HC Deb 15 February 2001 vol 363 cc485-555

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Touhig.]

Mr. Speaker

We come now to the main business. I remind the House that I have put a 15-minute limit on speeches from 4.30 pm to 6.30 pm.

2.10 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

On 26 October 2000, the Government published the report of the BSE inquiry. I set out the report's key conclusions and outlined a package of measures for the benefit of people suffering from variant CJD and the families of those who have already died of the disease. The House will want to mow that, since that time, another six people have died of variant CJD, bringing the number who have died to 86. The variant CJD surveillance unit has identified eight people who are suffering from variant CJD.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced his intention to make interim compensation payments of £25,000 to each of the families of those who have died and to the families whose loved ones are still alive. He has already established a care package for people suffering from variant CJD which is intended to support patients in the community. The care package covers the elements of care that cannot be readily supplied by local health and social services. My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health will give further details of the care package and compensation arrangements when she replies to the debate.

Last Friday, the Government published their substantive interim response to the BSE inquiry report, with positive responses to each of the 167 recommendations. The response sets out what has already been done, what is under way, what more the Government intend to do, and how others will be involved in the final outcome. The interim response pros ides the basis for a wide-ranging public consultation before a comprehensive final response is published later this year. I published the response last Friday to give parliamentarians and others a chance to consider the proposals before today's debate.

The inquiry team found serious shortcomings in the previous Government's handling of BSE. The inquiry's report documents institutional and political failure up to the highest levels. There was an inability to focus clearly on the emerging problem of BSE in cattle and to take charge. Many of those dealing with the problem hoped and believed that a link between BSE and human health would never be found. No contingency plans were made in case a link was discovered. Public protection measures were not implemented and enforced with sufficient vigour.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Although I appreciate that the Minister did not have responsibility for agriculture at the time, does he recall that, as long ago as July 1992, I and others were asking questions about the reticence of the then Ministry about the precise issues to which he is now referring? Does he recognise that the Phillips report demonstrates that the answers that we were given in this place were misleading and inadequate? I do not know whether that was intentional or unintentional, and the Phillips report does not address that issue. Is the Minister aware, however, that farmers and CJD families feel bitterly betrayed by the failure of everyone who was in office at that time to apologise or to explain the misinformation that was given to the House and the public?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman makes his points in his own way, and of course he anchors his remarks in the Phillips report. I am being very careful—the matter is of course contentious and enormously important—to ensure that, as I go through the criticisms of the Government's handling of BSE, every single point that I make is founded in the Phillips report. The issue of communication between Departments is clearly referred to in Phillips. Phillips said that a lack of communication led to delays in taking necessary action.

It is telling that, on issues of interdepartmental communication and contingency planning, not one but two former Cabinet Ministers had their evidence rejected by the inquiry. In some crucial spheres, BSE policy was slow in development, sometimes lagging behind the latest scientific developments. The official line, that the risk of transmissibility was remote and that beef was safe, did not recognise the possible validity of any other view. Dissident scientists tended to be treated with derision. Dispute displaced debate.

Ministers and officials tended to be over-reliant on scientific advisory committees for policy advice. They failed to recognise that the proper role of advisory committees is to advise on science, not to make decisions for the Government on issues of policy and implementation. The Government's scientific advisers were not always given a complete picture of what was happening "on the ground" in terms of enforcement and implementation. Consequently, on certain occasions, scientific advice was not based on the full facts as known to the then Conservative Government.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there were attempts by senior civil servants to lean on scientists to suppress their data and interpret them in a manner that fitted in with the political picture at that time?

Mr. Brown

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but it is not founded in Lord Phillips's findings themselves. I want to confine my comments to Lord Phillips's findings. There is ample evidence of failings—institutional failings and political failings—in Lord Phillips's findings to give parliamentarians on both sides of the House tremendous cause for concern.

Lord Phillips's inquiry identified significant failures in enforcement of safety measures. Lord Phillips explicitly says that that was made worse by the prevailing political desire for a "culture of deregulation".

From as early as 24 February 1988—this relates to the points made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)—Ministers were aware of concerns among civil servants about a possible link between BSE and human health. Those concerns were not shared with the public. The Government failed to be completely open about BSE and did not trust the public to understand complex issues of risk and uncertainty. That resulted in a presentational policy whose object, in Lord Phillips's own words, "was sedation".

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I have a letter from Mr. and Mrs. Lowther, of Cumbra Park hotel, in Carlisle. Their daughter Victoria was one of the very early tragic victims of variant CJD. They have asked me to ask various questions, which I shall do in writing to the Minister so that he is able to respond to them in detail. I should like, however, to deal with two points. First, Mr. and Mrs. Lowther have studied the Phillips inquiry very carefully, but have come to the conclusion that it poses more questions than it answers. Secondly, if what the Phillips inquiry says is correct, why is no one standing trial? Why are not ex-Ministers or senior civil servants standing trial for what some people believe is the manslaughter of at least 86 people to date, and probably many hundreds in the future?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Before the Minister responses, may I appeal to the House for very short interventions? There is very limited time for today's debate and the many important points that I know that hon. Members are keen to make. Brevity would be appreciated by everyone.

Mr. Brown

Lord Phillips is very clear on the point of individual blame. However, although shortcomings and failings of individuals are identified and carefully listed in the report, Lord Phillips says something to the effect that those who come to our report looking to allocate blame to individuals will go away disappointed. He identifies institutional failings and political failings, but he does not put the blame for the tragedy that has occurred on any one individual.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Minister has just stated that, in 1988, certain civil servants felt that some of the information available then should have been shared with the public. Is he of that view?


I am being careful to respond to Lord Phillips's findings because that is my responsibility as a Minister. I published the interim response in advance so that we could all read it. The report contains 167 recommendations and we all have a right to consider the Government's interim response. I do not want to go further than what Lord Phillips has said and found, and I am being careful not to treat the House to my personal views. Having studied the matter with some care as part of my ministerial responsibility, I have of course formed personal views, but my responsibility to the country as a Minister has to come first.

Lord Phillips makes it clear that in giving public assurances about the safety of beef, it was a mistake for Ministers to go beyond the advice that they had received from officials. I have learned that lesson, and I do not intend to make that mistake. Ministers should have stressed the important role of public protection measures rather than giving the impression that BSE did not pose a risk to humans. The consequence was that when the link between BSE and vCJD was announced, the public felt betrayed—a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew).

Lord Phillips found that, for the human victims of variant CJD, there was significant variation in the standard of care provided by the national health service. Let me remind the House that variant CJD is a terrible disease. For some of the victims and their families, the tragic horror of the disease was made more difficult to bear by lack of appropriate treatment, assistance and support. Those were Lord Phillips's findings.

Although the inquiry looked primarily at how the previous Government responded to the challenges of BSE and vCJD, it raised issues that went much wider than BSE. Those issues, affect the whole process of government, across all Departments.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

This is obviously a difficult issue, but given the lateness with which the link was recognised and acknowledged and the long interval that could still lead to a substantial number of cases, is the Minister satisfies that we have enough research and investment in place? If and when we find that this is a much bigger problem than 86 people—which could still happen—we should know how to deal with it. We should use the time lag to prepare.

Mr. Brown

The amount of research that the Government are undertaking into transmissible spongiform encephalopathies has been enhanced in my time as Minister. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are still things that we do not understand. It is important to keep the research programme fully funded and properly developing. As for the total number of human victims, I am satisfied that the public protection measures now in place protect the public, but I cannot give the House a forecast of how many victims of what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s there maybe.

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

The right hon. Gentleman says that he is confident that the measures in place to protect the public are adequate. Will he say a word about the methods used to incinerate and dispose of infected carcases? Does he have every confidence in those methods and is he sure that there is no risk to public health from those processes?

Mr. Brown

I am satisfied that that is the case. I recently visited one of the disposal plants, in Widnes, with my Spanish counterpart, who is interested in how we organise these things here. I am satisfied that the arrangements in place now are satisfactory and secure. We do not know how much variant CJD is present in the population as a result of things that happened in the past. Until we do, it is difficult to give the House accurate forecasts of the future number of victims of the condition.

The whole affair has raised wider issues than BSE; it goes to the heart of how government works. A number of major cross-cutting topics run right through Lord Phillips's report and findings. I shall run through the principal ones. Lord Phillips identifies the need for effective management of scientific advisory committees and of how scientific advice is used in developing policy; the need for greater openness in government; and the need for a consistent and proportionate approach to the assessment, management and communication of risk and uncertainty. It is a notoriously difficult area.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The right hon. Gentleman is touching now on the open provision of information to the public. I know his personal views on the matter, which are robust. Why did the Government resist the amendments tabled by me and many others to the Freedom of Information Bill, which would have entrenched in statute the right to information and factual advice provided to Ministers—exactly the core of Lord Phillips's findings?.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is putting two separate sets of advice together. One is the scientific advice on which Ministers base their policy decisions. It is the Government's view that that should be in the public domain. The other is policy advice to Ministers. Ministers are clearly entitled to consider a range of options before coming forward and defending what they have done. The hon. Gentleman takes me slightly outside my ministerial responsibilities.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South East)

I understand that the criticisms levelled at serving civil servants have been reviewed by Sheila Forbes and that the report is now complete. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would have been helpful for hon. Members to have seen the report ahead of the debate? Does he intend to publish it so that we know what it contains?

Mr. Brown

I have thought carefully about that. I have not read the report, although I can do so. I have deliberately not done so because I believe that disciplinary matters within the civil service must be for permanent secretaries and ultimately the Cabinet Secretary. We should think carefully before we, as parliamentarians, decide to make assessments about the capabilities of individual civil servants. We should also think about when we should intervene and when we should not. If the House wants me to read the Forbes report, I will, but it is my considered view that I should not, and that it should be left to the permanent secretaries.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

My right hon. Friend has made a robust response to the issue, on which I congratulate him. He said in an interview on 12 February: The scientific advice that informs the ministerial decisions that I make is all going to go into the public domain. That is excellent. Will that apply across government? Will all the scientific advice to Ministers be public?

Mr. Brown

I shall answer to the House for what I am accountable for. The scientific advice that informs my ministerial decision making will go into the public domain. That is my commitment to the House and my response to my hon. Friend's question. There may be all sorts of caveats involved in other Ministers' day-to-day operations of which I am not aware, so I cannot give a blanket response; but where a policy decision is made in MAFF and that decision is informed by scientific appraisal, the appraisal will be put into the public domain. People will be able to read it, and I will explain and justify the decisions that I have made. Ultimately, as the Minister, I am accountable to the House.

Lord Phillips identifies the need for rigour in the development and implementation of policy. Of course, we all want to be rigorous in the development of policy, but how is that to be tested? Surely pursing the information on which the decision has been based, if it is a scientific issue, in the public domain and having it tested in the House in front of Select Committees is the best way to test it. Lord Phillips identifies the importance of having the right structure of government and legislative framework in place.

Even before Lord Phillips's team reported, the new Labour Government had already made significant changes to address the points that I have mentioned. Again, I should like to take the House through the most significant of them. We have set up the Food Standards Agency as an independent agency with consumer protection as its main objective. Its board meetings are held in public. It puts its advice to Ministers in the public domain. We have opened up scientific advisory committees to much greater public scrutiny, including the appointment of committee members specifically representing consumers. A new code of practice for scientific advisory committees is being developed, covering many issues raised by the inquiry. The House will want to know that we will be consulting on that later in the spring.

The chief scientific adviser's new "Guidelines 2000" make it clear that Departments should think ahead, identifying at an early stage the issues where scientific advice is needed. Departments should get a wide range of advice from the best sources, particularly where there is scientific uncertainty. Departments should publish the scientific advice they receive and all the relevant papers.

We have begun the process of modernising Government and of civil service reform. The aim is to improve strategic policy making and to promote a genuinely joined-up approach to problem solving. Departments, including those within the devolved Administrations, have been forging closer links to improve co-operation and consultation on matters of shared interest. For example, formal arrangements, such as the National Zoonoses Group, chaired by the chief medical officer and with members from the Department of Heath, MAFF, the Food Standards Agency and the devolved Administrations, are supported by greater informal contact. The secretariat for the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee is now drawn from three departments—MAFF, the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency.

We are proposing to enhance the role of the chief veterinary officer to make it comparable with that of the Government's chief medical officer. In future, the chief veterinary officer will advise the Government as a whole on veterinary matters and may be asked to provide advice for publication.

We are making progress in relation to risk management. All Departments have prepared a risk management framework. Some frameworks—including those of MAFF and the Department of Health—have already been published. The Food Standards Agency has published for consultation draft statements on its approach to risk. The interdepartmental liaison group on risk assessment and its subgroup on risk communication now ensure better sharing of information between Government officials and a more consistent approach to risk across Departments.

We have passed the Freedom of Information Act 2000, creating a statutory right of access to all information held by public bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, unless it is covered—as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out—by certain tightly defined conditions: for example, where disclosure would be illegal or against the public interest.

All that is real progress. The inquiry report itself acknowledges that the scenery has shifted very considerably from that with which we made ourselves familiar". Progress has been made, but there is more to do.

Institutional shortcomings cannot be corrected overnight. The whole approach and behaviour of Departments and individuals will need to change to ensure that the lessons identified by the inquiry are properly absorbed and implemented.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

The right hon. Gentleman gives a most impressive account of the administrative action that he has taken in his Department and in respect of matters for which he is directly and currently accountable. Does he acknowledge that his tenure—although, on merit, he may well remain in his post for a long time—is limited? What is needed is an assurance that can be guaranteed only by a legal requirement of openness—one that endures and enables members of the public to know about the scientific advice that is being proffered, precisely so as to ensure that the very measures that the right hon. Gentleman has taken, which he has outlined at length, are pursued by his successors.

Mr. Brown

In responding to the Phillips report and in presenting the Government's interim response to the House, I do so for the Government. I am the Minister who co-ordinates the Government's response on the matter; I do not speak only for MAFF. When I make a commitment for MAFF, I am careful to make that clear. What I cannot do is to cover every possible caveat that might arise in the departmental responsibilities of other Ministers, so I am very careful not to do so. The commitment to be open and to publish the advice that is available to Government from the FSA—the agency, too, has a commitment to meet in public and to put its advice to Government into the public domain—is made on behalf of the Government, not just on behalf of MAFF.

Dr. Iddon

Is not one of the problems the fact that we are entering a more technical age? The scientific advice given to Government is becoming ever more technical; there are several examples of that—on genetic modification, stem-cell technology and BSE. Is it not important that, throughout the civil service—especially at the top, where senior civil servants are advising Ministers—we should introduce more scientific literacy? Are senior Ministers taking measures on that matter?

Mr. Brown

Yes. Indeed, on my arrival at MAFF, I was struck by how much science there is in the Ministry already. As my hon. Friend will know from his experience as a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, there is a programme of research—especially on TSEs—that I have just enhanced. There is certainly a recognition of the point that he makes.

Dr. Gibson

Will my right hon. Friend explain why the Ministry's budget plummeted at the very time it should have been increased so as to investigate the scientific problems to which he referred? The Select Committee found that, at the time of those problems, the MAFF budget showed the greatest percentage decrease of all departmental budgets.

Mr. Brown

We did not decrease expenditure on TSEs. My hon. Friend is right to note that there was a small downturn in the butget as a whole—a matter that I am trying hard to rectify.

To return to the main thrust of my remarks on the Phillips report, the purpose of the interim response is to hold an open, public consultation before finalising the Government's position. That is the right approach. The questions raised by the inquiry report go to the heart of some of the most difficult aspects of public administration. Although it is unusual, I believe that we are right to seek views on all the central issues raised by the inquiry report, before finalising our response.

The following are among the key questions. What else might be done to ensure that Departments maintain an effective research, management and scientific advisory system? How can Government ensure that the full range of scientific opinions can be heard by those developing policy? Do the initiatives by the Food Standards Agency on openness meet the challenges of public confidence in food safety and the specific lessons of BSE? Is there more that the agency might do?

How might Departments best implement the Government's commitment to trusting the public and continue to develop ways of being open and consulting widely while developing policy? Should the Government do more to increase access to information about publicly funded research and development programmes? What more can be done by Government on risk management in science and in food safety?

Are current and proposed arrangements sufficient to ensure that consumer protection legislation can be properly enforced and its effectiveness monitored? Are there any perceived gaps in the powers available to the Government to respond urgently and proportionately to an apparent hazard to human or animal health?

The interim response sets out the Government's thinking on those issues and on each of the 167 recommendations and lessons of the inquiry report. It is right that we should be open about the mistakes of the past, the action that has been taken to put them right, and the areas where there is still room for improvement.

One central question that remains unresolved is the origin of BSE. The Government—in an initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and me—have asked Professor Gabriel Horn to lead a group that will pull together all the scientific research on the origins of BSE. We expect Professor Horn to make his report in time for inclusion in the Government's final response.

There has been a significant loss of public confidence in the arrangements is for handling food safety and standards, in large part due to the events surrounding BSE. The report of Lord Phillips identifies institutional and political failure throughout the BSE story. Our task today is to do everything we can to ensure that those failures do not happen again. Since coming to office, the Government have committed themselves to a policy of open and transparent working on issues of food safety. Our aim is to provide consumers and others with timely, accurate and science-based information and advice, enabling people to make informed decisions and choices. To establish credibility, it is necessary to generate trust. Trust can be generated only by openness. Openness requires that, where there is uncertainty, it is recognised and explained.

The BSE inquiry report is an important and thorough piece of work. It documents a national tragedy that has so far claimed the lives of 86 of our fellow citizens and has wreaked havoc on an entire industry. The report sets out what happened, what went right and what went wrong. It sets out lessons for the future. The Government are committed to learning those lessons.

Our interim response is a forward-looking document. It sets out what has been done, what we intend to do, and why. It forms the basis of an important consultation, which I intend to be comprehensive and thorough. I commend both the inquiry report and the Government's interim response to the House.

2.40 pm
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I welcome this opportunity to debate Lord Phillips' s report, and I pay tribute to Lord Phillips, his team and their advisers for the work which they undertook. This is a most important subject, and I welcome much of what the Minister has said about the report and the steps that have been taken to deal with the problem since the report was published and during the past five years by Governments of both parties.

The Phillips report makes it clear that our knowledge of the issue is still far from perfect. Large gaps remain to be filled, one of which, no doubt, will be addressed by the group to which the Minister has referred. As I said in my initial response on the day that the report was published, I accept its main conclusions, and now that I have had a chance to study it in more detail, I confirm my first impression that it is a comprehensive and broadly fair document.

I have never worked at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in any capacity, so I am not able to judge with certainty the accuracy or wisdom of the Phillips report in every detail. My right hon. Friends who are present—some of whom may seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—all have direct or first-hand experience of many of the matters examined by Lord Phillips, so I look forward to their comments on some of the report's details. However, on behalf of the Conservative party, I should like to make it clear that we recognise that mistakes were made. I profoundly regret the consequences of those mistakes, and we are truly sorry for the tragic outcomes and terrible suffering of victims of variant CJD and their families.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo

In a moment.

Our first concern and care must be for the victims and their families, and I fully support the action taken by the Government, some of which was set out in the interim response, published last week. I welcome yesterday's announcement on the interim payments to the families.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says about apologising to the victims, but the mother of one of them, Anthony Smith—a neighbour of mine—has written to me, saying: If you get the opportunity, I would like you to ask on my behalf why nothing has been heard from the individuals criticised in the report, not even an apology, they appear to be getting away with murder. It is a very moving letter, and Irene Smith concludes: An intelligent, healthy young man has died through ignorance and sometimes it is too painful to bear. When will the individuals who were criticised apologise publicly?

Mr. Yeo

I naturally sympathise very deeply with the hon. Lady's constituent. The report is extremely circumspect in the criticisms that it makes of individuals. I hope that she has studied the relevant section, because it is clear from Lord Phillips's balanced conclusions that he is rightly reluctant to go too far in blaming any individual.

I would have said this later, but I shall do so now: some of the individuals involved are civil servants who do not have an opportunity to answer for themselves in any case, so pursuing individual criticisms is not a particularly constructive way to address the issue. I am interested in the judgment of the official who explored the possibility of disciplinary action against civil servants. I entirely agree with the Minister that it would be inappropriate for him to become involved in that process in any way, and in his position I certainly would not wish to read the report—

Judy Mallaber


Dr. Gibson


Mr. Yeo

I shall give way in a moment.

Nevertheless, the fact that disciplinary action against officials has not been considered necessary reflects the balanced way in which Lord Phillips has addressed individual responsibility.

Judy Mallaber

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo

In a moment.

I return to the question of the families. Finding the right help for people with variant CJD is a challenge, and innovative solutions are needed. Time is of the essence, and the Conservative party pledges its full support for the measures that are needed. I believe that we owe it to the victims and their families to ensure, first, that every possible care and assistance is given to them and, secondly, to ensure that the lessons of this episode are thoroughly learned and applied right across government, not only in Britain but in other countries where BSE may now be an increasing problem. Our experience in Britain—an experience which we would all rather not have had—may have given us knowledge and expertise that will be applicable and valuable elsewhere.

Judy Mallaber

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo

No, it is more important to deal with the issues.

Other countries may want to learn from us, and I am sure that the Minister will facilitate that, where possible. History would rightly condemn us as having failed in our duty if the messages that ring loud and clear from the Phillips report were to be ignored. Lord Phillips did recognise, however, that where mistakes were made, the individuals concerned—ranging from civil servants and scientific advisers to Ministers—acted in good faith, and I welcome that recognition.

Anyone who has served in Government will be acutely aware of the danger and possible unfairness of passing judgment with the benefit of hindsight. Neither Ministers nor civil servants enjoy the luxury of spending days, weeks or even months studying the background to decisions that are taken every day of their lives. Those decisions may subsequently come under close scrutiny, but they are often made when other issues appear to be more important or more urgent, not only to Ministers and their advisers but to the outside world. The Phillips report recognises that fact in relation to several points—for example, in paragraph 1292 of volume 1, it does so specifically in respect of the important issue of the communication of risk.

It is also significant that, even with all the resources at the inquiry's disposal and having studied the subject for three years, the inquiry team concluded that the origin of BSE may never be known. Happily, the report was at least able to dispose of some of the theories on the origin of BSE that had been put about—for example, that it resulted from changes in rendering methods.

Let me move on to three of the key messages in the report.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I respect his tone, but I represent one of the families that was devastated. Ministers were mentioned—for example, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is not in his place. I do not know whether he has given any indication of why he is absent. Families in my constituency, finding that at one stage his evidence was simply not accepted, feel that he owes them and the House an explanation.

Mr. Yeo

The right hon. Gentleman has put his concern on record, and I am sure that it will be noted by my right hon. and learned Friend.

The first key message is the need for better communication within Whitehall and the ranks of government. That will not come as a great surprise to anyone with inside knowledge of the workings of government. The second key message is the importance of responding in a timely manner to information that becomes available and to unfolding events; and the third is the overriding requirement for openness and transparency. The Minister referred to the collapse of public confidence in the safety of the food chain, and that cannot be fully restored without such openness. That collapse has exacted a heavy toll on consumers, producers and taxpayers. Special care has to be exercised when assurances about food safety are offered to the public.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

As well as trying to give confidence, the Government must get regulation right. Many of us would argue that we do not need more regulation; we need good regulation. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we need to find the necessary resources for that? Will he commit his party to finding those resources to ensure that not only BSE but TSEs are properly monitored and evaluated to ensure that such a disaster never happens again?

Mr. Yeo

I certainly agree that we need better rather than more regulation. Like the Minister, I must take care to make commitments only in respect of matters on which I speak. I said recently in the House that the Conservative party is committed to maintaining the budget that the Minister has managed to secure for his Department. That is the nearest that I can get to answering the hon. Gentleman's question.

The report gave a number of examples of the need for better communication in government. The Minister referred to an example that occurred early in the period studied by the report, when officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recognised that BSE might have implications for human health, but that recognition was not immediately conveyed to the Department of Health. Clearly, vigilance is always needed to ensure that poor communication does not produce bad outcomes and that decisions are not made on the basis of inadequate data. That need is not confined to the relationship between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Health; it extends, as the Government's interim response acknowledges, to relationships with specialist units, other agencies, advisory committees and, indeed, industry.

Communication must now take account of a new factor—devolution. The interim report, if one reads between the lines, shows that devolution has complicated matters. The existence of four Administrations in different parts of the United Kingdom increases the risk that information available to one may not always be passed to another as quickly as it should be, even though that other Administration may need the information. We had an example of that last year, on a matter concerning an environmental health risk rather than a human health risk, when information available to the Ministry of Agriculture in London about the importation of a GM-contaminated crop was not passed to the Scottish Executive in as timely as a manner as the Executive thought necessary.

The Government have set much store by the establishment of the Food Standards Agency. We fully support the agency and I warmly welcome its efforts to establish itself as an independent, authoritative source of advice for consumers on food safety matters. If the agency succeeds in that roles, consumers, producers and taxpayers stand to benefit.

Dr. Gibson

Does the hon. Gentleman remember a former Prime Minister describing the agency as "PR nonsense"?

Mr. Yeo

I do not remember that. We debated the agency in Standing Committee earlier in this Parliament. It is now up and running and it has our support. I wish it well. Having said all that, it seems doubtful that even if the agency had existed in the period covered by the Phillips inquiry, that fact alone would have prevented, or even significantly alleviated, the difficulties that the inquiry has exposed.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Yeo

I shall give way in a moment.

Lord Phillips concluded that in dealing with BSE the Ministry of Agriculture did not lean in favour of agricultural producers to the detriment of consumers. Although the agency's independence is important and valuable, and is potentially central to its future success, I do not think that it would have made a material difference to the matters that we are debating.

Mr. Nick Brown

There are two different points here. The agency's value in circumstances such as these is that it can make a robust, independent assessment of the science and then put the information in the public domain. Realisation of the link between BSE and vCJD emerged between 1984 and 1996, and, if the agency had existed then, that emerging scientific opinion would have been made public and a response would have been required, which did not happen in the events that Phillips described.

Mr. Yeo

I understand the Minister's point. Nevertheless, it is significant that Lord Phillips said in his summary that he did not think the Ministry of Agriculture—

Mr. Brown

Just to clarify, I was agreeing with that point. The hon. Gentleman was making a separate point.

Mr. Yeo

In that case, there is not a great difference between us.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (pendle)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way'?

Mr. Yeo

No, I am sorry; I am anxious to make progress. Many Members who are directly involved in the report want to speak in the debate, and I did not intend to speak for more than 20 minutes.

Good communication is needed no only within Britain but between the Food Standards Agency and agencies in countries from which we import food. There is concern about that.

I turn now to the second message, which concerned the need for a timely response to new information on emerging problems. I do not pretend that that is an easy balance to strike. The public can be alarmed by an over-hasty response to a situation, and the ability of producers to deliver safe, healthy food at prices that suit consumers might even be jeopardised by excessive caution or over-regulation. Nevertheless, the Phillips report suggests that inaction and de lay can pose equal, perhaps even greater, dangers.

The safety of the food chain and the protection of consumers must always be the paraniount concern of the Government. Preserving that safety often requires prompt action. The precautionary principle has an important role to play. Timely action, even if it is embarrassing to the Government, inconvenient to the industry or costly to consumers, often offers better value in every respect in the long run than a delayed response, which can be more drastic, expensive and time consuming.

There are a number of examples demonstrating that need, which I will not go into now because they are in the report for everybody to read. One of the lessons to be learned from those examples is that it is not only the decision but its implementation that has to be timely. Sometimes that is difficult because when a policy maker makes a decision in a structure as complex as government, the speed with which it is implemented is not always visible to the policy maker, or indeed the public, until a retrospective study such as this is undertaken.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo

No, I have given way several times. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends are referred to in the report, and my giving way will reduce their opportunities to contribute to the debate,

The third and crucial message from the report is the need for greater openness in Government decision making on food safety issues. It goes without saying that statements on such a sensitive subject by Ministers and their advisers must be meticulously accurate. The publication, without any censorship or editing, of advice that Ministers receive from scientific and other bodies can contribute to greater transparency. The need for openness is accompanied by a difficult requirement for Governments to achieve—the need to strike the right note in offering consumers reassurance about food safety. As the Phillips report points out, when the full consequences of BSE began to be understood, the public felt that early statements had been too reassuring. That territory has been explored many times already.

Today's debate is unlikely to be the last on this subject in the House. A great deal more work needs to be done on BSE and CJD if these matters are to be completely understood.

Other concerns are sometimes expressed, such as those about sheep. We do not—and may not—know for many years the full consequences of BSE in Britain, let alone in those countries where the incidence of BSE is increasing and the same steps have not been taken to deal with it. There are alternative theories about the causes of CJD and its link to BSE. The messages of the Phillips report apply not only to BSE and beef, but across the food chain and beyond. As the Minister said, the systemic failures that Lord Phillips identifies will be completely eradicated only by a wholehearted effort on the part of Ministers and civil servants. If they are eradicated, the sad history of BSE in Britain will at least have had one beneficial result. I join the Minister in commending the report to the House.

3 pm

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I thank Lord Phillips and his team for their work in producing such a long and useful report. I also thank the Government for establishing the inquiry. It is interesting that it took a new Government to wipe the slate clean and have a proper examination of what went wrong. We suspected that things were going wrong, and Lord Phillips confirms that. The report is workmanlike, thorough and exhaustive, but it contains much new information.

Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I was invited by Lord Phillips to make a statement to the inquiry, which I was glad to do. For the five years between 1987 and 1992, I was the shadow agriculture spokesman and opposed Conservative Members who were in government and who are here today. We had four major robust debates on the issue, including on some Supply days. I did not apologise for that then, and I do not apologise for it now.

My experiences during that time convinced me that, unless we had a freedom of information Act and legislative rights, the consumer could never be properly protected. That is why, when I was in government, I was so pleased to publish the White Paper on freedom of information. I was also pleased to chair the Cabinet Committee that was involved in setting up the Food Standards Agency. Although those two measures do not mean that problems like BSE or TSE will not arise again, we are now more likely to know what is going on. I do not apologise for that.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will reconsider the Forbes report. I understand his argument, although I hope that he will not discuss it with his permanent secretary. Many wrongs were done when BSE was emerging, and people may have died as a result. Someone must be responsible. My experience of the civil service—fine as it is—is that there is an ethos of self-protection.

Mr. Nick Brown

I understand my right hon. Friend's point, but I must emphasise that the inquiries by the civil service commissioners go only as far as the five individuals who are still serving civil servants. What he suggests would probably run wider than that.

Dr. Clark

I accept that, but I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the report's introduction. It says: At times bureaucratic processes resulted in unacceptable delay in giving effect to policy. Even after Ministers reached a decision, there was a delay in the bureaucratic process. We need to be certain in public that that process and the people who run it have put those wrongs right.

Lord Phillips' report is a fine analytical work. If I have one criticism it is that he does not pick up on the nuances or the pressure that was placed on politicians who attempted to raise the issue. I shall concentrate on the period between 1987 and 1992. I believe—I think the report supports my view—that the Conservative Government made a series of basic errors of judgment, which helped to exacerbate the problem in a number of key ways. They were not strong enough to break the culture of secrecy in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and their approach was too short term.

Farmers and the general public widely regarded the Ministry as a Ministry for farmers, although that charge would have been denied. I understand that it was the job of Ministers to promote that great industry, but sometimes we have to look beyond the short term. Again, the culture of secrecy, which was probably stronger in the Ministry than in any other Department, exacerbated the problem. As Lord Phillips and many other people said, there was little or inadequate co-ordination between the Ministry and the Department of Health.

I remember participating in many debates and being howled down by Conservative Members who said, "Do you want to ruin the beef industry in this country?" The answer was no, but had we acted earlier, we could have saved a greater proportion of our beef industry and perhaps eased the conditions that the farming industry is experiencing today.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

I well remember my right hon. Friend's excellent work in those years. In the debates, he, I and many other hon. Members raised the possibility that BSE was transmissible to humans. That was dismissed out of hand by the then Government and we were accused of scaremongering whenever we mentioned it. Does he recall those days? Does he think that the Government's response was appropriate?

Dr. Clark

I remember those days clearly. Right from the word go, the Southwood report said that, although it was only a remote possibility, there was nevertheless a possibility that BSE could be transmissible to human beings. I accept that it was a remote possibility, but Ministers robustly defended the status quo and said that there was little threat to human beings. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and I exchanged words on that matter in several debates.

Crucially, the public were given the impression that it was safe to eat beef. Tragically, we now know that the Southwood report was slightly wrong. The possibility may have been remote in statistical terms, but for those families who have suffered the consequences of BSE, it is a real experience. We all regret every death, and if a death is unnecessary we must ask why it happened.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful analysis of the culture of previous Conservative Governments. Deregulation was a strong aspect of that culture, and it made it extremely difficult for public protection measures to be appropriately enforced. Does he share my dismay that Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen are still talking about having a bonfire of public health regulations and enforcement measures?

Dr. Clark

At that time, there was a culture of deregulation. However, when it comes to public health, we should be aiming for better regulations and not necessarily deregulation. We must also bear in mind the fact that, in that period, many public services were being reduced. If my memory serves me right, the state veterinary service was reduced by 43 per cent. in those years. That meant that we did not have the resources in the veterinary or public health services of central Government—closre after closure of veterinary laboratories had taken place—to tackle the problem.

Thus the problem came down to money. Quotes to support that view are available. Professor Southwood said that the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food expressed the hope … that any recommendations we would make would not lead to an increase in public expenditure". That is staggering, but it makes my point in one sentence. That is one reason why we got into such difficulties.

Delays were another issue. The Phillips report makes the point that the then Government hushed up for six months the fact that a case of BSE had been confirmed in 1986. That is in the report for everyone to see.

The Southwood report was published in June—Conservatives Members are shaking their heads, but these are the facts—but we had to wait eight months before the report was actually published. Professor Southwood suggests that vital research may have been held up in that period.

Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

I would prefer to concentrate my remarks in my speech, but I must correct the right hon. Gentleman's final point. The interim Southwood report was published in June and we acted on it immediately. The full Southwood report was given to Ministers in February 1989 and we published that, along with our reactions and the Government response, within three weeks.

Dr. Clark

There was delay after delay after delay. That is one of the points that I want to make. For example, it took 18 months after a case of BSE was confirmed before the Government made it a [...]otifiable disease. It took 20 months to introduce a compulsory slaughter and compensation scheme and, even then, it was only at 50 per cent. We know—or at least we have our suspicions because I talked to farmers at that time—that farmers who were hard pressed and who were in doubt would take their beast to the market and into the abattoir because they could not afford to lose a £350 animal. The then Government eventually accepted our point of view, but there had been a delay. It took them two and a half years to announce the ban on cattle offal for human consumption, and it took them a further 20 months after making BSE a notifiable disease to pay farmers 100 per cent. compensation. That should have been done earlier.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

I remember the right hon. Gentleman making many of these points in the House. The offal ban was first introduced in 1991, but it took another five years for a complete ban to come into force, during which time massive amounts of specified bovine offal and meat, and bonemeal were exported. That fact is now coming home to roost, because there are now cases of BSE in countries overseas.

Dr. Clark

I remember that very well and, over the past two or three days I have been able to read the debates that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The hon. Gentleman made such points then. I hope that I have made my general point that the previous Government were guilty of many delays. We do not know what the cost of them has been.

We issued warnings to the previous Government. In May 1990, we called for a ban on the feeding of cattle offal to pigs and chickens, but that call was not taken up until very much later. We called for the cull of the offspring of BSE-infected cattle but again, that was not implemented until years later. We tried to stop the use of cattle and sheep offal in pet food but, again, it was years later before any action was implemented. In 1990, we called for the institution of a tagging system for cattle, but we had to wait until this Government established a plant in Workington in 1998 before we got any progress. There was a delay of eight years, in which the Conservative party in government did absolutely nothing.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House which measures recommended by advisers the then Government declined to implement? I played no part at that time, but even if previous Ministers did not get everything right, was it not the case that they systematically took steps to implement in full the advice that they received and, in certain cases, embellished and added to the proposals?

Dr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in the subject and is very knowledgeable, and I do not want to disappoint him. However, I shall provide him with an example after I have made my next point. We also called for the widening of the scientific evidence made available to the Government.

Let me respond to the hon. Gentleman by pointing out that one of the recommendations of the Tyrrell committee—a committee of scientists—was that there should be a Survey of brains of cattle routinely sent for slaughter to monitor incidence of unrecognised infection. The fact that that was never implemented by the Government of the day, even though their experts recommended that it should have been, is important. We know that the then Government did not implement the recommendation because it might have shown that some infected cattle were getting into the food chain. I understand the seriousness of the issue and the fact that it was a high-risk strategy, but I believe that the consumer had the right to know. There should have been a belt-and-braces approach to these issues, but the previous Government consistently refused to act on that recommendation.

Judy Mallaber

From his experience, will my right hon. Friend confirm that, even after the link between BSE and variant CJD was confirmed, many Tory Back Benchers refused to acknowledge and accept that link? Does he agree that the pressure from some of those ill-informed Conservative Members made it more difficult for Conservative Ministers to accept the link and the risk to human health?

Dr. Clark

There was certainly a strong feeling and culture among Conservative Members that they had to do everything to protect the farming industry. I understand that, but I suggested at the time—and I suggest it again now—that they were not serving their farming friends very well. Indeed, their short-term approach to the problem made life in the long term more difficult for farmers.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I should disclose that I was a cattle farmer and breeder in the period to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. I hope that he and other Members will acknowledge that, had there been proper labelling of animal feed products and had farmers had real knowledge of the possible dangers, virtually no farmer would ever have fed meat and bonemeal to cattle.

Dr. Clark

I agree absolutely. By the nature of their occupation, farmers have to think long term; otherwise, they have no future.

I want to stress a further important point, which relates to the way in which the Government of the day restricted their scientific advice. Any scientist who was not seen as part of the scientific establishment was excluded. I want to highlight in particular the poignant case of Dr. Harash Narang, the expert in the northern region. He was employed by the Government as the chief scientist for the Public Health Laboratory Service dealing with CJD, the human equivalent of BSE. Dr. Narang had developed a system, through electronic microscopy, to identify CJD in human beings—I concede that it was a post-mortem test—and he believed that he could use the same technique with cattle. At the time, it was taking eight or nine weeks to get the results of any tests, which meant delay with what was done with the animal meanwhile, and the animal was taken out of the human food chain.

I was staggered to find that Dr. Narang, having started to work on these matters in his own time, was sacked by the Conservative Government. To this day I find that incomprehensible. I do not know whether Dr. Narang was a fine scientist—I cannot judge; it was for his peers to judge—but I know that he had collaborated with a Nobel peace prize winner, Dr. Carleton Gajdusek, and had published papers with him. That was his standing. However, he was precluded from helping us to solve the problem. Fortunately, a private benefactor in the form of Ken Bell, a former butcher, came along and allowed the doctor to continue his work.

I am not saying whether Dr. Narang was right or wrong; it is not for me to judge. However, it is possible that his sacking cost lives, because he was permanently excluded from work in this area. At the time, it seemed that there was only a "remote possibility" of a link of transmissible disease from animals to humans. However, Dr. Narang was right and the Government's scientific advisers were wrong. I hope that we have learned—this does not stem from the Phillips report—that when dealing with science of this nature, which is at the bounds of knowledge, members of the scientific establishment do not have the sole solution.

Perhaps I have detained the House for too long, but I feel strongly about the issue. It flavoured my political thinking and I was glad to put right some of the wrongs, as I saw them, in government. I tried to ensure that, if we ever faced such a challenge again, we would have a better equipped group of scientific advisers, a better equipped bureaucratic framework, and Ministers able to think more strategically and more long term. Not enough long-term thinking was done by the previous Government when they were trying to cope with BSE.

3.23 pm
Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

There are many things that I would like to say about the matter. I shall not be able to deal with them all in a short debate, and those to which I refer will have to be dealt with briefly.

I begin by expressing my deep sympathy for the victims of nvCJD and their relatives. The Phillips report brought out the fact that everyone involved was naturally concerned to take the right decisions, and quickly. Most of us are parents. All of us have the greatest concern for protecting human life and health. In my experience, everyone involved with BSE pursued all the issues most conscientiously. That is fully recognised in the Phillips report.

I deeply regret that the outcome has been such human tragedy. However, as is recognised in the Phillips report, we were dealing with what turned out to be an unprecedented situation. The report describes BSE as a novel and alarming zoonosis. It was certainly one that was not in the experience of anyone who was trying to identify it at the time. Professor Sir Richard Southwood and other scientists—the best international experts that we could find to advise us on the issue—described us as dealing at the frontiers of science.

The chief veterinary officer once told me—I think that it is in the Phillips report—that 40 new animal diseases a year are identified. We never know which one will be the most difficult. As the Minister will know, there is a disease in the pig industry that is known as PDNS. It probably has a more damaging impact than classical swine fever. It has emerged only in the past two years, and we still do not know what is causing it. After two years, the Minister cannot take action on it because he does not know what action to take. That was the problem that we faced with BSE.

In two instances, I shall be critical of the Phillips report. However, I put on re cord immediately my congratulations to Lord Phillips on what I regard as an exhaustively thorough and balanced analysis. There will always be lessons to be learned from something so major and so difficult to come to grips with. I compliment the Phillips team on the way in which it has drawn the lessons together. I compliment the Government also on the thoroughness of the interim response.

I can speak only for the two years when I was the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which was in the early stages of BSE. Most of the events discussed in the Phillips report—especially the implementation of decisions that we took—came after my time. I did not follow events quite s o closely thereafter, and it would not be right for me to comment on them.

I have already referred to uncertainty. I was always conscious, and certainly at the early stages—I shall make a direct response to the criticisms of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)—that we were taking decisions without being entirely sure of the scientific assessment s underlying them. When I took the initial decisions about the banning of meat and bonemeal, I was conscious that we were only 80 per cent. sure that it was a cause of BSE There was always the risk of being completely wrong and being challenged on judicial review or in the courts by the industry or anyone else for taking actions that were r of based on any proper scientific assessment.

My first answer to the right hon. Member for South Shields on the meat and bonemeal ban is that I received the final paper from the chief veterinary officer, in which he analysed what he thought was the cause of BSE— namely, meat and bonemeal—only in May 1988. That was when I had the evidence on which to act. Within three weeks, or less, I had 'tanned it. That was a quick response.

As for the slaughter and compensation proposal, I agree with the criticism in the report that there was delay. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should have been in contact with the Department of Health earlier about that proposal. However, the chief medical officer took the view that that Department, once consulted, did not have the necessary expertise to consider the proposal. Therefore, the Southwood committee was set up. Within days of receiving the interim Southwood report about the slaughter and compensation scheme, I went to the Treasury. Within a week, I secured Treasury agreement. An announcement was made almost immediately thereafter. That was a rapid response

The right hon. Member for South Shields is completely wrong about the final Southwood report. I received that report in early February, and published it as quickly as I could. I had been to Cabinet and obtained the Government's decisions on it as well. I not only published the report immediately, but announced the Government's actions. In each instance the right hon. Gentleman is wrong.

Dr. David Clark

How does the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House the comments of Professor Southwood, when he says: We recommended that such an experiment"— transmission from cow to calf— be started almost as soon as we met, but it did not get under way until the report was published 9 months later."—[Official Report, 21 May 1990; Vol. 173, c. 78.]

Mr. MacGregor

That is not a reference to the interim report, because we came out with all of that early on. I cannot remember the position on the particular issues that the right hon. Gentleman is raising, but I was anxious throughout to act immediately on the Southwood recommendations, and I did so.

Uncertainty is an important issue.

Mr. Ainger

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

No. If I give way a great deal, I shall go on for too long. There are still a number of issues within the report with which I want to deal.

Paragraph 1151 of the Phillips report states: When our Inquiry began, most members of the public remained under the impression that BSE was scraple in cattle and that the reason why cattle food had become infectious was that renderers had altered their methods of production to the detriment of safety standards. Most of us in the House took that view; it was certainly my view. Therefore paragraph 166 in the Phillips report surprised me. It states: The epidemic of BSE may have started with a single diseased cow. Why should that cow have developed BSE? It is possible that the disease developed spontaneously as a consequence of a genetic mutation. The report states that that probably occurred in the early 1970s. It continues: There are other possibilities. No one will ever know. I took the received view—the best view of everyone at the time—that the cause was the change in the rendering of meat and bonemeal in the early 1980s and that sheep scrapie was coming through the process. That turned out to be partly right, as meat and bonemeal were the cause of the spread. However, according to Phillips, the rendering had nothing to do with it. I remember that the right hon. Member for South Shields raised that process with me frequently, but in fact rendering turned out to be a false cause.

I was surprised even more by the fact that scrapie had nothing to do with the cause. That is significant, as all the received scientific assessment at the time suggested that BSE came from scrapie, which led to the view that the risk to human health was remote. The reason for that was simple: scrapie had been around for 200 years, and had not had any consequences for human health.

Mr. Tom Clarke

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

I shall do so just once.

Mr. Clarke

I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will not worry too much about time, because we respect his courage in coming to the House and applying himself to the matter.

May I briefly put to him a comment in the Phillips report and invite his response? The report states: Mr Andrews … should have raised with Mr MacGregor the need to have an answer to this question. That is, the question why action should be taken on baby food and not other food. The report continues: Mr. MacGregor himself should have seen that the question … was pursued. Would the right hon. Gentleman care to respond to that criticism?

Mr. MacGregor

If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall respond to both criticisms at the right place in my speech.

I shall finish my point about uncertainty, which is terribly important. The scrapie analysis led to the scientific assessment, to which nearly everyone subscribed at the time, that the risk to human health was, as the Southwood report states, "most unlikely and remote". However, Southwood and others emphasised that if those conclusions were wrong, the consequences would be extremely serious. I never sought to disguise that. I frequently made that point wherever I went, as well as the point about the remoteness of the risk and the relationship to scrapie.

It is not only a question of scientists getting some things right and some things wrong in their early assessment. Indeed, the Phillips report does not criticise them at all for that. The Phillips report itself may be wrong about the cause; it admits that it simply does not know. I was surprised by the certainty with which it discussed the mutation theory—it may be wrong. It is essential that we continue to assess the causes, which is why the Government are right to ask Professor Horn to review the origins of BSE. That is one of the most important actions that they can take because, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said, the ramifications may go wider than BSE itself.

Mr. Nick Brown

indicated assent.

Mr. MacGregor

I note that the Minister is nodding.

That possibility demonstrates the difficulties of grappling with the issue at the time.

Judy Mallaber

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

No, I will not.

I want to concentrate on the lessons. First, I must briefly address criticisms of individuals, the vast majority of which were addressed to civil servants, who do not have the opportunity to reply. In my experience, they were extremely dedicated in dealing, in many cases, with extraordinarily difficult issues on top of an already heavy work load. Of course, mistakes were made. However, far more often, Phillips concludes that the right and, critically, key decisions were, in most cases, taken speedily in frequently difficult circumstances, and in the context of available knowledge. Indeed, there are many commendations to that effect in the report.

To deal with the criticisms made by the right hon. Member for South Shields, Phillips makes it clear that there were no cover-ups or deceptions. The right hon. Gentleman's point about MAFF being close to the farming industry is rejected absolutely in the report. The accusation that the 50 per cent. compensation led to an increase in the number of people trying to evade controls is also rejected. All of those accusations were analysed carefully in the report, and were rejected.

One reason—I put this criticism mildly—why there has been a focus on individuals is that individual criticisms were listed in an appendix, on which there was a media focus. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was right and rather kind in his original statement to the House, when he indicated that there was not a similar appendix drawing out all the commendations and praiseworthy comments in the report about individuals. If that had been done, the report might have been rather more balanced.

I obviously do not want to make comments about too many civil servants, but my own permanent secretary, Sir Derek Andrews, was meticulous and conscientious in dealing with the matter. I felt particularly for the chief veterinary officer, Keith Meldrum, and Dr. Pickles from the Department of Health, who received individual criticisms. However, if one considers the overall balance of the report, they come out extremely well. I should especially like to talk about Keith Meldrum, whom the report describes as a particularly dedicated and hard-working civil servant". I want to put that on the record, as it is only fair to that individual.

Judy Mallaber


Mr. MacGregor

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I have a lot to say.

I also want to emphasise that the three vital measures that we took during my time at MAFF were warmly praised in the Phillips report; it is important that that be understood. First, Mr. Wilesmith, who undertook the initial analysis of the disease, was given great praise for his speedy identification of meat and bonemeal as a cause of the spread of the disease. There was wide praise for the fact that we banned meat and bonemeal very soon after—I believe that the report refers to our swift and appropriate response—which directly contradicts what the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston said. As the report makes clear, that action reduced the rate of infection by 80 per cent. overnight.

Equally, the slaughter and compensation scheme and the specified bovine offal ban were described as vital measures for the protection of human health. Indeed, to respond to the point of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston, the report describes one of those measures as far-seeing and of great importance.

Having set out that context, I shall deal briefly with the two individual criticisms of me. The first—to which I think the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston was referring—was that, after the final Southwood report, I did not ask for a review of the report's suggestion, namely, that if SBO materials were not to be used in baby food, why not ban their use in all food? But that is precisely what I did. It is on record that that was one of the first questions that I asked internally in the Ministry. As I considered the issue of baby food, that question was increasingly on my mind, and that of many people. That matter was raised in the Ministry.

The proof of that is the action I took on the Southwood report to ban SBOs in all food. I acted in response to my first question, so the Phillips report's criticism of me is rather strange. The reason that criticism is in the report—which is important for the context of future inquiries—is that many of us who went to the public hearings for the Phillips report, and had questions put to us by the report's counsel, frequently had to point out that not everything that takes place in Departments is written down. We had the strong impression that a paper trail alone was being pursued and that discussions that were not recorded in detail were thought not to have taken place.

In fact, I did ask the question about SBOs, which is why I came to my decision, and why I am surprised by the criticism in the report. There is therefore a problem in relation to the inquiries undertaken by the Phillips team. The report rightly refers to the fact that the civil service is a Rolls-Royce machine, but criticises it for taking too long to reach conclusions on issues and on its tendency to draft and redraft guidelines. That is a fair criticism. Of course, if people are asked why they did not do something 10 years after the event because no record exists that they asked a certain question, or if they are asked why a matter was not raised at a ministerial meeting because the minutes of that meeting did not refer to it, that will lead to a situation in which everything will be written down and ultra-caution will be practised to protect the civil servants.

I know for a fact—and I am sure that the Minister would agree—that in many of our meetings, the private secretary, rushed off his or her feet, takes a quick note of the conclusions and that is it. Somehow or other, the Phillips inquiry gained the impression that, unless it was all written down, something never happened. There is a risk of banking up double safety mechanisms in the civil service, which could lead to even greater delays.

The report makes another criticism of me, which I must read out briefly. With reference to the SBO ban, it states: Mr MacGregor is bo he commended for introducing a ban which was to prove such a vital element in guarding against the risk that BSE posed to humans. However, he should not have agreed to presentation which played down the importance of the ban as a protection for human health. That is the only other criticism, which suggests that I should have added another sentence or two to the parliamentary answer that announced the SBO ban. I have wrestled with the matter, which is one of judgment. At the time, I was anxious about exceeding Professor Southwood's recommendations. I was worried that the next day's headlines would say "Minister and advisers disagree", when I wanted them to refer instead to the action that we were taking as an ultra-safe precaution for human health. Indeed, Professor Southwood described the precaution as being belt and braces in the extreme. In order to avoid the wrong interpretation and to show that the measure had developed from the Southwood report, I added some important additional points. They are itemised in the Phillips report, so I shall not repeat them now. That was my focus, but I am criticised for not adding a sentence saying that risk still remained to human health.

The answer to that criticism is twofold. First, there had been widespread debate in the media about the issue in the weeks leading up to my decision. The way in which it was received by the press shows that the action that I was taking in the background was fully understood. Secondly, I was assured by all the scientists that the action that I was taking was not scientifically necessary. I therefore made the point that if there was a risk and we turned out to be wrong, I would already have taken the action to deal with it. That is the way in which I presented the matter, and I leave that to the House to consider. I thought that I had presented it reasonably well.

Mr. Boswell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the flavour of those two points justifies sears that the practice of defensive medicine might be growing? Just as it might be difficult to pursue specialties in medicine because of the risk of being sued thereafter, Ministers might be inhibited, if we persist in the constant it habit of having to find an audit trail, in making decisions, is because they must act in an over-defensive way in order to justify them subsequently.

Mr. MacGregor

I shall return to that interesting point during my consideration of the report's lessons. I apologise to the House for taking so long to make my speech, but as I was criticised in the report, I think it reasonable for me to respond, even if very briefly.

I am in broad agreement with the Phillips report's conclusions on the areas about which I have relevant knowledge, and with those in the Government's response.

Judy Mallaber

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

I am sorry; I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I continue.

I want to concentrate on some particular lessons, having made the point that I am broadly in agreement with them. I entirely agree about openness. I always tried to release information and reports as quickly as I could, especially with regard to communication of risk I reject the idea that I knowingly suppressed any information, and I am sure that those of my right hon. friends who have had similar responsibilities will say exactly the same.

Mr. Ainger

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

I want to make progress, as I know that so many hon. Members want to speak.

I say to the Minister that Government must not let the desire for wider consultation or the need for further review delay action if they conclude that a particular proposal or policy decision must be implemented quickly. If one consults widely, there is a risk that that may happen. I had to take two or three of my decisions very quickly.

The question of openness and sedation is difficult—the Minister is also likely to find it problematic—because of the media reaction. We were anxious to convey the precise scientific views that were taken about the risk. However, we always had to be careful about misleading headlines, so conveying such views was always a difficult matter of presentation. My other criticism of the report is that it does not give attention to the response and attitude of the media. That was hardly mentioned, but a whole chapter on it would have been helpful. I suspect that the Government's response does not deal with the importance of the media either. It contains a brief reference to training civil servants in respect of dealing with the media, but the matter is wider than that.

Although openness is entirely right, it will not solve all the problems when some sections of the media are interested merely in a sensational headline or a good scare story. I suspect that even the Food Standards Agency and its director will find that that is the case from time to time. I have always felt that one of the key qualifications for the director, apart from being a scientist, is skill in dealing with the media.

I wholly support the need for a much more informed public debate on risk assessment and management. I have often tried to get such debate going, not only as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but as Secretary of State for Transport. Initiating such debate is not, however, an easy thing to do. Such matters are rather boring and an accident or food scare is much more interesting than proper risk assessment. I fully support every effort to get proper risk assessment and management more into the public debate.

I strongly support the codification of good practice in respect of the scientific committees. The Neill committee on standards in public life, of which I am a member, has been codifying good practice in public life for the past few years. The lessons of the past and up-to-date thinking mean that codification is worth while.

I have a couple of points that relate to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). It is important sometimes to pay our advisers, who have a big work load, as is mentioned in the report. There is also a risk that they will be unwilling to serve if every piece of advice that they give is subjected to the sort of treatment given by the Phillips report. I suspect that some members of the Southwood committee feel aggrieved at the way in which their actions have been analysed. In future, advisers might need reassurance on indemnity. As my hon. Friend suggested, that is important in this age of blame culture and ambulance chasing.

The report refers also to training scientists in the use of plain language, which is important, but above all, media training is highly desirable. I often felt that the precision to which scientists are used can be at odds with some journalists' desire to get a good headline.

I turn finally to two other important matters. On Government action and legislation, I was surprised at how little reference was made to judicial review in the main body of the report. It was mentioned once or twice, but Ministers at the time were conscious of its dangers. I once worked in a Department that was subjected to judicial review in respect of a particular case, so I know about all the risks of legal action that would have arisen if we had taken decisions that were not properly based.

There is a very interesting question about the matter that has not been fully explored. Paragraph 1329 of the report states that powers should not be restricted merely because it cannot be established as a reasonable probability, as opposed to a mere possibility … that the disease is transmissible. That is where judicial review comes in and, from about paragraph 1303 onwards, the report contains an interesting analysis in that regard, although I shall not bore the House by reading it out. The message that I took was that it is always important to get the balance right. One has to continue to give the opportunity for outside interests to challenge through judicial review a Minister's action and the basis for it. On the other hand, if one is to proceed as Phillips recommends when the issue at stake and the scientific evidence are very unclear, the implications of judicial review must be thought through. That has not yet been done properly, so I ask the Minister to think a bit more about that issue.

I could say so much more, but I should like finally to deal with tests. We were greatly handicapped in the early years by the lack of a reliable test. We had no test to detect animal protein in compound feed, let alone ruminant protein. That was extremely difficult in respect of the bonemeal ban. I would have loved to have a test, and the enzyme linked immuno sorbent assay—or ELISA—test was eventually developed. Even more important, however, was the detection of BSE. Decisions taken by the European Union now depend greatly on having a reliable test for BSE. My understanding is that there are still defects in the existing post mortem tests, in terms both of their complete reliability and of the speed with which they can be carried out. We must ask in how much better a position we would be if a test in live animals could be developed. Indeed, the Government make that point on page 40 of their response. I attach enormous importance to the development of a reliable test, as it would make it so much easier to deal with the disease. I am glad that the Government are putting so much effort into that.

I apologise for having spoken so long. My conclusion is that we did seek the best scientific advice that we could and we always acted on it. We never did less and occasionally did more. We also took what Phillips described as far-sighted measures. However, BSE was an unprecedented phenomenon from which lessons are bound to have been learned. The Phillips report gives the right framework and, in my view, the Government are right to follow it up rigorously.

3.49 pm
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh)

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) will understand if I do not comment in detail on what he said because many other hon. Members wish to speak.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), my interest in BSE developed when I was the Opposition agriculture spokesman, a post which I held until the 1997 election. As long as I live, I will remember the day when British Ministers came to the House of Commons to announce the likely link between BSE and CJD. It is a measure of how serious the issue was that, in the morning, the Government sent the chief medical officer, the permanent secretary at the Agriculture Ministry, and the Cabinet Secretary to brief me and my right hon. Friend Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who was then the shadow health spokesman, on the seriousness of the statement that the Government were to make that afternoon.

A great deal has happened since that day, and I congratulate the Government on setting up the Phillips inquiry. There is no doubt that that inquiry was necessary and there is a great deal to be learned from this episode in British history. I should like to start by quoting from the report: At the heart of the BSE story are questions of how to handle hazard—a known hazard to cattle and an unknown hazard to humans. The government took measures to address both hazards. They were sensible mea cures, but they were not always timely nor adequately implemented and enforced. That key conclusion of the Phillips committee explains why disease in cattle was allowed to develop on such a massive scale.

We know the proportions of the BSE crisis. The disease was first recognised in November 1986, and since then we have had nearly 180,000 cases of BSE on more than 35,000 farms in Great Britain. Since the statement by the then Government in March 1996, measures have been taken which have cost the British taxpayer £4 billion.

We can now quantify the cost of BSE in terms of the animal population, but we are not in a position to judge how big a tragedy it will be for the human population. There have been a number of articles in The Lancet and the British Medical Journal during the past year on new variant CJD. There have been 94 probable or definite cases to date, of which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said, 86 have died. That is not a large number, certainly not compared with the 17,000 cases of AIDS, but the numbers are rising and no one can say how many cases will develop in the years that lie ahead.

The impact of BSE has not been confined to the UK. The EU budget now faces serious problems because of the collapse in the beef price, and two German Ministers were forced to resign only recently on the issue.

What went wrong? I want to specify four failings in particular. First, there was delay. Measures to protect human and animal health were not put in place as quickly as they should have been. BSE was first identified in November 1986, but animals showing symptoms of the disease were still allowed to go into human food until August 1988.

When it was realised that cattle and sheep should not eat cattle and sheep, the Government gave the industry five weeks' grace to clear their stocks of feed, and we know that many in the industry took much longer than that so that stocks were used long after the ban came into force.

It was not until November 1989 that the brain and spinal cord of all cattle were banned from human food in England and Wales, and January 1990 in Scotland. The mechanical recovery of meat, which can result in spinal cord entering human food, was not banned until 1995.

Secondly, there was under-enforcement. Measures to protect human and animal health were appallingly badly enforced in the feedmills and slaughterhouses. Our cattle were still eating contaminated feed many years after it was banned in 1988, and BSE has been confirmed in an animal born as late as 1996. More than 42,000 cases of BSE have been confirmed in cattle born after the feed ban. With regard to human food, nearly half the slaughterhouses visited in September 1995 were found to be in breach of BSE controls designed to keep infected offal out of our food—five years after the offal ban was put in place.

Thirdly, there were failures of con communication. Far too often in the BSE story, Departments failed to talk to one another. That is borne out by the Phillips report. Lack of communication between MAFF and the Department of Health resulted, as the right hon. Member for South Norfolk confirmed to his credit in the delay in introducing the slaughter and compensation policy and in addressing the risk posed by bovine products in human medicines.

The experts at the neuropathogehesis unit, based in Edinburgh, could have told the Government years before that it was possible that a small amount of infective material could transmit the disease.

Fourthly, the public were given the false impression that BSE posed no risk. So keen were the Government to try to prevent food scares that the public were not properly informed of the risks presented by BSE. Lord Phillips says: officials and Ministers followed an approach whose object was sedation". When the news broke in March 1996 about the link with variant CJD, therefore, the public felt they had been betrayed". There was then a massive crisis in public confidence, not only in the safety of beef but in the trustworthiness of official advice, a point which my right hon. Friend made recently. We are still suffering from that and it will take a long time to regain the British people's confidence in ministerial statements.

Disastrously, people in the food industry were listening to the Government's campaign of reassurance. The BSE report concludes that the lack of diligence in keeping our food safe was attributable in part to the Government's efforts to ensure that news about BSE did not give rise to public concern.

I want to touch on the role of scientists. I was an animal scientist myself before I entered the House. The BSE inquiry report makes many valuable points. In particular, Lord Phillips points out: BSE did not emerge at a propitious time so far as research was concerned. In 1985 Ministers had accepted a recommendation from the Priorities Board for Research and Development in Agriculture and Food that expenditure on research into animal diseases was disproportionate and should be reduced by 20 per cent. Implementation of this policy was resulting in staffing cuts at research establishments. One area that is not expanded on in the report is the ability of scientists to publish their findings. The Minister may be aware that there are scientists who worked on behalf of the Government on BSE matters who are quite clear that they were prevented from making their findings public. Dr. Valerie Ellis, assistant general secretary of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, the trade union representing many Government scientists, states: Anecdotally, Members of the CVLA"— the central veterinary laboratory agency— did raise the issue of concern over transmission of BSE between species and were told 'not to be daft'. One example put to the BSE inquiry of where publication was prevented was a paper on the possibility of a link between BSE and feline spongiform encephalopathy. That is an area that needs to be considered further, which I hope will happen in the fullness of time and before the full report is published.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement today that he has appointed a distinguished scientist to consider the science of BSE. As was pointed out by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk, we do not know for sure how BSE first developed, and we still have a lot to learn about it.

I welcome the fact that the Government moved so quickly to set up the independent Food Standards Agency and my right hon. Friend's important restatement of the fact that all the advice and scientific information in this area is now in the public domain. There is no question but that that is a quantum change. I also welcome the new care arrangements for new variant CJD patients and the proposed improvements in the machinery of government.

What will happen if a new disease appears in future? What key lessons have been learned from the BSE crisis? The first is that we should apply the precautionary principle. When human health is involved, it is always wise in the first instance to err on the side of caution, or—dare I say it?—perhaps on the side of overkill. Secondly, we should identify all possible routes of transmission to other animals and humans, and impose all measures necessary to reduce the risk of transmission to as low a level as possible. We should ensure that all measures to protect human and animal health are properly enforced. That is vital, and arguably the most important lesson to learn from the crisis. All of us, including Conservative Members, know that those measures had not been effectively enforced for years.

Judy Mallaber

From my right hon. Friend's experience, would he agree that some of these lessons might not have been learned if the inquiry had not been established? Will he speculate on whether, if the Conservatives had unfortunately got into government at the last election, they would have set up such an inquiry? I would like to ask the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) that question, as he made complimentary remarks about many aspects of the report, although he included some caveats. Does my right hon. Friend think that the inquiry and report would have happened if there had not been a change of Government? What would have been the outcome of not holding the Phillips inquiry?

Dr. Strang

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. We would almost certainly not have had this report: the issue would certainly not have been examined with such thoroughness. When the Opposition reply to the debate, it would be helpful if they made it clear that, in the unlikely event of a Conservative Government coming to power after the next election, they would carry forward this work and implement all the measures that my right hon. Friend has pledged to put in place.

The other lesson to learn from this debacle is that we should be open, even when the information available is inconclusive. The public can cope with the truth, and they must be trusted with the truth. What they cannot cope with is the realisation that they are not being told the whole truth.

There were failings in the handling of the BSE crisis. The harsh reality is that animals and, almost certainly, some people who should have been protected from BSE have been exposed to it. We are seeing the end of the disease in cattle, but we still have no idea of the scale of the human disaster resulting from BSE. We can only hope that the number of new cases of variant CJD in humans will begin to fall.

4.2 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

I agree with many of the points made by Labour Members, and I understand the justification offered by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor). I extend the sympathies of Liberal Democrat Members to all who have been tragically affected by BSE. I do not want to dwell on the mistakes of the past, because I would much rather examine ways of working together to ensure that a national tragedy such as BSE is never allowed to happen again. With hindsight, many people who have examined this issue over a long period and many of the public now accept that there were difficulties, but they want leadership from the Government to ensure that the changes required do take place.

The Government have produced their interim response to the inquiry, which I welcome. I acknowledge the work of Lord Phillips and his team in producing such a wide-ranging, far-reaching and exhaustive report. I hope that we shall return to it in the future, because its recommendations extend far beyond the BSE crisis.

The report has not been received without criticism, however, and interestingly the Government chose to make an initial response prior to this debate, which in turn has shifted the emphasis and diminished the opportunity to discuss the merits and demerits of the report. I, and perhaps other hon. Members, have been contacted by some of those involved in the inquiry who have voiced a number of concerns, two of which deserve a mention.

First, there is concern that the inquiry went about verifying certain prejudged conclusions rather than seeking answers from scratch. That is a serious allegation, but I am minded to discount it, given the meticulous attention to fairness that the language of the report denotes, and the fact that it is broadly accepted by both sides of the House.

The second charge gives greater cause for concern, and has been touched on by other hon. Members. The report, without warning, in effect altered the status of civil servants in such a way that personal responsibility was accorded to civil servants who had previously been afforded the privilege of being covered by ministerial responsibility. That the actions of civil servants were scrutinised seems right in the circumstances, but given the very public nature of the inquiry's scrutiny, more attention should have been paid to protecting some individuals, especially those who faced extremely serious allegations that were published on the internet but later not upheld. Although I welcome the fact that the Phillips inquiry left no stone unturned, we must always be mindful of protecting our public servants from unjustified media or public attention.

The key to the future is the way in which the Government have responded to the report's findings. I want to examine what I believe are the three crucial areas in need of improvement that were highlighted by the report: first, the way the Government deal with risk; secondly, the need for Governments to operate more openly both between Departments and in their interaction with the public; and, thirdly, the way the Government operate internally in their practices and protocol.

The main element of the Government's response to the BSE inquiry is the establishment of the Food Standards Agency: a body that we have supported and which we want to succeed. 0n the face of it, the Food Standards Agency should be able to address the immediate problems raised by the Phillips inquiry. It is independent, so it should be able to command greater credibility in an age of scepticism; it conducts its business in public; and it puts all its research contracts out to tender to attract the best scientific minds available to inform it.

The Food Standards Agency cannot be the solution to all the problems highlighted by the inquiry, however. Give or take a few other smaller measures, the general impression is that the Government think they have done enough, but questions remain, the most important of which is whether the FSA is getting it right. Is it properly perceived as independent of Government, or would it be better if it reported direct to a Committee of the House rather than to a Government Department? Is it considering all the best scientific opinion? Perhaps more importantly, are its pronouncements heard and trusted by the general public?

To my mind, we ire at an early stage and we cannot answer those questions is for certain. The FSA is very young and its mettle is being tested by the new European BSE situation. Even if we accept that the FSA is doing all it was intended to do, the job, as laid out by Phillips, is by no means done. First, much more was brought out by the report. For example, are the Government making adequate contingency plans while awaiting the advice of their expert advisers—now the FSA? That fundamental question must be addressed, and I shall return to it later.

A yet more serious problem is raised by the "FSA solves all" approach. The findings of the BSE report have implications for the Government which range far beyond just food safety. The report specifically mentions medicines, but as yet the Government have done little to address that issue. More importantly, its comments on the treatment of risk she should have caused the Government to re-examine their practices across all policy areas. On health, what is the situation in respect of single-use instruments? What about sterilisation procedures and blood transfusions throughout the United Kingdom? What about the labelling of medication?

A clear issue on which Lord Phillip's findings should have informed policy is the Government's treatment of the risks associated with mobile phones and telecommunications base stations. That issue will never be addressed by the FSA, but it leads me clearly to the first of my three concerns: risk.

How to treat risks to the public is a dilemma for any Government. It was clearly a dilemma for the previous Conservative Administration, and it remains a dilemma for this Government. There is no point in causing unnecessary scares, but the Government have a fundamental role in protecting public health. That will often require action even before positive proof is available.

Since the period that Lord Philips investigated, a number of risks have been identified by many individuals and groups. Genetically modified foods and the MMR vaccine have been mentioned. I am pleased to note the presence of the Minister for Public Health, who will doubtless comment on that. The most recent risk—the new outbreak of BSE on the continent—has been dealt with by the Food Standards Agency, rather well in my view. It might well be posited, however, that the lack of public panic had more to do with the fact that the media did not have enough sensational revelations from journalists with which to plaster their pages than—necessarily—with the fact that the FSA's openness has reassured the public. There has, however, been no cover-up, deliberate or otherwise, which is commendable.

Another risk that has come to the fore recently—I have already mentioned this—is posed by mobile telephones. In this respect, the situation is less clear. It is plain that some lessons from Phillips have been learned: the Government admitted that they did not know what the risks were, and recruited experts to investigate. When the experts concluded that they, too did not know what the risks were, the Government published the report and put the science behind it in the public domain by publishing a leaflet.

That was very commendable. So far, so good. The Government congratulate themselves on that good work—but the most important aspect highlighted by the BSE report is the need to act even when the risk is only potential. We are talking about the so-called precautionary principle.

Although the Stewart report recommended the taking of precautions in relation to mobile telephone base station sites many months ago, we still hear that case upon case of applications for base stations near schools, and in dense residential areas, are accepted every day. The public are naturally very concerned, and we are seeing a growing number of petitions and demonstrations. What is the point of all this communication of risk, if precautions are not being taken until the risk has been spread?

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

According to the hon. Gentleman's argument, should not mobile phones be banned outright? The danger is likely to lie not in the mast but in the phone itself.

Mr. Breed

I agree. I think that the science should be in the public domain, and that we should adopt the precautionary principle—especially when it involves the recommendations of an independent report, which in this case was instigated by the Government.

I realise that the Minister may not wish to comment on those specific points, but I feel that comments on the broader issues relating to the handling of risk are important, and they arise from the Phillips report.

Closer, perhaps, to the hearts of many who take part in agriculture debates is the classical swine fever outbreak, which is fresh in many of our memories. It raises another aspect of the Government's attitude to risk. In their interim response, the Government responded to Lord Phillips's view that insufficient resources were available for research and veterinary services when the problem of BSE arose. They have concluded, however, that the current emergency funds are sufficient. Why, then, was I contacted during the swine fever crisis—I think other Members were as well—by so many farmers who were worried about unreasonable delays in getting test results back, apparently because Government scientists were overwhelmed with work?

Have we really done enough to cover such emergencies? That is a question that the Government must answer. The rundown in Government research and testing facilities over many years may well have precipitated some of the problems revealed by the Phillips report. Are those facilities now being given the resources that they require?

There is another crucial question. Has enough been done to tackle concerns about openness and communication within Government, and between various Government Departments and offices? A response was published before today's debate, on the basis of which I think we should ask a few more questions.

I have registered my concerns about excessive reliance on the Food Standards Agency to deliver all the changes required by Phillips. More noticeable by its absence from the Government's interim response, however, is any reference to a serious look at the need to improve intragovernmental communication and openness, and to tackle the cultural problems identified in the report.

We are told in the Government's response that they have established a number of concordats between various Departments and offices to enshrine the principles of better communication; but where precisely is the communication link that was so sorely missing during the period covered by the report—the link between the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? I am not at all convinced that enough communication channels exist as yet. Perhaps some are in the process of being set up—the Minister may be able to enlighten us a little later—but it sometimes seems that rather than redressing the lack of communication between those two Departments, the FSA has been passed the buck. It will not do the job; it must be done by Government Departments acting together.

I welcome some measures announced in the interim response. A cross-departmental committee on zoonoses has been set up, and the secretariat of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee now involves members of both Departments. Those are positive developments—but what of the other lesson that must be learned if the report is to make a real difference? I refer to the fact that, too often, important documents sat on desks rather than being attended to with the urgency that is due to them.

All too often, it was left to those outside Government to identify the areas in which discussion was lacking. The report tells us that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) was instrumental in raising the problem of head-splitting. I think we know what that means: I suspect that my hon. Friend was talking in animal terms. The issue had been the subject of an internal memo that had apparently been ignored.

Research commissioned by Pedigree Foods originally identified what should be classed as specified bovine offals. Pedigree Foods took the initiative to answer questions raised by the Government's own inquiries. The report specifically notes, moreover, that the measures to ensure careful implementation of the specified bovine offals policy was driven not by Government but by the media, stating: The media played a valuable role … which had a beneficial influence on Government policy". It is rather nice to be able to praise the media, at least in this instance.

The Government clearly do not talk among themselves enough. I, for one, feel sceptical about the possibility that more concordats and rules will substantially change the culture in Whitehall that has dominated us for so many years. In one circumstance after another, I still find examples of exactly the culture that the BSE report urges against, that of secrecy and closeness—be it refusing to answer straightforward questions, or refusing to meet people informally rather than undertaking formal and expensive studies and consultation. Consultations are a safe way of dealing with issues as far as the Government are concerned, but in many cases more openness would limit the need for such cumbersome exercises.

That brings me to the last issue I want to raise: the operation of government. The BSE inquiry raised many examples of bureaucracy that would be laughable if their consequences had not been so tragic. One example is the urgent note to abattoirs—a key document—explaining the importance of enforcing regulations, which took more than a year to draft and redraft. Examples of delay—Labour Members have made clear the existence of such examples—have been a significant factor in this whole affair. We need to know that such bureaucratic idiocy has ceased, and that action will be taken much more promptly.

The inquiry made it clear that the Government should not use openness and consultation as an excuse for dither and delay: they must be ready to act, and to act quickly, when there is any possible risk. Yet even in the Government's response, we see further evidence of the operational logjamming in Whitehall. One of the inquiry's crucial findings was that the Government did not have sufficient understanding of their own operation to determine who should be informed of, and who should act on, the new risks posed by BSE. The report recommends that lead responsibility should be clearly established for co-ordinating scientific response to a new disease or new outbreak of disease". I believe that the Government needed to leap into action on this matter, but what was their response? They used the words "aspirational terms". The Government are looking into assessing who should be consulted and who has lead responsibility.

Only recently, the rural White Paper gave a clear example of how action can be put to one side and preference given to constant drafting and redrafting. While t's were being crossed and i's dotted, the countryside continued to decline. The Government must learn these lessons, put them into action, and monitor their own performance.

In short, we cannot say that the Phillips report is done and dusted. Its recommendations and suggestions need to be regularly referred to, and perhaps a formal annual review should be established to ensure that the recommendations accepted by the Government have been transferred into Government performance. It is all too easy to slip back into the old way of doing things. We must guard against that, and ensure that the sea changes recommended by the report are implemented, maintained and, where necessary, reinforced. That is the most important message of this sorry saga.

It is tempting to revisit the past regularly to remind ourselves of the horrors of what went on, but we have to look forward. We must do so with confidence that the report's recommendations will truly transform the performance of government.

It is true that the Food Standards Agency has been a step forward, and it is currently cutting its teeth on the very complex issues of European BSE. However, the Government need to learn more of the lessons from the report—about their internal workings, about the need for communication and openness across the board, and about the need for action, even in uncertainty.

For example, the European BSE issue raises certain questions. Are contingency plans being made in case the FSA urges a ban? Have the industry and the scientists, including those outside the existing SEAC and FSA structures, been consulted, and has contact with them been maintained? Who will be in charge of taking forward any policy? Is the Department of Trade and Industry on standby? Are MAFF and the Department of Health in agreement with whatever contingency plans have been drawn up?

Beyond that, what more is planned? Are the Government working on establishing who is responsible now, before their consultation on this interim response comes in? Is contingency planning on the basis of the outcome of the Krebs trials under way?

It is undeniable that BSE was a national tragedy. The Government are leaning the lessons, and that is vital. This is not a party political issue, because it is about government and how it works, whichever party is in office and whatever hazards come to light during a Government's time in office.

The BSE inquiry was thorough—I think that all hon. Members agree on that. The Government must now be as thorough in their response, both in the immediate time frame, and in the future.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 15-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches from 4.30 pm until 6.30 pm?

4.24 pm
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

I think that the debate has been extremely helpful. I want to thank the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) for his reply to me, and I will of course study his response.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food showed again today superb competence and great sensitivity in dealing with what is an extremely serious subject. It is one of the most serious matters that I have been involved with since I came to the House. The House will know that my interest in the matter in my constituency of Coatbridge and Chryston arose as a result of the very tragic case of Donna Maria McGivern. She was a teenager who died after an illness of two and half years, in circumstances that we can only imagine.

My aim today—I hope that I say this with a sense of humility—is to encourage the House to think about how families coped with the sadness that they felt as they met the hour-by-hour challenges that arose in a situation that none of them could have predicted. The families have been helped very considerably by the Irwin Mitchell firm of solicitors, and in particular by Mr. David Body. It is gratifying to note that many of the families' criticisms and proposals have been taken on board in the Phillips report and in the Government's interim response to it.

At the close of the families' evidence in phase 1 of the inquiry, Lord Phillips told them: This is very much your inquiry. The pressure that led to it has largely come from you. You are entitled to a thorough inquiry, and we are doing our best to make sure that this inquiry is as thorough as it could possibly be. The House is seeking to respond to that approach today.

The questions for us are, "What really did happen? Can we really get to the root of these dreadful problems? In the light of the clear evidence of incompetence, what do we do to respond to the needs of the se who have been so deeply affected?" My constituents seek the truth: they want neither a witch hunt nor a white wash. They will have been helped by our consideration of the Phillips report today.

I initially raised some of the issues under discussion today in a debate in December 1999 I subsequently led a delegation to meet my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health, and I thank her for the interest that she showed even at that early stage in the development of the Government's response.

I want also to put on record my thanks to the Government for their speedy response when it came to compensation. They also acted speedily to consider a strategy for a care package when similar sad events arise, and to ensure the co-ordination that they clearly regard as necessary, both within and between Government Departments, and with the various outside agencies involved. Those bodies include the surveillance units, and it is the unit in Edinburgh that is charged with the responsibility of dealing with these matters in my area. I welcome the fact that dialogue is on-going, and that consultation with families continues, especially on the issue of compensation.

I turn now to the tone of the report. I want to look at the parts played by MAFF, the Department of Health and by those at every level of Government who had responsibilities in this matter. Bearing in mind what the families involved are seeking to find out, I invite hon. Members to consider how well those responsibilities were discharged.

Inevitably, the question arises whether BSE might be transmissible to human beings. At what stage did that emerge as a clear possibility, and was the response to it adequate? The inquiry made some very severe criticisms. It concluded that, in the first half of 1987, there was a policy that one senior veterinary investigation officer described as a total suppression of all information on the subject". We have heard today about the events of 1988, to which my right hon. Friend the Minister addressed some of his remarks. Even after March 1987, it was demonstrated that there was a strategy of restricting the dissemination of information about BSE. Clearly that was, to say the least, somewhat unhelpful, both then and now. The inquiry concluded that the principal reason for this was concern about the possible effect on exports, and the political implications should news get out that a possible TSE in cattle had been discovered in Britain.

Many more people should have been involved in taking that decision, if it was the right decision to take. I do not believe that that was the case. The problem, on all the evidence, jumped from species to species—from cattle to feline consumption, and then to the human chain. That must have taken a lot of time. The response, in the view of the families concerned, was not one that they would have regarded to be as urgent and imperative as the facts then known invited it to be.

That leads me to question the role of Ministers as the evidence has unfolded; the role of civil servants, although I take on board the views of my right hon. Friend the Minister; and even whether the Food Standards Agency—whose establishment I welcome—is as all-embracing as it might be, given what I believe could be its input in resolving some of the difficulties.

We cannot ignore the evidence that was before the committee, to which I shall refer as briefly as possible. It is important to have on the record some of the conclusions, and without wearying the House I will do that: The Government did not lie to the public about BSE. It believed that the risks posed by BSE to humans were remote. The Government were preoccupied with preventing an alarmist over-reaction to BSE because it believed that the risk was remote. It is now clear that this campaign of reassurance was a mistake … A vital industry has been dealt a body blow, inflicting misery on tens of thousands for whom livestock farming is their way of life … BSE developed into an epidemic as a consequence of an intensive farming practice—the recycling of animal protein in ruminant feed. This practice, unchallenged over decades, was a recipe for disaster … At times officials showed a lack of vigour in considering how policy should be turned into practice to the detriment of the efficacy of the measures taken. Those are serious indictments. Although my right hon. Friend the Minister rightly advised us to consider the report as a whole, it is important that we address ourselves to those criticisms.

Earlier I expressed surprise at the absence of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I am disappointed that he is not here to deal with some of the criticisms that were made of him, by contrast with the right hon. Member for South Norfolk. The Phillips report was particularly critical of the failure of the Government to review and evaluate the Southwood report, saying that there was at MAFF, as at the Department of Health, a team failure to subject the Southwood report to a proper review in order to evaluate whether the unexplained differences in approach to the food risk posed by BSE had explanations that appeared to be sound.

Some families recall the evidence that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe gave during phase 2. He was critical of the inquiry generally, and commented that the committee had become lost in papers and failed to understand how Government worked. He was particularly robust in asserting that the Southwood report had been subjected to a vigorous review in his Department. The Committee expressly rejected his evidence.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman told the committee that in his Department there had been copious review, correspondence and discussion about the report, which would have included the questions raised— although he could not now remember the details of these. He also referred to an "amazing quantity of exchanges" between his Department and that of the right hon. Member for South Norfolk. The Committee said: We did not accept this evidence and went on to say: If offal is not safe for babies, why is it safe for adults? The committee went on to say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should have ensured that his Department reviewed the report and provided an answer if there was one. He did not.

I regret very much having to repeat those criticisms, but I would have thought that the families and the House expected the right hon. and learned Gentleman to be here to reply to these serious comments. Whatever further debate we have, we will not necessarily get all the replies that people would expect from Ministers involved over a lengthy period. We look forward to some responses which hitherto have been missing.

My right hon. Friend the Minister correctly referred to the role of the civil service and told us about the inquiry by Sheila Forbes. I take on board my right hon. Friend's sensitivity, but many of the families have conveyed the view that, given that there is no suggestion of disciplinary action, there may be a danger that what is perceived as the ethos of the civil service—that much goes on behind closed doors without people hearing much about it—is being endorsed by that approach.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk gave his explanation of some events. He will forgive me for concluding that, frankly, even in that situation, perhaps some of the civil servants were protecting their own backs rather than Ministers'. That might be regarded as extreme, but families do take that view and we have to find a way of reassuring them about the role of civil servants and the need for openness and transparency in these matters.

I must now refer to the role of the FSA. It was a first-class decision to establish such an agency, which is long overdue. I welcomed it at the time and I think that it is a great credit to the Government that the decision was taken. However, I must express some of the reservations that some of the families have, although those are expressed in generally supportive comments about the work that the FSA is seeking to do. The families believe that their contribution will be acknowledged by Sir John Krebs and his staff.

Nevertheless, the families also believe it is symptomatic of attitudes that are prevalent in the civil service that while numbers of groups were invited by the FSA to be stakeholders in the BSE controls review—for example, the National Farmers Union, the Meat and Livestock Commission, the Small Abattoirs Federation, the Department of Health and MAFF—no invitation was extended to the Human BSE Foundation. Those involved had to speak from the floor if they chanced to be at a meeting. Nobody wanted that approach, probably not even the organisation itself. I believe that it can be corrected.

I thank the House for giving me a hearing and I hope that I have not inadequately expressed the view, the concerns and—dare I say it?—the anger of my constituents. If, in the light of the report, the Government's response and my right hon. Friend the Minister's excellent handling of the situation, we get to a stage where lessons are learned and we can prevent such trauma from reoccurring, the deaths of my constituent Donna Maria McGivern and many others will not have been in vain.

4.40 pm
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to associate themselves with the early comments of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), and those of the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) about the anguish of the families. It is also common ground between us that Lord Phillips has produced an exemplary and exhaustive report. He has approached the subject with great clarity. Later I want to concentrate on an aspect on which further work remains to be done.

Although I was not criticised by Lord Phillips, it is right to try to draw some lessons from my experience and that wonderful thing, hindsight. I shall use the short time available to do that. I want to build on the comments of my right hon. Friernd the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) about judicial review.

If we are to learn the lessons of the report, we must put ourselves in the position of a future Minister who tries to act differently, as it suggests. Such a Minister faces the continuing problem of the interpretation of the rule of law in the United Kingdom compared with many other nations. We do not have administrative law, and Ministers have to behave in a specific manner when making decisions.

Let us take the case of feeding meat protein to herbivores. The report states that the activity is not new, but dates back to the 1920s. Our legal system means that if, in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, a Minister had said, "That is unusual; I'm not happy about feeding meat protein to herbivores. I think it would be better to ban it", he would have been subject to judicial review and unable to effect his intention. That is also true today. Many might say that the same anxieties are provoked by feeding fishmeal to herbivores. However, I know that no Government or Minister could ban that practice in the absence of anything other than a general belief that such an activity was not proper.

If we try to examine the issues in the way that Lord Phillips suggests, we must consider carefully the implications of our system of judicial review. That runs counter to another aspect of the report that we want to support: the ability of people beyond the confines of Whitehall and Westminster to intervene and say that actions are unfair ant unacceptable. It is a pride of our nation, stemming from 1688, that we have a system in which the rule of law, rules, regulations and attitudes apply as much to Ministers as to anyone else. I do not suggest that we are considering an easy problem or that I have a solution However, it deserves serious consideration.

Mr. Boswell

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gummer

I prefer not to give way because I have only 15 minutes in which to speak.

The second issue that requires careful consideration is the relationship between openness and science. When I became Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I said that I would put in the public arena all the advice that I received. The present Minister will agree that there was no occasion when I failed to do that. He referred to such advice this afternoon. We are as one; that issue is not controversial.

However, the way in which one deals with risk is controversial. The Food Standards Agency recently had to consider the risks of imported French meat. The new, independent agency—its independe rice is uncontested—made a clear decision, which it stated. I accept the Minister's explanation of the two aspects that were tackled when my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk asked him about that. However, it cannot be said that the decision received universal approbation.

One of the difficulties of assessing risk is that it is not possible, in any circumstances, to say that there is no risk. All that one can do is say that the risk is small, remote or unlikely at one end of the spectrum, and likely at the other. Even if that is repeated constantly, there are two reactions, which are not necessarily rational. The first is, "If the risk is as small as that, why are you bothering about it?" The second is, "If you can't tell me there's no risk, there must be a big risk." The difficulty lies in communication.

There is a problem when scientists say that a risk is remote. Actions must be proportionate to that. That is the nature of English law and Scots law; in that context, we are at one. I refer the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston to stem cells—an issue on which he and I agree—to show the difficulty of assessing what scientists tell us. We both have several deep doubts about what they have said.

There have been concerns about genetically modified organisms. One has only to read the, statements made by the Prime Minister on that issue, explaining the safety of GMOs, to see that he has based them on advice that he has properly taken from scientists. The Minister himself will know how difficult it is to frame legislation in a manner that not only protects the environment—I think that we share a similar view on tile dangers posed by GMOs to the environment—but avids the possibility of being caught in a judicial review that would overturn all ability to protect people in those circumstances. It is therefore a matter not only of the law but of how one can communicate the scientific view, when that view very firmly asserts that there is little risk or that the risk is very remote.

Although I think that various possible cases were examined, I do not think that the Phillips report takes the view that there have been restrictions on scientists. Simply as a matter of fact, I must say that whenever I found someone who was speaking differently from my advisers, I went to great trouble to investigate that person and his comments and whether I should give them credence.

Although I think that the events occurred before my time, I certainly looked into and revlewed carefully some of the matters that were criticised by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). As he will know, in such circumstances, there can be no question of Ministers sacking anyone. However, that was not the issue. The issue was to determine whether those who spoke differently had something to contribute. In all circumstances, Ministers—like all hon. Members, I should hope—have to gather as many independent examples as possible, investigate the facts and heed them.

Mr. Ainger

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer

No. I am really going to try to complete what I have to say in my 15 minutes, and I have only about five minutes left.

I have now to address the issue of the media—not to attack them, but for exemplary purposes. It would be very difficult to do what Phillips hopes that we shall do in future without taking that issue very seriously. I refer the Minister to one of my decisions which resulted in my closing a relatively large number of abattoirs. The media were not pressing me to close more abattoirs, but attacking me every time that I closed one. That situation continued, and even extended to enormous inaccuracies.

I remember taking one journalist to task. I told him that I had closed the abattoirs because I thought they had not been protecting the public health. I asked him why he did not telephone me before making such statements so that I could provide the facts. I said that I was quite open about providing the facts, which are all in the public domain. He said, "If I telephoned you I would not have a story, and I have to pay the school fees." Although that is an extreme example, it is a serious one. We have to recognise that moods in the media change enormously. Even if one is seeking to be an honourable and decent reporter of what is being said, one gets caught up in the particular mood.

I used abattoirs as an example because, in that case, the mood turned out to be entirely wrong. So tough was it, however, that I found it necessary to see every hon. Member—some were Labour Members—in whose constituency an abattoir was being closed, to explain in detail why we felt that closure was necessary. The attack from outside was that the closures were either a wicked Brussels invention, which is of course the most convenient explanation for the media, or that I had a thing about small family abattoirs, as some of them were. If the point on mood is true in that situation, it must be true also in the situations that we are discussing.

I come now to a difficult issue. It is easy to pick out examples of a person's comments that turn out to be right. It is also perfectly right for hon. Members to stand up and say, "I remind the Minister that, in 1988, I said so and so", and those comments turned out to be right. However, although I do not think it is necessary, I could read out a series of comments that people made in 1988, 1992 and 1994 that turned out to be entirely wrong.

There was, for example, great pressure on me to ban all milk produced in the United Kingdom because it might be an agent. The scientists told me, with the same firmness that they used when telling me that BSE transmission was a remote possibility, that transmission by milk was a remote possibility. The difficulty is that I happened to be right in one case, but—clearly, as events turned out—wrong in the other. The advice, however, was the same. In both cases, my determination to accept that advice and to reach to the edges in the direction of safety was precisely the same.

As I am in the fortunate position of not having been criticised, I am not trying to defend myself. I am merely saying that that is my experience of doing the job. A serious issue for future Ministers is to determine how, in the context of Phillips's concerns, we can square a circle that is difficult enough to deal with at the time.

In my last minute, I should like to say something about civil servants. I think that the Minister has taken a brave and proper stand in his decision neither to read nor to comment on what is a civil service matter. I come from a business background. I was a Minister for 16 years. One of the most difficult things about being a Minister is that one has no personnel responsibility. One could not run a business on that basis. I merely say that that is a right thing. It is a necessary protection for the public from politicking in the civil service. The time to stand up for principle is when it is most difficult. The Minister has done that, and I commend him for it.

4.55 pm
Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

I listened carefully to the comments of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I remember his years as the Minister in charge of agriculture from 1988 to 1992. I would have preferred it if he had addressed most of his remarks to his period in office rather than commenting on judicial review and criticising the media. Those were smokescreens rather than proper accountability for his period in government and the decisions taken at that time.

I have taken a strong interest in BSE since my election as a Member of Parliament. I am a scientist and the constituency that I represent is rural. West Wales has a great deal of livestock agriculture. The first speech that my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) made in the House in 1988 was an Adjournment debate, in which he drew attention to the problem of BSE. I remember having a conversation with him about it the following week. In the months and years that followed, as the epidemic unrolled across Britain, I took part in debates here, watched what was happening in the media and was in touch with farmers and farming unions in my constituency, and my views are based on that first-hand experience.

Much of my experience is reflected in the Phillips report, although my view is more polarised and less generous than that of Lord Phillips. I want to refer to two comments made by farmers. I am surprised that, in the two or three hours of the debate so far, little direct reference has been made to farmers, their unions and their role in the crisis. A large part of the secrecy and the hiding of the crisis came from individual farmers and the farming unions, the Conservative constituency associations, MAFF and so on.

In 1989, a farmer came to see me at one of my surgeries to reveal something connected with the problem of BSE. He said that a cow on his smallholding that had contracted BSE had had a calf just a month or two before. He was surprised that, although the cow was destroyed and he had received compensation, the calf was allowed to survive and develop. As the cow must have been developing BSE during most of its pregnancy, he thought that there was a danger of maternal transmission.

I wrote to MAFF and tabled a series of parliamentary questions, because it struck me forcefully that the precautionary principle was not operating. It was self-evident common sense to the farmer and to me that it would safeguard human health to destroy the calf as well as the cow. When I told that story a few months later to a prominent member of my local farming union at the united counties show in Carmarthen, he said that there was no risk whatever of transmission. He told me that a cow on his farm had had BSE. The price of calves was good in the late 1980s. He knew that there was a valuable calf inside the cow, so he arranged for a caesarean section so that the calf could survive. He was so convinced that there was no risk that he arranged for a vet to come out and conduct an operation.

Sadly, that was the climate that prevailed among farmers, the farmers unions and, indeed, in MAFF. They believed that although an animal was severely diseased, there was zero risk of maternal transmission—there was no problem. The then Government completely denied that there could be any relationship between BSE and a risk to human health, even though, as we heard earlier, the Southwood report conceded in 1990 that there was a remote risk of such transmission.

In May 1990, the House debated the subject. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal was then the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) opened the debate for the Labour Opposition. When I re-read my own contribution to the debate, I found that my Labour colleagues and I reflected the views of the Labour party at the time. We made it clear that the transmission of BSE to humans could never be ruled out. Indeed, by 1990, there was evidence of transmission to other species—zoo animals, cats and so on. Prudence or the precautionary principle should have told us of the risk.

Hansard shows that, during that debate, Labour Members—especially my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields—were howled down by Conservative Back Benchers, who accused us throughout of scaremongering. Unfortunately, however, what we feared came to pass. We were constantly told that there was no evidence of BSE being transmitted to humans, but the absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence. There is always that danger.

I am delighted that, during the first few years of a Labour Government, we established the Food Standards Agency; it is important that, instead of being part of MAFF—with its conflict of interest between consumer and producer—the agency is independent of Government and reports to the Department of Health. The producer thus has no direct involvement.

Several hon. Members have cited the comments in the Phillips report about the then Government's policy when BSE became a problem. Their fears of public over-reaction resulted in the presentation of policy by Ministers "whose object was sedation". They tried to pretend that there was no problem and to cover up its very existence.

Reference has been made to civil servants and former Ministers. I regret that no action is to be taken against any individual. A front-page report in today's Western Mail quotes a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger). It says: Terry Harvey, from Saundersfoot in West Wales, whose 25-year-old daughter Marianne died of the disease in August 1999, said the money brought little comfort. 'I would be prepared to forgo every penny in return for an opportunity to question some of the ministers who were in charge during the BSE outbreak. For someone to admit responsibility for our children's deaths is more important than any amount of money.' Parents and relatives of CJD victims share that view, as do the general public. An enormous blunder was committed; it spanned about 15 years and no one has owned up to their errors, nor explained why what was originally a problem has become a catastrophe.

I hope that, under the new Government and certainly with the Minister in charge, all scientific committees, not just those in MAFF, become much more open and transparent. They should conduct as many of their meetings as they can in public, so that they can be publicly reported. Not only their advice but their meetings should be open to the press and public.

I welcome consumer representation, but it needs to go wider. Environmental groups, especially those dealing with GM foods and anything that has a consequence for the environment, should be as broadly based as possible. We need to incorporate dissenting voices much more. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields referred to the experience of Dr. Harash Narang in the BSE story. Other people, such as Richard Lacey and Stephen Dealer, expressed dissenting opinions, but their opinions were not generally taken into account.

When in opposition in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Labour party pressed for much greater effort to be put into BSE research and into developing a diagnostic test, first in dead animals and then in live ones. That research work was not done on a sufficient scale in the 1990s, when £1 million, £2 million or £3 million was involved, and the epidemic is now costing us at least £1 billion a year. That early work should have been done. There are tests now, but they are not very reliable. In a sense, we have lost five or 10 years simply by not making such research a priority in the 1990s.

The costs of BSE are incalculable. So far, there have been 94 victims of CJD in Britain, but we do not know whether the eventual total will be hundreds or thousands. We have heard about the problems with blood transfusion and the fact that it is impossible to sterilise surgical instruments if they are infected with prions because they are so robust and heat resistant. The cost to the NHS will, therefore, be substantial.

There are now incidents of BSE in France, Germany, Ireland and Portugal. Instead of being disappointed and sorry for their problems, some Conservative Back Benchers and farmers almost revel in the fact that BSE is now found in other countries. In fact, Britain exported BSE to Europe. It can all be traced back to animal feed that was recklessly exported. Feed contaminated with meat and bonemeal was banned in Britain in 1988, but it was sent abroad.

Could BSE happen again? Could we suffer from something like it again? Of course there is a danger that such diseases could evolve, but I hope that the Government now have in place suitable mechanisms—through greater transparency and openness, but particularly through the Food Standards Agency—to ensure that it cannot happen again.

5.8 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I thank the Minister for his measured and careful approach to this extremely difficult and distressing situation. I congratulate him on his forward-looking approach and the fact that he is determined to build on the lessons referred to in the Phillips report.

I should like to associate myself with the apologies and regrets expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the Conservative spokesman on agriculture. The tragic fact is that, no matter what we say this afternoon, nothing can bring back the loved ones of the families that have been so tragically affected by the whole episode of BSE. The very best that we can do is to take the lessons that have to be learned from the circumstances and the experiences that we have all had. In that respect, I wish to express my regrets for the agriculture industry, whose once prosperous and thriving cattle sector is a shadow of its former self, although obviously it is rebuilding itself.

The report is admirable and expresses the issues very clearly in a readable and comprehensible manner. It makes every possible effort to be fair and even-handed. In such a debate, it is to be expected that hon. Members will be tempted to quote selectively from the report. However, Lord Phillips laid it on the line that the Government of the time were anxious to act in the best interests of human and animal health. He said: The Government did not lie to the public about BSE … it believed that the risk was remote. He also said that allegations of a government 'cover-up' of the risks posed by BSE … cannot be substantiated. That is clear and unequivocal.

Equally, however, things went wrong, and obviously there are lessons to be learned. I shall concentrate on only two, which I have briefly discussed, in passing, with the Minister. The first lesson relates to openness and media reaction. In his opening remarks, the Minister described that as a notoriously difficult area. There were several food scares in the late 1980s and the 1990s. We had the salmonella in eggs episode; questions were asked about soft cheeses; there was a problem with apple juice—and, I seem to recall, with carrots; I cannot now remember what it was, but I recall headlines of the "killer carrots" variety.

There is undoubtedly a genuine dilemma, which the Minister has already faced and will continue to face, concerning how best to explain what are, in all fairness, half-completed scientific findings, which may or may not be confirmed, without there being a huge, terrified and unjustified media outcry. Some may say that a media outcry does not matter. Some of my right hon. Friends have expressed their fear that a judicial review may arise from an unjustified media outcry. The public can make up their own mind if they have access to the correct facts, but "killer carrots" was not a factual description of the problem with that particular food.

During my time at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which was only 14 months, there was a change in the scientific advice that we were given based on the finding of infectivity in the distal ileum of calves. That episode is described in great detail on pages 137 and 138 of volume 1 of the report. It was also exhaustively examined in the evidence that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), the then Parliamentary Secretary at MAFF, and I gave to the inquiry. There is no doubt that we strained every nerve in an attempt to give information as completely, accurately and speedily as possible. Within five days of receiving the advice from SEAC, we had produced a complete press report and informed the EU and, it goes without saying, Parliament. The report commended us for that.

However, I recall—this is a point for the Minister—that having given a lengthy, detailed press conference and issued a press release, there was a curious silence from the sound and television media. Fearing that I had not been as open as possible, I went to Millbank and said, "Does anyone want to interview me about an increase of infectivity in the distal ileum of calves?" Although I was trying to be open with the media, they were not too interested. It is possible that I might have been accused of trying to cover something up merely because an issue, which was important and serious and which represented a new development, seemed, on the face of it, to be boring and technical. It is easier for the media to say, "Killer carrot". It is not always as easy as it seems to be as open as one should be. I know that the Minister realises that, and I am trying to share my experience of that problem with the House.

The issue of accountability and responsibility causes me some anxiety on the Minister's behalf. On page 30 of volume 1, the report refers to the division of responsibility for enforcing regulations between central and local government. It says: Although central government was largely responsible for the Regulations made about BSE, it usually fell to local government to enforce them. Local authorities were required to attend the inquiry and gave evidence collectively, which was fine. I am not in the least worried about taking responsibility for the safe practices of slaughterhouses. Although other people—the chairmen of environmental health committees in local government—had been elected to take responsibility for the conditions in them, I accept that the Minister stands at the end of the line. However, as the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) said, there was the issue of the division of responsibility.

To address that problem, we took the controversial decision of creating the Meat Hygiene Service, which took on responsibility for many matters. The report deals with that in the section on lessons to be learned. We believed that we had gone some way to solving the problems. I think that the Minister may face similar difficulties because responsibilities have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The report says: When BSE emerged, the Territories"— its word— were in general content to follow the lead of MAFF and the Department of Health. It went on: Under devolution, a similar attitude cannot be relied upon. I know that the Minister has the situation in hand, but it is important for people to march together when there is an overarching issue of public health. I am sure that he will continue to maintain that approach. The matter is delicate. New elected and devolved institutions are naturally wary of any encroachment of what they see as their territory, although public health is clearly relevant across the country.

I want again to express my heartfelt regret and sorrow for those families who have been so grievously affected by the episode. In explaining how it was to be a Minister in government at that time, when less scientific knowledge was available, the report helps to explain today's circumstances. However, we cannot expect the families to see it that way—how can they? I believe that the Minister's positive approach and the support that has been expressed on both sides of the House may help individuals and families to cope with their grief.

5.20 pm
Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to participate in this important debate.

All hon. Members hold advice surgeries and I first became involved with the issue of vCJD after I held a surgery in my constituency. In a cold hall in the village of Eaglesham one of my surgeries turned out be anything but routine. A gentleman, whom I did not know, appeared to explain what had happened to his family. I have the permission of that gentleman, Mr. Tibbert, to mention the fact that, tragically, be lost his wife, Margaret, when she was 29. Listening to the experience of the Tibbert family and learning that a very young son had lost his mother to the disease ignited my interest in the issue.

Since the terrible but important circumstances in which I met Mr. Tibbert, I have come to learn that a second family in my constituency—they do not desire any publicity—have lost young son to this terrible disease. I have also come to I know them and discussed their tragic experiences with them.

I have explained the background to my keen interest in the subject and, as the first paragraph of the introduction of the Phillips report makes clear, the issue is not only a tragedy for the families involved, but it has become a national tragedy. In my conversations with those who have become interested in the subject because of their personal experiences or through their interest in food safety, food hygiene and public safety, I have learned that there is a general welcome for the way in which the Government have dealt with the tragedy and continue to seek to deal with it.

The Government commissioned the Phillips report, responded positively to it and have made a genuine attempt to provide a care package to support the families affected. I do not think that that is a party political point, because I believe that a care package was not in place in the past because this was a newly discovered disease that Governments were not accustomed to dealing with. The package has now been put in place, but I dare say that, if the Conservative party were in power, it would also be undertaking to provide a care package, to consult the families of the victims and to consider proposals for compensation.

As with the compensation for far east prisoners of war, it is not the money but recognition of the problems that is important. Therefore I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to make strenuous efforts to continue to consult the families of the victims, because they believe that to be crucially important.

All hon. Members who have met the families of the victims would have several outstanding questions. Some of those questions about who knew what and when and about where we apportion the primary responsibility may never be answered. I suspect only the consciences and memories of the Ministers and civil servants who were directly involved and who attended the meetings will be the true testimony to what happened.

I do not seek to put words into the mouths of my constituents but there is a desperate desire among the victims' families to get to the bottom of some of the questions. All I ask is that everyone who has taken part in this interesting debate and those Members who read it will try for a moment—I know that it is an impossible task—to consider what they would do if one of their loved ones or relatives was involved. What would they expect the Government or Opposition to do? Sometimes such demands seem to be unrealistic, or are perceived to be, in the world of the civil service, or that of the Government. We should have empathy with those who are making the demands, and I know that my right hon. Friend has. We should understand their loss. It is that sense of loss that continues to motivate them, and it will do so every day of their lives until they feel that they have got to the bottom of what really happened.

There is the question of who was at fault. It is undoubted that some politicians share a proportion of the blame. The Phillips report says that the campaign of reassurance that was undertaken was mistaken. It identifies the fact that the March 1996 Cabinet refused to ban meat from animals older than 30 months, but that, subsequently, that policy was changed.

I suspect that the Conservative politicians who were involved at the time will have an opportunity to play a part in the debate. I think that they will do themselves a disservice, and a disservice to the House, if they try to rewrite history and their role in it. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, we should accept the report in the round, including in equal measure its criticisms and its acknowledgements. We should acknowledge that mistakes were made and individuals should not try to wash their hands of them. No attempt should be made to rewrite history. Those involved should accept the portion of blame that is rightly attributed to them. The families of the victims will think much more of the former Ministers who were involved if they do that.

I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) about the civil service. I am echoing also the words of one of my constituents, Mr. Tibbert. The civil service is unaccountable and cannot respond to the criticisms that are made of it. However, the Phillips report states that even the policies that were belatedly agreed to were not fully implemented.

My right hon. Friend said that it was primarily or exclusively the responsibility of the permanent secretary to ensure that lessons are learned within the civil service. I understand that. Given that we have not heard the last of this tragic issue, it should be understood that the families of the victims want to find answers wherever they may be, whether in the political sphere or the wider sphere of government.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor)—he is no longer in his place, but I do not think that I shall quote him unfairly—was asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston about paragraph 553 of the Phillips report, which deals with the safety of baby food and whether a ban should be extended to all foodstuffs. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that he asked that question, and requested that the ban should be extended. He suggested that the report is inaccurate in its criticism of him. Whether that is a denial of convenience or one of conviction, I do not know. I am not in a position to make that judgment.

The Minister of the day is identified in the report and it is suggested that he failed in his duty and responsibility. It seems that he contests that and suggests that the blame lies elsewhere. That may amplify demands among some relatives that answers should be sought in a much wider sphere. I accept what has been said about the role of the permanent secretary, but in this instance it seems that the right hon. Member for South Norfolk is saying that such a dialogue took place between him and the then permanent secretary. Sensitivity—which I know my right hon. Friend the Minister has—will be needed in future regarding the role of the civil service. While my right hon. Friend does not have direct responsibility in any way for the civil service, can he make sure that the permanent secretary ensures that lessons are learned in the wider civil service?

As other Members have said, it is important to concentrate on what can be done now. The establishment of the Food Standards Agency is an important and ground-breaking initiative which, hopefully, will reduce the chances of this tragedy being repeated. Tragically, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), described the creation of the FSA as public relations nonsense. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman regrets saying that and is considerably wiser now that the agency is up and running and doing important work.

In the short time available, I should like to single out an issue that has not yet been identified in our debate—the failure of Departments in Scotland to deal with the issue. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for dealing with different aspects of that matter. Paragraph 1104 on page 216 of the report, which deals with the appraisal of concerns about human health, states that in Scotland, any analysis was conducted by the agriculture department. There was no wider consultation; others did not participate in it and did not give their opinion.

In the report, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland is quoted as saying that it expected its comments to form no more than one element in any Scottish Office assessment of an issue … But no such wider assessment appears to have been made by … officials in Scotland. That statement is worrying, and I hope that in the welcome, but complex, interrelationship between the House of Commons and the devolved institutions throughout the United Kingdom, there will be discussions and dialogues between different Departments in each devolved Administration and between Departments of different Assemblies and Parliaments.

A real concern of which I have experience involves the fact that the support services that I mentioned were missing in the past and a care package was not available. I welcome comments that the financial contribution to a future care package will be increased. Should the need arise—heaven forfend—the current £1 million will be increased. I hope that my right hon. Friend will confirm that that substantial commitment will be extended if, unfortunately, that is the case.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's earlier comments on openness and the fact that he will publish the research that informs his decisions on any future matters of this nature. Of course, we all wish that that had been the case and that a minimum level of best practice had been applied by the previous Government; we wish that all of the information that informed decisions had been placed in the public domain. Sadly, however, those in office at the time chose not to do that.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will take the bold decision to publish research that he discounts in reaching his decisions, not simply that with which he agrees.

Mr. Nick Brown

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. We must remember that rejected opinions have also informed decision making, so it is right for scientific views to be placed in the public domain.

Mr. Murphy

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, which will be welcomed by hon. Members of all parties and by all the families who have tragically been affected by the disease.

As has been said, the report will not be the end of the affair. The tragedy is eternal for the victims' families.

5.35 pm
Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I rise to speak not as a former Minister who had responsibility for the matters under discussion, but as somebody who has taken a keen interest in BSE for a considerable number of years. Looking at the Minister, I realise that he is the eighth Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with whom I have raised the issue. I suspect that some current MAFF officials know that all too well.

I am present because I want to speak about the contribution made by a remarkable constituent of mine, Mr. Mark Purdey, to progress on BSE. He appears frequently in the Phillips report and his theories and hypotheses deserve serious attention. I welcome the report. Some thought that it might conclude the matter, but as the Minister said, it is merely a staging post in the search to identify the source of BSE and, very possibly, of nvCJD. That is why I agreed with the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) when he said that we owe it to all the people who have suffered so horrifically, especially from nvCJD, to seek to identify the causes of this terrible calamity. The report does not identify those causes. It states merely that BSE probably originated from a novel source early in the 1970s … as a consequence of a gene mutation. A significant number of people do not believe that that is correct and many scientists hold alternative views.

I appreciate the eight Ministers of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whom I have bothered about the issue. I refer especially to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), who ensured that Mr. Purdey had access to officials to discuss some of his approaches, and other hon. Friends who held similar responsibilities and other current Ministers have done the same.

I am not a scientist, so I hope that the House will give me some licence on the matter. Some of the correspondence that I received from Mr. Purdey was completely incomprehensible to me, but I sought to ensure that it received proper consideration. I should like to describe Mr. Purdey's background. He is a dairy farmer in my constituency. He was a scholar at school and declined a university place to study zoology and psychology in 1972 in order to start a pioneering organic farming community in the west of Ireland. He has been farming ever since and is an independent scientist who is involved in the aetiology of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies and has been investigating environmental factors in isolated clusters of TSEs throughout the world. He has published five articles on BSE and organophosphorus theory in peer-reviewed journals.

That is his background. His position originates from his opposition to the Warble Fly Order 1982. When the order was introduced, he refused to dress cattle with organophosphates because he believed that it was dangerous. He thought it that the nervous systems of cattle could be damaged by dosing at the Government's advised level, which was three times the manufacturers' recommended dose for the use of that extremely powerful chemical. As somebody who has dipped sheep, I, too, know a little bit about the strength of OP dip. Mr. Purdey's view is accepted by Lord Phillips. His theory is not that the chemical is the cause of BSE, but that it could be the rigger that destabilises the nervous system of cattle.

I should like to illustrate the way in which Mr. Purdey has pursued his theory, and how the official view has altered over time. I have correspondence that I am sure was provided on the best advice available to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries which states that the overwhelming probability was that BSE came from scrapie. Subsequently, at the National Farmers Union conference, Professor Sir John Pattison announced that there was a 50:50 possibility that it came from scrapie, and I remember the impact that that had on farmers. The Phillips report now says that it is fallacious to say that it came from scrapie.

Meanwhile, Mr. Purdey marches on with his theory, which he has sustained and reinforced. It concerns the use of organophosphates. OPs are used to treat cattle with warble fly, but many humans are also exposed to OPs. They are used in crop spraying and they occur in shampoos used to treat children with headlice, and dogs. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk asked for dog leads and collars to be examined when I raised the matter with her originally. Therefore, animals and humans are exposed to OPs in their environment.

Mr. Purdey's work has continued significantly since he gave evidence to the Phillips inquiry. He has identified a link between a copper deficiency and the manganese replacement that appears to interact with OPs to cause what he luridly describes as a lethal chain reaction in the brain. My scientific knowledge is woefully inadequate, but, apparently, copper binds to the prion, and, if copper is absent, manganese will then bind.

Mr. Purdey has drawn attention to the increasing use of manganese. We now use manganese instead of lead in petrol. Manganese as used in increasing amounts in poultry feed to enhance growth and egg production. It is also used as a lick to enhance bone growth in calves. Therefore, it is present in the environment. I understand that 98 per cent. of the manganese that is fed to poultry ends up in chicken litter which goes into compound feeds.

Therefore, the theory on which Mr. Purdey is working is that the interaction between OPs, which is accepted by the Phillips inquiry as a possible trigger, when combined with a manganese surplus in the brain, leads to the chain reaction that is causing the problem.

I do not know whether that is right, but I have pressed continuously for Mr. Purdey to be given support and encouragement in the form of research funds so that he can test out his theory. Professors in Italy and France have just completed studies which produce the same correlations as Mr. Purdey has produced independently as a lone dairy farmer, trying conscientiously to research the matter and capable of speaking for four hours before the Phillips inquiry.

There now appears to be a growing body of evidence that that is a much more serious theory than previously thought. It was certainly resisted by scientists in the past, but I hope that, in the light of the Minister's comments, he will ensure that the matter is pursued. I welcome his appointment of Professor Gabriel Horn. I hope that his inquiry will be sufficiently wide-ranging to consider individual viewpoints—I do not say prejudices, although the danger is that people may have preconceived ideas—and will be open to new ideas, so that the matter is pursued.

I pray in aid an important article written on 10 April 1997 by the then hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), now the Minister for the Environment, entitled "Let's find the real cause of BSE". He said: A new government should sweep aside these evasions. The article was written about two or three weeks before the election, so it was an attack on the previous Government. He continued: The Purdey theory should now be taken very seriously by the authorities. It is disappointing that we are now at the end of this period of government and what the Minister for the Environment wrote in opposition has still not been implemented. The contents of his article and his approach were precisely right.

I recently met Baroness Hayman. I hope that there is a determination to ensure that funds are not limited to traditional lines of inquiry and research, and that the Department will enable Mr. Pun ley's theory to be investigated thoroughly.

I welcome what the Minister said about making any scientific advice or material available to the public. I challenge him straight away, because some important material on OPs should be made public. Will he publish the work of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate on the reformulation of organophosphates and the removal of phenol? That material is of significant scientific importance, and should be in the public domain. I am sure that the Minister meant what he said, because he was very forthright. He gave a categoric assurance that he would make such material available, so I hope that the Minister for Public Health will confirm that.

It is not for me to determine whether these theories are right or wrong. For 15 years, I have supported my constituent because I did not think that his idea was crazy or eccentric. Originally, a cow of his with BSE that did not fit the official description of the cause of the disease was the trigger for him to pursue this career of investigation that is now gathering increasing support and understanding. I hope that his theory will be examined, because if it is right, the origins of BSE and CJD are not what we think they are, and the basis of the approach that has been followed all these years may be wrong. No one in the House would disagree that we owe it to all those who have been afflicted—whether in the agriculture industry or the families affected by CJD—not to rest until we have done everything we can to identify the cause of this terrible suffering.

5.48 pm
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

In their moving speeches, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) spoke of two of his constituents and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) told us about Donna McGivern, and I want to dedicate my remarks to one of my constituents, Donna McIntyre.

Donna was born on 13 July 1979. She lived initially in Northfield in my constituency, and went to Old Meldrum primary school and later to Dyce academy. Reading the profile that she wrote about herself at the end of her time at the school, I was reminded of many of the pupils whom I taught over the years in Aberdeen.

Donna talked about her interests: the brownies, the guides, the choir, swimming, badminton and squash. She said how she enjoyed going on holiday with a friend's family to Malta, and going on holiday to Holland with the choir in 1994. She talked of how she enjoyed her work experience as a nursery nurse and helping in an old people's home, and her ambition to go into nursing or accounting. That fits closely with the account of her by her family and friends as a caring, helpful and loving person. In 1999, she worked with the Prince's Trust Volunteers.

Towards the end of 1999 and the beginning of the millennium, Donna began to suffer from depression. In the early months of last year, she became increasingly confused. She went missing from her flat, and her sister, Lisa, found her and took her back to her father's home. She started to behave as if she were drunk. She started to lose co-ordination and basic control of her movements. She went to the doctor, and then to Fosterhill hospital on 26 August, and in the following month it was diagnosed that she almost certainly had new variant CJD. She has had very good care ever since, but her condition has steadily deteriorated. Since November she has not been able to speak. She sleeps a lot, and responds to being hugged and held by friends and family; sometimes she gives a great smile. But to appreciate the extent of the tragedy it is important to realise fully the awfulness of each person's case, and also the potential scale of the problem.

I want to express my gratitude to Donna's father, Billy McIntyre, who is present in the Strangers Gallery and who has shared his experience with me, and to Professor Hugh Pennington, the recognised leading authority on the subject, who has shared his professional expertise with me. I shall try to speak on Billy's behalf. He told me that he wanted to speak not just on his own behalf, but on behalf of other victims' families. I cannot presume to give voice to what Donna would say if she were not deprived of speech.

When we discussed the scale of this, Billy said to me, "This could be a time bomb." Professor Hugh Pennington told me, "There are so many unpredictable factors that we really cannot know the potential scale." Because the disease is a new variant, we do not know whether it will behave in the same way as the comparatively rare disease that we know as CJD. Indeed, if it is similar to that disease, the incubation period could be as long as 40 years. At present, it seems that all who have suffered have had a similar genetic make-up involving the MM prion. Apparently, just under 40 per cent. of the population harbour the prion.

Professor Pennington told me that we could be talking about hundreds or about hundreds of thousands. Taking the worst-case analysis, we should think of the resulting devastation of our economy, given the cost of compensation and care; but we should think even more of the human cost and the personal devastation.

As was rightly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams), the disease originated in Britain. Tragically, for too long and to an excessive extent we exported it not just to the rest of Europe but to the rest of the world, including the third world. That means that some of the world's poorest people may be affected. All too often disasters hit the poorest, in disproportionate measure.

Indeed, we may find a disproportionate distribution by wealth in our own country. One of the most infectious causes of the disease is MRM—mechanically recovered meat—which went into the cheapest sausages, pies and burgers. I now see a disturbing hypocrisy in past occasions when comparatively affluent people could be observed eating prime beef that would never be a source of danger, and saying that British beef was safe.

I want to discuss three things: blame, lessons and restitution. First, let me deal with blame. Billy told me that it was difficult to express the degree of anger and incomprehension that he was experiencing. He said it was an irony that what was done yesterday was described as no-fault compensation. Some people certainly had no fault—the poor victims, who could not be more innocent.

Billy said something that ties in with what was said by my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr. He asked who would be brave enough to plead guilty. Would it be the feed manufacturers who put commercial interests before the public interest? Would it be the farmers—I am certain that there are some, somewhere—who were less than scrupulous about suspected BSE? Would it be the abattoirs and renderers who took insufficient care in extracting SBO? Would it be some of the members of the media—a question raised by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer)? They prefer not to remember now that they were not all very helpful at one time. What about civil servants and Ministers?

Billy McIntyre said that he feels that two people are especially to blame. The first is a civil servant—Keith Meldrum, the chief veterinary officer. I recognise that Phillips says that Keith Meldrum was very active later on, and I accept that he was. I also accept the points made in his defence by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), but I still believe that Mr. Meldrum deserves blame.

For far too long, Keith Meldrum held to the dogmatic assumption that only large quantities of infected material would pass on the disease. For that reason, he did not realise the importance of separating the processing of feeds. He delayed the introduction of bans for too long, and there was insufficient rigour in the inspection and enforcement regimes. Moreover, exports should have been halted as soon as fear of the disease emerged. In fact, those exports were vastly increased at precisely that stage.

There is a real worry that the concerns of the industry weighed more heavily with Mr. Meldrum in the early stages than did the concerns of safety. To be fair, however, he is representative of others who are responsible in the same way. I repeat a point that is often made: in this country, we do not give sufficient recognition to corporate criminal liability—what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food called institutional failure.

As a result, Phillips too often blames fairly senior civil servants and Ministers, who may have been directly responsible, but he forgets that the chain of command goes to a much higher level, in the civil service and among Ministers. Billy McIntyre offers a balance in that respect—he told me that the other person whom he really blames is Margaret Thatcher.

I accept the point made by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk, who said that Phillips makes a completely convincing case in relation to the issue of rendering in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher had been accused of direct responsibility. Phillips found that rendering did not make a difference, and that BSE could not be destroyed by rendering.

Other influences were at work, however. Among them are the cuts in research funding, including that for animal and veterinary services, the pressures on research institutes to get external funding and to devote more time to those matters that helped commerce and less to what was necessary for safety, the decreases in the veterinary services referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), and the emphasis on deregulation referred to by my right hon. Friend the Minister and by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. Ministers, civil servants and scientists were all affected by an ethos that, far too often and far too readily, put profits before people, wealth before health and, as it turned out, money before life.

Billy says he feels disgust at the honours with which Baroness Thatcher is loaded. There will doubtless be many memorials to her, probably including some in this House, but it should be remembered that for some people her memorial may be the terrible mad-cow legacy of BSE and CJD. Donna was born just a few weeks after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. We must eradicate the BSE infection, but we must also eradicate the more crass and materialistic aspects of Thatcherism.

There are other lessons to be learned. Billy says that we must guarantee that this does not happen again, and we must first guarantee that transmission of BSE and CJD is not still going on. In that respect, we must look at what is happening in Germany, and in respect of possible medical transmission.

Putting those guarantees in place means that we must be vigilant. We must improve surveillance, and not do so at the expense of research into the causes of the disease and into possible cures—or at least research into the possibility of arresting the disease. Secrecy must no longer hold sway. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is in place, but we need far more openness, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) said. Departmentalism must be broken down; we must have joined-up government, including across devolution, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood said. There must be an end to the dogmatic defence of departmental positions, which can still far too often go on. There must be less arrogance and more flexibility. We need more scientists in certain Departments at top levels.

Although I see no rational connection between BSE and genetically modified foods—in fact, some of the suspicions of the latter that have followed are irrational— I recognise the point made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal; that MBMs were being used as feed for half a century before we began to discover what was happening, and were used for most of the last century. We must always observe the precautionary principle.

I conclude by speaking of restitution. The £25 million initial compensation is very welcome as a start, and the vast increase in help with care assistance is also immensely valuable. However, I am again reminded of something that Billy McIntyre said to me. He said that the Government gave compensation to farmers so that they could replace lost animals. No compensation given to families can replace a lost daughter or a lost son. What compensation can one ever give to Donna and her fellow sufferers for the fact that they are no longer able to enjoy family life? They will not be able to enjoy the right to have a family of their own. They will not even be able to enjoy the right to life.

I talked earlier of memorials. The best memorial we could have to Donna and her fellow sufferers will be if we fight as hard as we can to eradicate both BSE and CJD and the errors that led to their becoming so widespread.

6.1 pm

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

It is a privilege to come here this evening to say something about the Phillips report, which I welcome. It is fair and reaches the right balance.

We have heard this afternoon that 86 people have died from this terrible disease. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) has graphically described the symptoms and the duration of the disease. It is tragic that young people with their lives ahead of them have been struck down by this terrible disease, which has no known cure. We all sympathise with the parents and relatives of those who have died and those who are still suffering. The fact that there are eight people who are presumably still suffering from the disease may provide some hope that the disease will not grow to the extent that some of us might fear.

When I first came to the House, I was always surprised by the attitude of the governing Labour party at Agriculture questions. There was always criticism of the Opposition; they were entirely responsible for £4 billion spent on BSE and for the tragedy. We must recognise that, in reality, we cannot blame any particular person. This disease could not have been foreseen. The scientists were working at the frontiers of science and it was impossible to predict the true nature of the disease until more symptoms appeared and more scientific knowledge became available.

The inquiry was right to say that we should not look for scapegoats, because they are none. Indeed, Lord Phillips is right when he also says that if those criticised were misguided, they none the less acted in accordance with their conception of the proper performance of their duties.

We have heard some criticism of the civil service and past Ministers. The Minister was right to be measured in his criticism. He, too, faces difficult decisions. It is easy to criticise when one has never been a Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or held office. However, there are tremendous pressures on those who have to face the media and the likelihood of giving wrong or inadequate advice. The Minister should be commended on his restraint. I agree with the Phillips report that no one should be disciplined.

Happily for Northern Ireland, we did not suffer BSE to the same extent as the rest of the United Kingdom. That may be because of geography and the fact that we are separated by water. So far, there have been few cases of vCJD in Northern Ireland. I am glad to report that the incidence is decreasing in Northern Ireland, as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom.

A specific test was conducted in Northern Ireland on 2,546 animals last year. The Enfer test can indicate the possible presence of BSE in an animal. It produced 60 possible cases. After further microscopic examination, 54 cases were confirmed. At first sight, that figure may appear alarming. We used to have five or six cases, but the test revealed 54. However, 700 four-year-old animals were free of the disease. That is encouraging and shows that our approach is correct and that we are taking the right measures. In several years, we hope that older animals will be clear of the disease and that it will be eradicated.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that none of the cases that were examined could have entered the food chain?

Mr. Thompson

Yes. No animal that is over 30 months enters the food chain. That confirms that the food that we eat in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the United Kingdom is almost certainly free of the disease. That is welcome.

Let us consider the new European regulations. Europe is discovering that BSE exists there, too. The European Union is introducing new restrictions, including one on fishmeal. That will create difficulties in the United Kingdom. Fishmeal was never considered to have played a part in the BSE crisis. I understand that the view in Europe is that fishmeal may have become adulterated with meat and bonemeal. I ask the Minister for Public Health to update us on precisely what is happening in that regard. What are the consequences of excluding fishmeal from ruminant meal? If the Government have made a decision on the matter, when will regulations come into force?

As I know that time is of the essence in this debate, I shall conclude. I am grateful, however, for having had the opportunity to speak in it.

6.10 pm
Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

Matthew Parker, from the village of Armthorpe in my constituency, was 19 when, in 1997, he died of variant CJD. Sarah Roberts, also from Armthorpe, was 28 when, in September 2000, she died of the same disease. Matthew's and Sarah's families are devastated by those deaths. The village of Armthorpe, a close-knit community, has been shocked and enormously saddened by the loss of those two young people.

I have kept in close touch with both Matthew's and Sarah's families. I pay tribute to them not only for their bravery in the dreadful circumstances that they have faced, but for their determination to do everything that they possibly can to ensure that other families do not suffer as they have.

Matthew's family—I am thinking particularly of his mother, Doreen, his grandfather and his father—campaigned vigorously for a public inquiry. I add my voice to those of right. hon. and hon. Members who have congratulated the Government on establishing the Phillips inquiry.

I have listened very carefully to Members' comments about the difficulty of laying blame at the door of any individual. It would be wrong of me, however, not to express the very real anger that I and the families in my constituency feel about the many mistakes that, as the Phillips report highlights, were made by the previous Administration.

Today, we have had apologies from two Conservative Members. Until today, however, as far as I am aware, only one Conservative Member—the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dowell)—had made an apology. The families in my constituency feel particularly angry about that. They feel that the response has been totally inadequate.

Mr. Yeo

May I draw the hon. Lady's attention to the fact that, when the Minister published the Phillips report, on the record, on behalf of the Conservative party, I expressed unreserved apologies? She is completely inaccurate in the claim that she has just made.

Ms Winterton

I have acknowledged that the hon. Gentleman made an apology today. I have also said that my constituents need personal apologies. I hope that he will accept that. I also hope that, in view of his comments, he will support the Government when they have to make difficult decisions on, for example, beef on the bone.

Mr. Yeo

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Winterton

I am sorry, but I cannot give way again because of time constraints.

My constituents want honesty about the past and openness in the future. Openness is crucial to maintaining trust. That was brought home to me recently when it was thought that there might be a cluster of CJD cases in my constituency. Not only had the two young people to whom I have referred died in Armthorpe, but it emerged that a third young man who had had connections with the village had died. An investigation was started into whether there was a connection between the three people who had contracted vCJD.

After the initial investigation, I asked Dr. John Radford, the director of public health, to meet me and the families to discuss the investigation. I know that Dr. Radford had some reservations about sharing the information with people from outside his profession, but we had the meeting and he was open with us about what had taken place during his investigation. He later wrote to me and said that the meeting made me realise that we had not paid sufficient attention to the relatives and their feelings. I want to put on record how helpful we all found Dr. Radford's open approach. I am extremely glad that the Government have made a commitment to ensuring openness and trust in the future.

One of the issues that we discussed at the meeting was the need to share information, especially about potential clusters. I understand that a template has been developed with the Colindale national communicable disease surveillance centre, with input from Doncaster and Leicestershire health authorities. That means that, if there are fears of clusters, the local authority can use the template to ensure that all avenues of investigation are covered. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that that is the case.

I welcome the Government's positive response to the finding of the Phillips inquiry that improvements are needed to speed up the diagnosis of vCJD. I hope that the Government will consider ways, perhaps through the office of the chief medical officer, to ensure that GPs and psychiatrists are made aware of the early symptoms to look out for and the presentation of vCJD.

I welcome the steps that the Government have taken to provide a care pack age for those who contract vCJD. I know that David Body, who was referred to earlier, has worked hard on that. I know that Matthew and Sarah's families felt that the support that they received from Doncaster social services was good, but they were also aware that the support varied enormously across the country.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that provision is the same across the country, of a high standard, and that the Government consider providing bereavement counselling for relatives—something that the director of public health in Doncaster feels should be available.

No amount of money can ever make up for the tragic loss that the families of those who have died from this terrible disease have suffered, but I believe that the Government moved quickly in their discussions with representatives of the families on compensation, and have responded positively to my concern about those who are in receipt of social security benefits. I know that an announcement was made yesterday about that. I welcome it, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to bring the regulations before Parliament quickly so that interim payments can be made.

I ask for an assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that the Government will maintain the highest standards of meat inspection In abattoirs. That concern has been raised by the Human BSE Foundation, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me some reassurance on that matter.

I am aware that, because of time constraints, I have not addressed many of the issues in the Phillips report. The matters that I raised are those that families in my constituency asked me to bring to the attention of Ministers. I am proud that it was the Labour Government who set up the Phillips inquiry, and I am proud that the Government are responding quickly to the findings of the inquiry. Finally, my plea is that the Government continue to do everything that they can to make sure that such a terrible tragedy never happens again

6.20 pm
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

We all owe a debt of gratitude to Lord Phillips for producing an extremely sane and balanced report. Naturally, at the beginning there were fears that he had been appointed to chair a hanging jury. However, he was completely faithful to the promise that he would not bring retrospective judgments to bear but would judge actions in the light of the science and information that was available at the time. In doing so, he has done a service to everybody. He has enabled us to illuminate the dilemmas that Ministers have to face.

I also pay tribute to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. His response has been equally measured and sensible. As he is in office, he knows that the dilemmas highlighted by the Phillips report are the daily provender of Ministers in sensitive Departments. Dilemmas such as those have appeared in the past and will continue to do so for Ministers in the present.

In the light of the Government's response to the Phillips report, I want to look forward and issue some slightly cautionary notes, in case anyone believes that the document is a new testament that will infallibly light our way. Two especially important issues are covered by chapters 4 and 6—the handling of scientific advice and coping with risk. Of course, the comments in those chapters are sensible, but they do not remove the need for Ministers to make judgments, which, at the end of the day, will be political—because they are made by Ministers. In many circumstances, the last step may always be taken if not in the dark, at least in the murk.

In applying the science, we faced—in the case of BSE—a new disease for which there was no history and little expertise. Scientific expertise was limited so there was no peer group which could review the conclusions reached by the most eminent scientists who had been brought in to advise the Government. The advice offered was, perforce, quasi-monopolistic. Of course, there were, and are, iconoclasts, or mavericks—according to one's side of the argument. How are they to be coped with? Should they be absorbed into the committee and their views brought within the framework of the advice? The danger then would be that the advice itself becomes an uneasy stand-off between opposing viewpoints. Should the Minister place trust in the established scientists—the best-known collection of advice—knowing that the maverick will always command the attention of the media and that, occasionally, the maverick may be right? All Ministers face that dilemma.

Mr. Ainger

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Curry

No, I am sorry but I cannot give way because of the time constraints.

Chapter 4 of the report notes that Departments must have the expertise to commission, understand, evaluate and then draw conclusions from scientific advice. With respect, that is self-evident, but extremely difficult. Science is more complex than it has ever been. The micro-branches of science are not understood by other micro-branches of science. The generalist, who, because tasks range across a broad spectrum, is almost inevitably the person employed, may not be competent in particular spheres of expertise. One falls back on the hope that there is a peer group of other scientists so that there is a dialectic and argument can take place. However, that means that there are choices, and thus, at the end of the day, that Ministers have to make a judgment. Nothing done by the scientist removes the need for Ministers' ultimate judgments.

Chapter 6 refers to risk. The problem is that, increasingly, we face demands from the public for an absolute guarantee. As our scientific ability to test materials improves and we can detect parts per billion, products that seemed to be pure in the past may suddenly be found to contain an infinitely small element of a contaminant. Of course, the word "contamination" immediately springs to mind, and that absolute guarantee is undeliverable.

Chapter 6.6 of the Government's response states: Government also needs to deal with issues where people perceive possible risks to health, but where the scientific evidence of harm is inconclusive. A balance needs to be struck between intervening too much, forgoing benefits and stifling people's freedom of action, and failing to help protect them sufficiently from actual or potential hazards. That is the nub of the issue. Once again, we are back to evaluations and judgment, and all the Minister, or the Government, can do is to place in front of the public the various factors that led him to draw his conclusions and, frankly, hope that people believe that, on balance, it is the right thing to do, knowing that someone will always say that a slightly more extreme or radical solution should have been taken. That leads us straight to the precautionary approach.

Paragraph 6.14 on the precautionary approach states: Where there is scientific uncertainty, the precautionary principle may be applied. This holds that absence of scientific proof should not delay or prevent proportionate measures to remove or reduce threats of serious harm. The Government is committed to taking a precautionary approach where appropriate. However, let us consider the language used there. The use of words "proportionate" and "serious harm" involves judgment. The wonderful word "appropriate" is the most important adjective in any Government's lexicon, but determining what is appropriate also involves judgment. So that paragraph lets no one off the hook; it is simply stating, in relatively elegant terms, the eternal dilemma involved in making judgments. There is no mathematical scale that can trigger action.

At the end of day, there must a certain intuitive response, and successful Ministers are often those who have a strongly intuitive sense of what is right and of which direction people demand they should take. The difficulty with the precautionary approach, which seems obviously sensible, is where to draw the line in the sand. Where should the perimeter be set around which the Minister mans those defences that are defensible? If a certain measure of precaution is taken, why not take a little further precaution? Before we know where we are, we should have moved a long way from what can be defended on strictly scientific grounds.

There has been much condemnation of the so-called culture of reassurance, but before we condemn one culture, we need to look at the alternatives. Is hesitation the alternative? Is it a culture of panic, or one in which we say that we simply do not know? There is much enthusiasm for openness, and of course we say amen to that, but we must be cautious because, as my right hon. Friends have said, a populist and campaigning press may not translate an issue's complexities through to the public.

I wish to cite three contemporary cases that illustrate the dilemmas that Ministers face. I am glad that the Minister for Public Health is here, because I wish to refer to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. All the players are on scene. We have a vast majority of established scientific opinion in favour of the multiple vaccine. We have a handful of iconoclasts who say that it is causing serious disease in infants. We have Ministers bringing to bear the canon of established Government scientific advice and we have the press seizing on the minority view, with stories that are unashamedly emotional. If Ministers believe their scientific advice, and they have no reason not to, they are condemned to be reassuring in the words that they utter to the public; they have no alternative.

Let us consider another issue—GM foods, which several of my colleagues have mentioned. Openness does prevail; the trial sites are advertised and the map grid references are given, but that leads to direct action and a massively irresponsible and emotional campaign in some newspapers about Frankenstein foods, which makes it even more difficult for the Government to take sensible action. The result has been incoherence, division and confusion at the heart of Government. The Minister need not agree with that, but I simply state that that is the case.

The third case is TB in cattle, which will kill 10 or 20 times more cattle than BSE will in the coming year. In a purely agricultural sense, TB is a far greater problem than BSE. The trials that are taking place are heavily contested and may not produce a conclusive result. In fact, there is a 50:50 chance that they will not produce a result that will enable the Minister to say that science has incontrovertibly demonstrated a clear way forward. Farmers are saying, "We do not want to wait for the scientific tests to be completed, because the problem is so serious that we must make a pre-emptive strike against badgers." The badger group is saying, "You cannot prove that the badgers are responsible, and the whole trial is badly founded." That contemporary case demonstrates that Ministers' intuition has to play a role. The practical steps that must be taken are those that were taken by all my right hon. Friends when they were in Government, facing a similar dilemma and a similar outcome.

I applaud the Food Standards Agency, and Sir John Krebs has done a very good job in establishing its credibility. He has shown canny political sense, and I do not mean that in a party sense. Sir John has made remarks about organic food and about the possibility of BSE-type diseases in sheep. Immediately, red lights began to flash, signalling that his remarks would be contested.

Within Government and its agencies, the lesson to be learned from the BSE episode is the importance of co-ordinating scientific effort, so that scientists know what other scientists are doing. I am referring not to the centralisation of science, but to the need for awareness of what research is being undertaken. There must be a communication channel between scientists and officials, and it is important that scientists' claims be evaluated by officials, Officials should approach Ministers when the matter becomes one that, politically, they need to know about. Finally, there is a need to enforce the actions that have been decreed. That takes us straight to the old issues of resources, money and staff, which are the subject of everyday arguments between Departments.

We must be careful that we do not expect scientists to substitute for politicians. Scientists make politicians' dilemmas more difficult, not easier. They provide explanations and options; they do not provide answers to the sort of questions that the public ask and politicians need to answer. At the end of the day, the decisions will be political and they will be based on the balance of advice, which will rarely point to a definitive outcome. On every ministerial desk should be printed the legend, "There but for the grace of God … ", and I cannot help but feel that the Minister's sane, balanced response to this issue demonstrates that perhaps, in his mind, he has that legend on his own desk.

6.33 pm
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

The last few Labour Members who have spoken have given extremely moving accounts of what has happened to their constituents. My position is similar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) because one of my first surgery cases was brought to me by Shirley Warne, who has been in the Gallery today. She came to my surgery on the way to visit her son, Chris, who was in hospital dying of CJD. I subsequently visited and spoke to Shirley and her husband, Terry, many times. Terry is currently in the same neurological ward at Derby royal infirmary, where Chris died, and I send him my best wishes.

Shirley and Terry wanted me to argue for a public inquiry. As a very new MP, I was hesitant about doing so because I did not want to raise their hopes when I did not know whether we would get such an inquiry. I think it unlikely that we would have had an inquiry if we had not had a Labour Government. When I went to see the then Minister of Agriculture, my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), he told me that his son had been at university with someone who had died of CJD, so he was well aware of the tragedy of the disease and felt strongly about it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was determined that we had to get to the bottom of the matter because we did not know how big a tragedy it would turn out to be and the victims' families wanted answers.

The families are angry, as I am, because there have not been sufficient individual apologies for what has happened. I do not say that in terms of ascribing individual blame, but mistakes were made, as outlined in the Phillips report. Irrespective of whether they were made by individuals, or as a result of the system that determines how the Government and Departments work, it is necessary for whoever runs an organisation to take responsibility and say sorry. People want a handsome apology.

I congratulate the Government on their response. Shirley told me last night that she had been talking to two other families who had spoken about the excellent care and assistance that they were receiving at home from nurses and the case worker who discussed their needs with them. She did not think that one hospital gave them that level of support when Chris was dying, although she greatly praised the staff at Derby royal infirmary for the care that they provided.

Mistakes were made and responsibility must be taken for them. We may not be able to prevent health and food scares from occurring, but we can take on board the well-written findings, which are summarised in the interim response. They state: To establish credibility it is necessary to generate trust … Trust can only be generated by openness … Openness requires recognition of uncertainty, where it exists.' We understand that the findings and recommendations embark us on a difficult agenda, but the previous Government failed to accept that there was uncertainty. They were determined to deny that it existed.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) said that he had been criticised for not being sufficiently open about the health scares, and outlined his response to that. When I considered that criticism and examined the evidence in the various volumes of the report, I was struck by the fact that Ron Davies, the then Opposition spokesman on agriculture, raised a huge number of issues on the SBO ban. He was extremely tenacious. As my right hon. Friends who were shadow spokesmen at the time have made clear, the then Opposition pursued many issues with considerable persistence. I understand that it is difficult for Ministers to take such difficult issues on board, but the lessons should be learned. The least that we can do for the families who have suffered such tragedies is to acknowledge that openly and fully.

Although we cannot necessarily prevent food and health scares from occurring, we can say that the lessons will be learned. Never again will we have a culture of secrecy; never again will regulation be thought of as merely bureaucratic, especially when it is in place to protect people. We need to examine the systems so that there is openness; to take the precautionary principle to heart; to trust people; and to acknowledge that it is difficult to talk about risks and hard for the public to assess them. Instead of hiding facts, we must be open.

I was in the Gallery before the debate began and spoke to the parents—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal)

Order. It is not acceptable to refer to the Gallery.

Judy Mallaber

I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The solicitor, David Body, told me that his clients are pleased with the compensation package and the response, but want the lessons to be learned and put into effect. A Conservative Member said that this is the start of the process. We must commit ourselves to ensuring that the lessons are fully followed up. We need to do that for all those people who have suffered and to ensure that others do not suffer in the future.

6.39 pm
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

I endorse the views just expressed by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). This is the start of the process and we accept many of the points that she made.

I also share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and pay tribute to the Minister for his measured and responsible approach to the debate. He is to be commended on setting the tone for the debate. It follows from his recent comments on the "On the Record" programme, when he said that it would be a mistake to turn this issue into a fight along party political lines. That view was reiterated by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who said that it is primarily an issue about how government works, whichever political party happens to be in power. The Minister deserves credit for ensuring a balanced and purposeful debate.

The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) asked whether an incoming Conservative Government would implement, as the current Government intend to do, the recommendations of the Phillips report in full. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) gave that assurance at the start of the debate, and I take this opportunity to repeat the commitment.

The House has, quite rightly, dealt with the human dimension in this debate. Let us remember that much of the Phillips report dealt with the problem of vCJD as much as with that of BSE. I wish to take this opportunity to reiterate the sympathy that Conservative Members have for the families of those who lost loved ones to the disease and to those who are struggling with the problems of a family member who has contracted it. We welcome the Government's response to the needs of those families—what they have done already and what they propose to do. We shall listen carefully to what the Minister for Public Health says about further moves in that regard.

One can understand the anger and the frustration of the families involved and their need to find someone to be accountable. Their views were sympathetically put in the debate by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and by the hon. Members for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge). However, chapter 1 of the executive summary of the Phillips report concludes: The Government did not lie to the public about BSE. It believed that the risks posed by BSE to humans were remote. Later it adds that, in the years covered by the report, most of those responsible for responding to the challenge posed by BSE emerge with credit. However, the report alludes to a number of shortcomings in the way that things were done. They were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk in his opening remarks and I reiterate our acceptance of the shortcomings and our regret that they happened.

Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who were involved directly in these matters have put their case in the debate and it will have been clear to the House that they did so without equivocation. Nowhere in Phillips is their integrity impugned. To give the Minister credit, when he was interviewed on "On the Record" in February this year, he said: Anyone who has come to our Report looking to allocate blame will go away disappointed.

Tony Wright

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss

No, I have not got much time and I want to give the Minister time to respond.

The Phillips report is a thorough investigation and appraisal of the BSE issues, and offers a fair and balanced view of events. It makes three main recommendations to the Government: first, the effectiveness of communication within government and between Departments needs to be considered and improved dramatically; secondly, the response time to implement decisions taken at ministerial level needs to be addressed; and, thirdly, we must consider the degree of openness with the public on health-risk issues.

On communications between Departments, we welcome the formation of the National Zoonoses Group, chaired by the chief medical officer, to address the risk to human health posed by zoonoses and to consider new and emerging diseases. To access the best scientific advice, we welcome "Guidelines 2000" from the Office of Science and Technology. It is mentioned in the Phillips report that the Meat and Livestock Commission, up to March 1996, appears not to have been covering all its statutory objectives, and that it will be putting proposals to the Government soon to achieve a better balance between its responsibilities to both stakeholders and consumers. That is a sensible move, and we trust that the Government will respond positively.

The issue of openness has been raised by many right hon. and hon. Members. The Government's main response is to point to the establishment of the Food Standards Agency. Although it is now generally welcomed, it is somewhat disingenuous to claim that had the FSA been in force earlier, a less damaging evolution of BSE and related variant CJD would have been the result. As the report concludes in chapter 1 of the executive summary, it was not MAFF's policy to lean in favour of the agricultural producers to the detriment of the consumer. As many of my right hon. Friends who were involved directly in government at the time have confirmed, decisions in relation to human health implications were taken in good faith.

Many issues relating to scientific advice come within the scope of greater openness. The Government are right to respond in the positive way that they have to recommendations about how, in future, scientific information will be made available to the general public. Although we were not able to have a blanket reassurance on the matter during the debate, we welcome the Minister's assurance that he will publish the scientific advice that is put to him within the Ministry.

A critical area of science is that of testing and the need to leave no research avenue uninvestigated. That point was raised by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). In their response to the Phillips report, the Government agree with the finding that tissues in an animal incubating a TSE may be infectious before the animal has developed clinical signs of the disease. That has serious implications for food safety in meat under 30 months, despite the application of the precautionary principle.

Furthermore, the Government accept in their response that the most effective way of reducing the risk would be to have a diagnostic test sensitive enough to detect infected animals in the pre-clinical stages, which could therefore be used in widespread screening programmes.

We welcome the Government's initiative in asking Professor Horn to lead a team of scientists to review our understanding of the origin of BSE. We hope and expect that in this they will review the issue of testing. Perhaps that is the most important issue to come out of the Phillips report. The hon. Member for Eastwood spoke about the families' desperate need to get to the bottom of the BSE-CJD problem. We share that view.

The question has been raised of the efficacy and accuracy of the testing for BSE in cattle older than 30 months. It is now part of the European Commission's raft of measures to counter the problem. However, we have not yet had a clear and unequivocal statement from the Government on their view of the test. A spokesman for the commissioner, David Byrne, said that a negative test result on its own did not mean that beef from cattle older than 30 months was safe to eat. He said: We've never sold it".— that is the test— as a safety measure. We sell it as a measure to enhance consumer confidence. A negative result does not mean beef is negative. Although that admission could be welcomed as a sign of greater openness, it nevertheless invites questions of the Government and the FSA.

The history of BSE since the mid-1980s is as tragic an event as we have ever experienced in this country. Great distress and anger have been caused not only to the families of variant CJD victims but to the livestock farming community. We should not lose sight of the fact that livelihoods have been ruined and businesses destroyed in the agriculture sector as well. The Opposition accept that mistakes were made, but we join the Government in responding positively to all the recommendations set out in Lord Phillips' report. The families affected need to know how BSE originated and how it happened. We share those views and pledge out support for the Government in their endeavour to find the answers.

6.50 pm
The Minister for Public Health (Yvette Cooper)

We have had a measured, thoughtful and constructive debate this afternoon about the BSE inquiry and the tragedy of new variant CJD that lies behind it. Many Members began their speeches by expressing sympathy for the families whose lives have been turned upside down and often devastated by nvCJD. I join them, for we need always to bear in mind that reality when we consider the events that lie behind the BSE inquiry.

My right hon. Friend the Minister gave a clear summary of the extremely thorough and extensive Phillips report, and the shortcomings and problems that it identified. He also explained the key themes in the Government's interim response. I shall not go over that ground and I apologise now to any Members whose points I am not able to respond to in the time that remains.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) discussed issues of openness; he and the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) both welcomed the report. I welcome their commitment to pursuing the issues behind the report and its conclusions. My right hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) described their concerns and the questions that they asked in the 1990s. They described their frustration in raising those issues in discussion and debate at that time.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) welcomed the report and raised important issues, based on his experience. I am certainly interested in considering further the questions that he asked about whether or not the fear of judicial review might prevent an effective precautionary approach from being adopted. That is clearly an area in which the publication of scientific evidence can play an important role, and we need to consider it further.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) expressed support for the Food Standards Agency, which I welcome. However, I disagree that the Government consider the Phillips report as a done and dusted deal and believe that no more needs to be done. The reverse is true, as our debate has shown. A huge amount needs to be done to ensure that the response to the report is properly embedded across Government. Already, a huge amount has been done, but there is certainly more to do.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), and my hon. Friends the Members for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge), for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) and for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) described powerfully the experiences both of constituents who are suffering today from nvCJD and of the families of those who have died from the condition. Many of those accounts were moving. I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. and hon. Friends have done in raising their constituents' concerns. Certainly, many of them have expressed those concerns directly to Ministers, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston came to see Ministers with a delegation to outline concerns especially about the need for care packages and the importance of improving care for those suffering from nvCJD.

I would like to highlight a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central; many of those victims' families have campaigned for a public inquiry for a long time. Those of us who will benefit from the conclusions of the Phillips report and their implementation in future owe those families a debt for their tenacity in pursuing that issue at an extremely difficult time for them.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams) spoke about how much was known about the transmission of the disease at an early stage. The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard)—whose speech I apologise for missing—made interesting points about the importance of the media in communicating risk. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) referred to the need to find the origins of BSE and nvCJD, and the role that OPs may have played. My right hon. Friend the Minister is happy to look into the report that he mentioned, and will write to him on that issue.

The hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) welcomed the measures that are making a difference to controlling BSE in Northern Ireland. He raised the ban on feeding fishmeal to ruminants. I can tell him that the EU ban will be reviewed before 1 July. The Government will consider the UK position in the light of further scientific advice, the results of the Commission's missions to member states and other developments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley spoke about the failure to deal with uncertainty. I should like to return to discussion on that subject in future. I shall return also to the specific points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central about care and compensation. On her concerns about meat inspection, however, I can tell her that no formal proposals have been made to change the rules, although I understand that the European Commission has circulated a working document containing initial ideas on a risk-based meat inspection system. The Government's concern at every stage will be to ensure that proper standards are in place to protect public health.

In the remaining time, I want to concentrate on three health issues that have arisen several times in the debate. First, I should like to deal with the care and support that we provide for those who are now suffering because of what went wrong in the past in respect of BSE and nvCJD. I know that many of the affected families understandably feel angry and that their troubles have been exacerbated by struggling to get the care and support that they need. The BSE inquiry identified a lack of sufficient support for patients and their families. All the lessons that we learn for the future will have come too late for those people.

Many hon. Members have expressed their concern about that to the Department. That is why the Government announced on the report's publication that £1 million would be made available for a care fund to support patients who were being nursed at home by their families. The fund is already being used to support patients in the community and to pay for elements of care that cannot readily be supplied by local health and social services. We are keen to ensure that those care packages continue to be shaped around the families' views and needs.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood that we will certainly review the size of that fund if more cases arise. It is being administered by the CJD surveillance unit in Edinburgh and its aim is to provide uniform care throughout the country, to ensure that families can speedily access the expertise that they need to support them whenever they find themselves in this dreadful situation. We intend forthcoming guidance on home care charges to state that CJD patients should not pay them.

We also announced on the report's publication that we intended to make special compensation payments to those who contracted nvCJD and their families. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced that, although discussions are continuing with the legal representatives of the affected families, we will make interim payments of £25,000 in the meantime. We will also introduce regulations to ensure that the payments are not taken into account in the calculation of income-related social security benefits. We will do that as swiftly as we can.

I want to deal briefly with the important, but not easy, issue of assessing and communicating risk. The Phillips report states: The other casualty of the BSE story has been the destruction of the credibility of government pronouncements. That is extremely serious; it is about not only BSE, but trust in Government across the board and in pronouncements on health and safety. As many hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, the key is openness and honesty with the public about risk. That means publicising scientific advice and providing people with the facts so that they can make their own decisions about whether the Government are making a sensible policy judgment. We must also be able to distinguish between circumstances in which there is said to be no scientific evidence of a risk because there is lots of scientific evidence that does not support it, and circumstances in which there is simply no good evidence at all. There is a distinction between the two that we have not always made in the past in public health, but we must do so now.

For example, the experts tell us that there is a good deal of evidence to show that there is no link between MMR vaccines and autism. On mobile phones, on the other hand, they tell us that there is simply no good evidence at all, which is why we must take a different approach with regard to those matters. We must publish all the scientific evidence at every stage, whether or not it favours our conclusions. That is critical to providing people with increasing confidence in Government pronouncements.

It is of great concern that public confidence in Government pronouncements has been undermined. Hon. Members on both sides of the House must do everything that we can to improve that.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.