HC Deb 25 March 1996 vol 274 cc710-24 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Stephen Dorrell)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a further statement about the advice that the Government have received from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee.

I begin by briefly reminding the House of the background. The advisory committee brings 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. As I have repeatedly stressed, its members are not Government scientists: they are leading practitioners in their field, and it is the function of the advisory committee to allow them to pool their expertise to assess the latest scientific evidence that is available.

Both the Opposition health spokesman, the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) and the Leader of the Opposition stressed last week the importance of reaching decisions on the basis of the scientific evidence. I agree with them. I also agree that it is important that both the evidence on which the committee reached its recommendations, and the recommendations themselves, should be made public as soon as practicable. That is why I published the committee's recommendations last Wednesday and why I have today put copies of its latest recommendations, accompanied by a statement from the chief medical officer, in the Vote Office. I can confirm to the House that arrangements are in hand to ensure that the evidence on which those recommendations are based will be published in the scientific journals within the next four to six weeks.

Science is not a substitute for political or personal choice, but it is the only basis on which an informed judgment about these issues can be reached. Last Wednesday, I informed the House of the advisory committee's conclusions about 10 new cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The statement that the committee approved at its weekend meeting emphasises that only 10 cases of this previously unrecognised variant of CJD have yet been identified and that the committee is not in a position to confirm whether there is a causal link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy and the human disease. However, the committee repeated its view that the most likely explanation at present of this new form of CJD is that these cases are linked to exposure to BSE before the introduction of the specified offals ban in 1989.

Following receipt of its advice last week, I asked the committee to consider as a matter of urgency the implication of its findings for children. In considering that question, the committee was joined by three leading experts in paediatrics, gastroenterology and immunology. The committee considered carefully its knowledge of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies and considered the evidence available from the 10 identified cases. Taking all that into account, the committee concluded that if human infection with the BSE agent occurs, infants and children are not likely to be more susceptible to that infection than are adults". The committee also considered the possibility of increased susceptibility among patients in hospital, pregnant women and people who are taking immuno-suppressive drugs. Again, it concluded that if human infection with a BSE agent occurs, none of these groups is likely to have any increased susceptibility to infection". The committee's statement goes on: Parents are naturally concerned about the risks to their own children. No human activity is without some risk; if the Government rigorously enforces the current and newly recommended controls we believe that this risk is likely to be extremely small; however the Committee recognises that parents will often choose to reduce risk to their children beyond that which they are prepared to accept for themselves. 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. Following the scientific evidence, there is clearly no reason for the Government to advise local education authorities to remove beef from school menus. I understand, however, from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that it is customary for schools to provide a choice of menu to accommodate different dietary and cultural practices. The Government believe that that choice should continue. Local education authorities will be sent copies of the advisory committee's statement so that they can be aware of the precise terms of its findings.

The committee reconfirmed the recommendations that were published last Wednesday concerning the deboning of cattle carcases aged over 30 months, and it has made a number of other recommendations concerning the treatment of specified bovine offal. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will deal with those questions in his statement.

The committee also made two recommendations concerning research. It recommended, first, the reinforcement of the CJD surveillance unit at Edinburgh university and, secondly, the commitment of substantial additional resources to long-term, basic and applied research, to improve our understanding of these diseases. The Government accept those recommendations. We have already made plans to strengthen the CJD surveillance unit. In addition, I have today instructed Professor John Swales, the NHS director of research and development, to prepare a directed programme of research in this sector involving the Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Against the background of those findings, the advisory committee reports two central conclusions. First, it reasserts that, provided that the restrictions that it recommends are fully implemented and sustained, any BSErelated risk from eating beef or beef products is likely to be extremely small. Secondly, the committee's statement concludes with these words: the Committee does not believe that any additional measures are justified at this stage but the situation needs to be kept under careful review so that additional significant information can be taken into account as soon as it becomes available". Throughout their consideration of those questions, the Government have made it clear that our policy is to base our own decisions on an up-to-date assessment of the scientific evidence. We have also made clear our commitment to making that evidence public. That remains the position.

The statement of the advisory committee that I am publishing this afternoon makes clear recommendations both to the Government and to the public. The chief medical officer is taking steps to communicate that new advice to all doctors. The Government accept the recommendations and they will act on them.

Ms Harriet Harman (Peckham)

Once again, I thank the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee for its work. It appears that the Secretary of State has learned no lessons from last week, when I said that public confidence was hanging by a thread. Now, public confidence has collapsed. Why did he not recognise that public confidence was draining away? Even though he was advising that beef was safe, 10,000 schools had already taken it off the menu.

Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that it is his Government's reckless disregard for public health and their dogma on deregulation that have swept us into this crisis—[Interruption.]

Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Did I hear hon. Members saying that there was some unparliamentary language?

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I said that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) was a stupid cow. If that is unparliamentary, I certainly withdraw it.

Madam Speaker

It is certainly unparliamentary. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the grace to withdraw that remark.

Mr. Marlow

As I said, Madam Speaker, I certainly withdraw the remark.

Ms Harman

Is not it the Government's reckless disregard for public health and their dogma of deregulation that have swept us into this crisis? Will the Secretary of State admit that even after bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered, the Government dragged their feet? There was delay before making BSE notifiable; delay before banning animal protein; delay before compulsory slaughter and compensation; and delay before banning specified bovine offal.

Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that the roots of this crisis lie in his Government's repeated failure to take prompt and effective action to protect our food? Instead, deregulation dogma fuelled by complacency has caused a nightmare scenario for consumers and farmers alike.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that in 1978 the Labour Government put forward extra controls on animal feed, but that when the Tory Government took office, they changed those planned controls and said that the industry could decide for itself on cattle feeding?

SEAC says that there is an extremely low risk if all its proposals for slaughterhouse and food safety rules are fully implemented and enforced rigorously. But why should anyone expect that from this Government, when they have allowed flagrant breaches of the rules in the past? We must now have rigorous enforcement of the rules and tough penalties for those found breaking them. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the enforcement authorities have the powers they need, the resources they need and strong Government backing? Is it not now time for full information and tough action?

Will the Government publish full information for the public, on the relative risk of eating beef compared with other meats? SEAC's statement barely touches on that. That is the question the public are asking. Will the right hon. Gentleman publish full information for the public on the relative risk of eating different parts of cattle? That is the question the public are asking. Will he publish a full list of all the food products that contain bovine material? Why should the public have to search the newspapers for that information? People cannot make their own choices if they do not know what they are eating.

Why is there to be a delay of four to six weeks before the publication of the scientific evidence? That evidence must be published by the right hon. Gentleman and it must be published now.

On the issue of children, SEAC recognised: parents will often choose to reduce risk to their children beyond that which they are prepared to accept for themselves. When it comes to children, must not the Government therefore err on the side of caution? For school meals, should he not say, "Better safe than sorry," at least for the next nine months, during which time we shall see whether there are any further cases? Has he considered advising schools and local education authorities, to ensure that parents decide whether their children eat beef and whether there should be no beef in school dinners? To assist consumers, has he considered identifying and publishing a list of herds that have never brought in calves and where the cattle have been fed only on grass and hay? That would identify to consumers the herds that are less at risk.

Why has the Secretary of State not told the House today of all the other options that SEAC considered and that he could have acted on? Why did he reject the option of removing all cull cows or all cows over 30 months from the food chain? We should have that information. Why did he reject the option of deboning all cows—not only those over 30 months? We need to know why he has made his choices.

Does the Secretary of State not understand that he has still not done enough to restore British consumers' confidence in British beef? They will continue to buy beef, but it will not be ours. Does he not understand that it is only by tough action, which goes beyond the minimal recommendations of the scientists, that there will be any chance of restoring public confidence? Does he accept that there is a clear conflict of interest in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about food regulation? Will he therefore establish a separate food standards agency? Will he restore the strength and independence of the Department of Health's chief medical officer, who has been marginalised and weakened by the Government?

Is not the business of government about more than just occupying the high offices of state, but about occupying a position of respect in the public's mind? This crisis has shown that the Government can no longer govern because people do not trust them. How can the Government restore public confidence when the public have no confidence in the Government?

Mr. Dorrell

I think that the country, listening to the hon. Lady, will find it deeply offensive that she has opened up a wide chasm between the principles that she says inform her policy and the ferreting around for party political advantage that has manifested itself in both her interventions on the subject. She started off last Wednesday, as she did this afternoon, by stressing the importance of basing our decisions on this subject on science. That position was reinforced by her right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition from the Dispatch Box on Thursday afternoon.

The science has been published. What the House and the country want to know from the hon. Lady is that if she does not accept the Government's actions on the basis of that science, what actions does she recommend to the House and the country? What is the way forward that she would want us to take, which is different from the way that I announced this afternoon, as recommended by the scientists who the hon. Lady says should inform our policy?

The hon. Lady talks about a dogma of deregulation. If she had examined the Southwood inquiry into the background of BSE, she would have found that it specifically dismissed that charge. She alleges that there has been delay, but has produced no evidence at any stage in the proceedings on the issue of any delay whatever. She asks for rigorous enforcement; I have committed us to rigorous enforcement. She asks for information to be published. Let her tell the House which information she wants published that I have not committed the Government to publishing from the Dispatch Box this afternoon. She asks why the information will not be made available in the scientific journals within less than four to six weeks. The reason for that, as the hon. Lady should know, is that the marshalling of scientific evidence to prepare it for a form for publication in a scientific journal normally takes between six and nine months. I have undertaken that it will be made available through that source in four to six weeks.

The hon. Lady asks about schools: I have set out clearly the position on schools. She says that we should base our decision on the science—let her explain which bit of the science would justify the removal of beef or beef products from school menus. There is no scientific conclusion available to the House that would justify that conclusion.

The hon. Lady asks why the Government are not proceeding with a culling policy and a range of other actions. The answer lies in the quotation from the scientific advice which I gave to the House and which I shall repeat to the hon. Lady: the Committee does not believe that additional measures are justified at this stage but the situation needs to be kept under careful review". That is what will happen. The hon. Lady is asking the House to substitute her scientific judgment for the advisory committee's scientific judgment. I can think of no more absurd proposition.

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

My right hon. Friend will be appearing before a joint meeting of the Agriculture and Health Select Committees on Wednesday morning, where he will be a witness on this very important matter. Will he give an assurance that, faced with such complex matters, the Government will respond swiftly and decisively, but always based on the informed views of scientific experts, not on some of the uninformed and occasionally hysterical views that we have seen expressed in recent days?

Mr. Dorrell

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance. That assurance is not that we substitute, as I said in my statement, the judgment of scientists for personal or political judgment, but that we agree with the principle—although not with the practice of the principle—espoused last week by Opposition Front Benchers, that decisions on the subject should be based on the science.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his commitment to the research recommended by the committee. Does he agree that although questions may have to be asked about recommendations made in the late 1970s and 1980s, those are not the principal issue for today? The principal issue for today involves what steps need to be taken for the public to be reassured and people to be safe. In that context, will he do all that he can to ensure that the committee's principal conclusion that children and young people are not more at risk than adults is disseminated and understood by radio, television and newspapers, and that the media, the outlets and politicians who are willing to join him, seek to win over the public to an understanding of the issues, not to an understanding only of prejudice and prejudiced self-interest?

On the basis of the expectation that the Government will apply the precautionary principle, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the most useful thing for the Government to consider now is whether beef that is entirely unaffected by the risk of BSE—particularly herbivore beef—can be separately labelled and identified, so that people can distinguish between the different types of beef?

As the offal ban came into effect in 1989, does the Secretary of State agree that there may be a precautionary reason for placing children under seven in a different category from children over seven?

Will the right hon. Gentleman reinforce the fact that the main question that should drive all our considerations is not where the beef comes from, but whether it is infected?

Mr. Dorrell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the stand that I have taken on research. I assure him that, where research is necessary in order to improve our understanding of those conditions, the Government will ensure that there is support available to allow that research to be undertaken.

I agree entirely with the stand that the hon. Gentleman has taken, both in the House and in the community over the weekend, regarding the importance of ensuring that decisions are based in science. He is correct to restate and to remind the House this afternoon of the advisory committee's finding that there is no scientific basis for concluding that children are at any greater risk than adults.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether beef producers whose herds have hitherto been BSE-free for a variety of reasons should promote that fact. They are able to do that and there are examples of it having occurred. The scientific questions that lie behind some of the hon. Gentleman's assertions are reasonably complex, but it is open to producers to take that course of action.

The hon. Gentleman's key point is that, to the extent that there is a risk of infection to human beings from BSE-infected cattle, it is related to the specified bovine offals that were removed from the human food chain by Government order in 1989. Because those offals were removed from the food chain, the advisory committee concluded that the risks associated with eating all beef and beef products are extremely small.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

In order to help to quell the urban panic that is being fomented on the Opposition Benches, will my right hon. Friend point out that people of all ages are at far greater risk from active and passive smoking than from BSE? Is he aware that this afternoon we are seeing a crude attempt to create the steak-rejecting economy?

Mr. Dorrell

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is a far greater risk associated with tobacco use than with beef consumption. He makes his own point about stakeholding in his own way.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is the Minister aware that, throughout this long, sorry saga, he has talked only about the human food chain? Is he aware that many people are concerned about the meat that is used in pet food for domestic cats and dogs? Can he assure millions of pensioners that the liver and lights used in pet food are also examined? Will he confirm that pets cannot be contaminated by the BSE strain and will he ask the research experts to examine that question as well, as many jobs are involved in the pet food industry?

Mr. Dorrell

I do not, I am afraid, apologise to the House for being concerned principally with human health in the past week since the advisory committee first made its information available. I am absolutely certain that the Government have got their priorities right. I am advised that specified bovine offals are also kept outside the pet food chain. SEAC—which is responsible for providing advice about pet food as well as human health—has, quite properly, concentrated its considerable attentions on human health questions in the past few days.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

A few minutes ago, the Secretary of State said that the resources will be found if further research is necessary. Will he look specifically at, and take advice about, whether two areas need urgent further research: first, finding ways of better diagnosing BSE in cattle at an earlier stage; and, secondly, trying to find an effective way of treating CJD in human beings?

Mr. Dorrell

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct on both counts. We would be in a much better position if we had an accurate live test for cattle and if we could diagnose accurately the condition CJD in humans. We shall ensure that sufficient resources are made available to allow those programmes to continue, as well as—critically, as my right hon. Friend rightly points out—examining the options for producing a treatment regime for humans in particular, which would enable us to cure the condition.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is the Minister aware that most mothers and grandmothers are not scientists? They are just terribly worried. They have no way of knowing whom to trust and they need clear and simple statements. If a doctor or a medical researcher says that there is very little risk, although that may be absolutely correct, it engenders real worry among parents who are not clear about the present position. What would the Minister regard as a significant change in the circumstances? Ten cases a year may be one thing, but 10 cases a month would be very significant, and the House would need to know about it urgently. All the parents who are totally bewildered would need a clear statement about what the Minister was doing to save them.

Mr. Dorrell

As regards the position today, parents have a very clear statement. I quote it again: infants and children are not likely to be more susceptible to that infection than are adults". That is a clear statement. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady on the important point that she made about ensuring that we conduct accurate and timely surveillance of CJD cases and draw any further lessons that are available to us from that evidence. That is why I have provided extra resources to the surveillance unit in Edinburgh. It corresponds directly with a SEAC recommendation. The Government are taking that forward for precisely the reasons that the hon. Lady mentioned.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should learn the lessons of the scare eight years ago, when a relatively small group of scientists extrapolated information from a small outbreak of salmonella food poisoning that had caused some fatalities, and drew conclusions that led the House to implement legislation which caused the death of more than I million chickens and the destruction of some 300 million eggs? Those regulations were quietly dropped about a year later, when it became perfectly obvious that the cause of that outbreak was kitchen hygiene and not farmyard practices.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that scientists should publish their work, especially when it is based on a relatively tiny sample, and have it evaluated by their colleagues in the scientific community before we in the House cause the slaughter of herds of cattle and the destruction of our industry? Will he take my assurance as a historian of science that history is replete with people who advanced hypotheses on limited evidence, only to have them refuted at a later date? We must put that line of argument to the public, to reassure them that, if a disease breaks out in one group of animals, it is not necessarily transmittable to another group of animals that may or may not have had contact with them.

Mr. Dorrell

I entirely agree—that is not something I can always say to my hon. Friend—with every word that she said. It is just as important not to overreact as it is not to underreact, as I said to the House last week. We must base our conclusions on the evidence. We are responsible for those conclusions, but they must be firmly based on the evidence and justified by it.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

If there is no evidence of age specificity among the 10 cases that were examined, is the low average age of cases explained by the process of selection? Are there other cases that were not included in the sample study?

Mr. Dorrell

There are two separate issues that could relate to the relatively young age of the 10 cases. One is their susceptibility because they were relatively young, and the other is the possibility of increased exposure to infected material before 1989. I remind the House again that we are talking about a risk associated with a product that has not been available since 1989, because that was the date when the agents of infection were removed. The background to the 10 cases may be susceptibility or exposure.

The question of susceptibility was specifically analysed by the committee, and it concluded that there was no evidence of any increased susceptibility among children, and therefore that parents and families should not proceed on the basis that children are at any greater risk of susceptibility to the condition.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I congratulate the Secretary of State on dealing with this sensitive issue so effectively. Can he give any guidance as to why the health problem has apparently not existed in countries where British beef is consumed or where suspect beef has been used? Can my right hon. Friend give any guidance to parents and young people as to whether there is any truth in press reports of special dangers associated with sausages, liquorice allsorts and a certain kind of digestive biscuit?

Mr. Dorrell

As to my hon. Friend's second question, the answer is no—there is no truth in those press reports. The evidence has been analysed. This is a scientific question—it is not susceptible to political argument. There is no evidence available of increased age sensitivity, which is the basis on which the Government and the scientific community are advising families to proceed in their affairs.

As to whether CJD overseas may be related to the consumption of British beef, there is currently no difference between the incidence of CJD in many different countries. There is certainly no evidence to support the assertion that the condition has emerged in other countries related to the consumption of British beef. The advice to the export market—potential overseas consumers of British beef—is exactly the same as to the domestic consumer. The risks associated with consuming the product are extremely low.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is not the truth that the one thing that has characterised the Government during their entire period of office is that they have been telling the British people that deregulation is good for them? The net result is that there was bound to be a day when there would have to be a reckoning up. The British people are scared about the result of relaxing the rules. The Government had a judgment to make many years ago, as to whether to relax the rules in favour of animal feed manufacturers or stand four square with the British people. The Government chose deregulation. The consequence is that the British people are in fear. They have to pay for the Government's decision, and the farmers will have to sup the mop as well. The Government made the judgment and they should carry the can. It is time that they went.

Mr. Dorrell

There is not a scintilla of truth in anything that the hon. Gentleman just said. That is the worst kind of scaremongering—ferreting around for party political advantage in the sewer of politics.

Sir Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire)

Is it true that, whereas the rate of BSE has been rising over the past 15 years, the incidence of CJD has fallen over the past two years? Does not that put in question the relationship between the two?

Mr. Dorrell

My hon. Friend is quite right in his interpretation of the figures on CJD. Attention has focused on the potential link between CJD and BSE, because the 10 cases to which I referred are of a particular sort of CJD of which we have not been previously aware. That specific group, having specific symptoms, has led people to conclude that there may be a link. The opinion of the advisory committee is that the most probable explanation for that specific group of 10 cases is that it is related—again I make the point—to the consumption of the infected material that was available before 1989. The controls introduced in 1989 led the committee to conclude that the consumption of British beef and beef products is now associated with a low level of risk.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Is the Secretary of State aware that on Thursday the Select Committee on Health was told that, in 1989, the Government stopped using bovine serum made in Britain and imported it for the manufacture of vaccine? If that is the case, why were not the rest of us told? Is he further aware that after a decade of deceit, prevarication and denial, nobody believes a word the Government say?

Mr. Dorrell

This process has been carried on in public. The advice on which the Government have acted has been published. The evidence that led the committee to reach those conclusions and give that advice has been published, and the recommendations made last week and this week will be published. The Government have nothing to hide because they do not want to hide. What they want to do is to provide well-founded scientific recommendations based on published evidence.

Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire)

In order to bring a sense of proportion to the hypochondriacal hysteria of the Opposition, will my right hon. Friend consider publishing a list of the comparable risks in our society, based on statistical evidence, which would probably show that one is as likely to win the jackpot in the lottery and one has a much greater chance of being murdered than of dying from this disease?

Mr. Dorrell

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The risks associated with eating this product are extremely low and are well within the normal range of risks that every citizen of this country takes every day of his life.

The hon. Member for Peckham said earlier that parents will be concerned about the taking of risks by children. I am a parent of a seven-year-old and a three-year-old, and I understand that parenting involves taking risks to develop a child's self-confidence. The risks associated with parenting are many and various. The risks associated with this product are defined by science as extremely low.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of an earlier reply, what research does the right hon. Gentleman intend to set up and what research is presently under way into the spread of BSE, because of the cannibalisation of feed, across the species barrier into pigs, sheep, cats and dogs? [Interruption.] Do listen, you silly berks. This is not a joking matter. You should all be put out of the House. Because none of you can do it well, do not be envious of those who can.

On a related issue, should not all transgenic experimentation cease forthwith?

Mr. Dorrell

The hon. Gentleman is on to an important point, which is the possibility of this disease being transmitted across the species barrier on farms. It is precisely for that reason that the rules on meat and bone meal were changed last week, and the advice has been given today. In particular, SEAC advised that meat and bone meal must not be incorporated into any feed for any farmed animals, including fish or horses, or into fertiliser likely to be used on land to which ruminants have access. The issue about which the hon. Gentleman asked is covered by the advice, and the Government have made it clear that they intend to take that advice.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would have been an act of gross irresponsibility on his part to overreact to the hysterical demands coming from Labour Members? Does he further agree that if the British beef industry is destroyed as a result of that hysteria, voters in the rural economy, which will have suffered a devastating blow, will know whom to blame? Does my right hon. Friend also agree that if billions of pounds of extra public money were suddenly to be available for the purpose of protecting children's health, it would certainly not be sensible to use that money to pay for the slaughter of millions of healthy British cattle?

Mr. Dorrell

My hon. Friend simply paraphrases the advice that is available to the Government, the House and the public. What those on the Opposition Front Benches have totally failed to do, in their comments on the issue, is to endorse the advice and make it clear that they carry through their commitment to observe science into action; or to say what they think we should do; or, crucially, to give any justification for taking different action from that advised by the scientists. That is the question that the Opposition have not answered.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Today the Secretary of State has consistently referred to the research issue. What time scale does he consider necessary for further research to be undertaken? What funding will the Government provide to ensure the highest quality of research? Will that include a live test of the nature of the disease? Many people attach considerable importance to the fact that Professor Lacey, who was involved in developing a live test, found his evidence dismissed because he was seen as politically unsound.

If this research is to be effective, will it include an assurance that BSE-free herds will be allocated the quality assurance mark that is already available to 6,000 farms in Scotland with Aberdeen Angus herds? We do not see why farmers with BSE-free herds should be affected by this panic.

Mr. Dorrell

There are two aspects to the research that the Government are undertaking. First, there is the expansion of the work of the surveillance unit at Edinburgh university—the unit that has been responsible for identifying the 10 cases and for leading the pathology work on which the advisory committee's findings have been based. I have committed extra resources to the surveillance of cases as they arise, at Edinburgh university and also at St. Mary's hospital in Paddington, which supplied the pathology service to Edinburgh.

Secondly, we must ensure sufficient resources to allow us to conduct a planned, directed research programme of original scientific research, so as to better understand the causes of the condition, and how it can be diagnosed and treated. That programme of research is what the NHS director of research and development, Professor Swales, will be preparing over the next few weeks. So resources have been provided for conducting the surveillance and the research necessary to improve our understanding of the underlying science of this condition.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

Has my right hon. Friend had time to read the article in The Times today, written by William Rees-Mogg? Is it not the case that BSE has probably been in cattle for the past two centuries and was previously known as the staggers? Is it not also the case that Britain has built its reputation on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding—and there is nothing wrong in that?

Mr. Dorrell

The advice of the scientific committee confirms and reinforces my hon. Friend's view that there is nothing wrong with British roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. I therefore agree with that. The proposition that BSE is the same as the staggers has a rather more doubtful background. The key point is that the steps that have been taken ensure that we are able to say that the risks associated with eating the traditional Sunday joint are extremely low.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

The Secretary of State is responsible for health. One would be forgiven for not understanding that 10 youngish people had died recently of the new strain of this disease—that shows how serious this matter is. Is it not a fact that public confidence has disappeared because for 10 years the Government have failed to react quickly enough or effectively enough? Just a few moments ago, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds), the Minister said that the ghastly business of feeding animals dead animals across the food chain and across species had been stopped only in the past few days. Are not many people likely to die of this disease? If so, how many will die before the right hon. Gentleman resigns?

Mr. Dorrell

I find it objectionable when we are alleged to have acted with delay, when what we have actually done is take scientific advice and act promptly on it at every stage.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the feeding of animal-based bone meal back to farm animals. It was actually in 1988 that, on the advice of the scientists then, the feeding of ruminant-based meal to ruminants was banned. On the advice available last week, but not before last week, the feeding of meat and bone meal to other species has also been banned. It is no good saying that it is unnatural for one species to eat the remains of another—that is what the meat industry is all about. The feeding of animal remains across the species barrier is what the meat industry is all about. We want to ensure that it is only done safely, and we rely on the experts on questions of safety.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Is the Secretary of State telling those who make and sell beefburgers in this country that it would be quite safe for them to buy any kind of British beef again for their products?

Mr. Dorrell

I do not want to paraphrase anyone, so I am saying that the risks associated with it are extremely low. I see absolutely no reason for any responsible citizen not to buy British beef or beef products of any kind in the shops today.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Will the Secretary of State admit that, had the previous Labour Government's draft guidelines on animal feed been put into effect by this Government when they came into power, the BSE outbreak would have been completely contained and 10 young people would perhaps not have lost their lives? Will he apologise for the obsession with deregulation, which threatens to destroy the beef industry and which has scared every member of the public? When will he get up and say sorry?

Mr. Dorrell

The House is now being asked to compare the scientific expertise of the hon. Lady with that of Sir Richard Southwood, a former vice-chancellor of Oxford university. Given the choice, I prefer Sir Richard's.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if we were to cull all cattle aged 30 months and over, as the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) recommended, it would eventually cut milk output by 70 per cent.? Does he believe that the subsequent import of container-loads of continental milk would improve food hygiene in this country and the health of the nation?

Mr. Dorrell

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I would respond to such a suggestion with a simpler question: on what basis would we justify behaving in that way? Where is the evidence to prove that it is a necessary and proportionate response to the problem that we face? The evidence is that it is not a proportionate response. The evidence now available tells us that products benefiting from the protection of the ban imposed in 1989 can be consumed with extremely low levels of risk. I therefore see no justification for doing more against the background of advice from the experts, who said: the Committee does not believe that additional measures are justified at this stage". That is the advice of the scientists, and I have not heard any argument that could lead me to cast it aside.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Are the scientists who have advised the Secretary of State that there is no risk to children the same scientists who have been advising him and his predecessors for the past 15 years that there is no risk whatever from eating British beef? In view of his statement about the advice given a week ago, will he give a categorical assurance to the House and the public that there is no health risk whatever from eating British sheepmeat?

Mr. Dorrell

As I have already said on several occasions, there are no human activities where the level of risk is zero. I cannot give an assurance that eating any product, crossing the street or engaging in a variety of other activities is 100 per cent. safe. There is no human activity to which no risk is attached.

The hon. Gentleman asks me about the advisory committee, on whose evidence I rest. It was established not 15 years ago, but in 1990. I have heard nobody call in question the competence and expertise of the members of that committee. Indeed, yesterday morning I appeared in a television programme with Professor Richard Lacey, with whom I do not agree about everything. It was he who said that he accepts the scientific validity and authority of the committee.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)

As the Minister has quoted Sir Richard Southwood, will he comment on the statement made by Sir Richard, which appeared in this morning's edition of The Daily Telegraph? Sir Richard said that the Government did not react properly to his report in 1989. He stated that the Government should have said that meat was unsafe. He observed: They did not address it"— that is, his report— with the kind of panic I think it … deserved. We are now fulfilling what was the inquiry's nightmare scenario. We acknowledged that there was a slight risk to human health. Our fears are now being realised. What does the Minister now say to Sir Richard? Does he agree that if children and adults face the same risk, we are all at risk?

Mr. Dorrell

We have acknowledged for some years that there is a possibility of risk of infection from BSE. It was because of that acknowledgement that we put in place the specified offals ban in 1989. If there was no risk of infection of CJD from BSE, what was the justification for putting in place the specified offals ban? It was put in place precisely to guard against the possibility of cross-infection. Sir Richard Southwood's central recommendation was that we should establish the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, and that that committee should provide us with scientifically based evidence on which to base our judgments. That is what we have done.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We shall move on to the second statement.