HC Deb 31 July 1997 vol 299 cc436-8
4. Mrs. Mahon

To ask the President of the Board of Trade if she will disseminate best practice to Government Departments in respect of the use of scientific advice. [10029]

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

Most would agree that in the past there has been a lack of co-ordination throughout Government. Science and policy making need to be co-ordinated. The Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert May, issued guidelines in March this year on best practice for Government in respect of the use of scientific advice and copies are available in the Library of the House.

Mrs. Mahon

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the studies into Gulf war syndrome recently announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence? Does he agree that the previous Tory Administration totally failed Gulf war veterans by not seeking scientific advice when the problems emerged?

Mr. Battle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I seem to recall that she raised the matter many times in opposition, and I am glad that her persistence has paid off in Government policy now. Most will welcome the studies announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Ministry of Defence has now set in train two large-scale epidemiological studies. The researchers were selected following a scientific review by a panel convened by the Medical Research Council. The results will be made public—that is important—at the earliest opportunity, again subject to the usual review process.

The funding of new research into the possible health effects of the combination of vaccine and tablets given to troops in the Gulf to protect them against the effects of biological and chemical warfare has recently been announced. I hope that that work will prove to be a practical test case of the working of the guidelines.

Mr. Bercow

As the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe will receive scientific advice which is relevant to trade, to competitiveness and to the energy industries, when did the Minister first know that the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe had retained his BP shareholding, that he had nevertheless signed a Brussels blueprint for gas liberalisation and common energy taxation, and that he had exploited, and continues to exploit, a tax loophole which the Government of which he is—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's first point was reasonable, as it related to the question. However, he strayed quite a bit after that. It would be nice if the Minister could refer to scientific advice.

Mr. Battle

I wonder whether the Opposition would recognise scientific advice if they saw it, given their inability to understand the Order Paper. I was well aware, as were most people, where my noble Friend Lord Simon came from. I suspect that that is why Opposition Members so deeply resent his appointment.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan

The Government are receiving scientific advice following recent revelations about radioactive dumping around the coast of Scotland. Does the Minister believe that a public inquiry should be held to allow full public scrutiny of that advice?

Mr. Battle

The National Radiological Protection Board and the nuclear inspectorate are taking seriously the allegations about the findings on the coast of northern Scotland. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the information should be made publicly available.

Mr. Baker

To follow the point raised by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), does the Minister agree that, in taking the best scientific advice, he must apply the precautionary principle and make sure that the environment and individuals are not damaged as a result of Government decisions? In those circumstances, why are the new Government not proposing to ban organophosphates in view of the substantial worries about those chemicals and the fact that when in opposition they suggested that they would do so?

Mr. Battle

The good thing about science is that it enables Members to ask questions on such a wide range of subjects. This question has been put to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the hon. Gentleman received a response with which I concur. We intend to ensure that there is co-ordination of scientific advice throughout the Government. That is the difference between ourselves and the previous Administration. We cannot put Rome right in a day, but we have taken up the issues and started to tackle them. The previous Government swept them under the carpet.

Mrs. Gillan

Can we now have a straight answer from the Minister? Given that high-level Government scientific advice must have been made available to any Minister signing a document on the single market action plan, which covered gas liberalisation and common energy taxation, will the Minister tell us what scientific advice Lord Simon has had access to and if it has had a bearing on any oil, gas, chemical or other matters which have a bearing on BP? We want a straight answer now.

Mr. Battle

The straight answer is that the Conservative party is grubbing around trying to find any means that it can to undermine the integrity of my noble Friend. As the hon. Lady well knows, scientific advice is given across a range of matters in government all the time. Her question is not about scientific advice—she is trying to find a hook on which to hang her scurrilous attack on an honourable member of the Government.