northern Ireland, we have had several incidents of CJD, but there has been no evidence of the beef trade being affected, although there has been an impact in other areas. Does the available scientific evidence relate only to beef cattle, or is wider experimentation being undertaken to discover whether there are other sources of infection?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I am not aware of further experimentation. The evidence is being assessed, especially in respect of the 10 cases to which I referred. I agree very much about the need to ensure that we maintain a measured response. It is clearly essential to good health to maintain a balanced diet. There are few human activities that are entirely free of risk. It is incumbent on policy makers to ensure that the risk associated with a wide range of activities, including eating, is kept to a reasonable minimum.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
Is not it the case that most consumers will regard this not as a party political but as a scientific issue? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government have at all times 384 acted with the best available scientific advice? The worrying thing is that consumers will not understand the scientific issues. They will simply vote with their purses and move away from beef products altogether. That will have a devastating impact on the beef industry, whatever assurances my right hon. Friend seeks to give. What steps will be taken to help the beef industry to move into a situation where it can give a cast-iron assurance to the British public that no British beef has BSE?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I have already told the House that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make a statement in a few minutes that will deal with the specific measures that affect agriculture. I agree wholeheartedly that this is not a time for a lay Minister to offer an opinion. I offer no opinion about the science. [Interruption.] With great respect to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I do not believe that his constituents or mine are interested in his or my views about the science. We are interested in what scientific risk is associated with the products. We have sought expert advice on that and acted upon it.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Does the Minister realise that he is a member of the Government? He is supposed to make a judgment. They all make judgments about something or other. The present Secretary of State for the Environment made a judgment a few years ago. I did not agree with him when he was stuffing hamburgers down that little kid's throat, but that was a judgment. The chief medical officer has made a judgment. He has said that he is prepared to die for his Government—the first civil servant ever to say that. What is the Secretary of State prepared to do? If they are prepared to make judgments, surely the Government should tell the British public the facts.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I will tell the House the judgment that I make in this case. When I am asked whether a product is safe, I think that the answer to that question is scientific, not political. That is well beyond the scope of politics and I hope that the great majority of hon. Members, if not the hon. Gentleman, agree with that.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)
In order that people should have confidence in the future, will my right hon. Friend tell us whether anyone at any time has seriously put into doubt the competence or expertise of SEAC? Has the Department of Health at any time received recommendations from SEAC that it has not acted upon? How quickly has the Department of Health acted on the recommendations that it has received from SEAC?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those three questions. First, I am not aware of anyone having impugned the competence of the members of SEAC. Whenever I have been asked questions about SEAC, I have always said that if people have scientific evidence which they do not believe that SEAC has considered or to which they do not believe SEAC has attributed proper weight, they should take the matter up with SEAC. The chairman of SEAC has made it abundantly clear that he regards that as an important part of the functions of his job.
385 Secondly, my hon. Friend asks whether there are any recommendations, based on science, that SEAC has offered the Government, on which they have not acted. The answer to that question is no. Thirdly, my hon. Friend asks how quickly the Government have acted on SEAC's recommendations. I cannot offer an answer that covers every case, but I can tell the House that the most recent series of recommendations received from SEAC arrived at a meeting of the Cabinet at 10.30 this morning. I do not see how we could have acted any more quickly.
§ Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)
Will the Secretary of State now tell us what was the most radical option to deal with the problem that SEAC considered?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I have already told the House that SEAC had available to it any option that it chose to recommend—any option. It went through a series of options and it made recommendations. The recommendations are as I set out in my statement. SEAC has given its scientific opinion that, provided that the recommendations are carried through—the Government have undertaken that they will be—there is minimal risk associated with the continued consumption of beef products. That is the key recommendation for those who are interested in future food safety in Britain and in the future economic interests of the food industry in Britain.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that everyone will welcome the research that he has announced into the impact of the BSE problem on children? Has he any plans, however, to ask for research into the possible impact on older people?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I have not asked for specific advice on older people because, it is fair to say, more interest has been concentrated on whether there is age sensitivity in the transmissibility of the condition. That is why I have asked the specific question related to children. The generality of advice is as set out in the statement received from the advisory committee.
§ Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East)
The Secretary of State has sensibly asked the committee to look again at the implications for children. Genuine doubts prompted him to ask the committee that question. Would it not be wiser to err on the side of safety in respect of advice to parents on their children's diet until the committee has specifically answered his question?
§ Mr. Dorrell
On that question, as on all others, we do better to rest on the advice of those who understand the science better than I do and, I venture to suggest, better than almost all hon. Members do. The advice of the chief medical officer, based as it is on the advice of the advisory committee on this specific subject, is set out in the statement that I have put in the Vote Office. I shall read it to the House:There is at present no evidence for age sensitivity and the scientific evidence for the risks of developing CJD in those eating meat in childhood has not changed as a result of these new findings. However, parents will be concerned about implications for their children. SEAC has been asked to provide specific advice on this issue.In addition, as I have told the House, SEAC is meeting specifically to discuss the question this weekend.
§ Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North)
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that children need a healthy and 386 balanced diet, which includes meat? Will he take this opportunity, once again, to reassure parents about British meat? Will he also condemn the extreme vegetarian, anti-farming activists, such as the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), who are now campaigning to stop children eating meat?
§ Mr. Dorrell
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that children, like all adults, benefit from a balanced diet, and for the great majority of us that includes meat eating. There are those who choose not to eat meat. I would not seek, as a Health Minister, to give them advice on that issue. If people want to know how to eat healthily, I would simply emphasise the importance of a balanced and varied diet.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
Is not it unfortunate that the Department of Health has a rather poor record on supplying information about CJD? This country's record regarding the problems that resulted from hormone provision in connection with growth and fertility treatment is abysmal compared with that of Australia. There is now an opportunity to improve the record and ensure that full information is made available. To start with, one of the options is to publish all the options that were considered by SEAC.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I have already undertaken to the House that all the scientific evidence on which SEAC reached its conclusions will be made available in published papers through scientific journals. That is the key obligation, which rests on proper and mature consideration of those issues.
SEAC has no confines in the options that it is allowed to consider. It did indeed consider the full range of options that might have been applied, and it reached a decision about the recommendations that it should make. It has offered those recommendations to the House and, more important, to the country.
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
Will the Minister join me and many others in expressing gratitude to the scientists and food journalists, such as Derek Cooper of "The Food Programme", who have been warning of the possible—always the possible—transmission into the human food chain since 1985? Is he not rewriting history just a little bit when he claims that the Government's message has always been that there might be a connection? What was the purpose of those idiotic photo-opportunities if not to say that there was not a connection? It certainly was not to say that there might be a connection.
§ Mr. Dorrell
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, the Government have introduced a series of controls, which would not have been necessary if the Government had believed that there was no possible connection. It was always acknowledged that a connection could exist, although there was no scientific basis for believing that it did exist. As there was a possibility that it could exist, controls were introduced, which ensured that those parts of the carcase that contained the infective agents did not get into the human food chain. That is the purpose of the controls that were introduced.