HC Deb 15 November 2001 vol 374 cc961-3
1. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What representations she has received from Professor Alan Ebringer of King's college London on BSE and related issues. [13062]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

I received a report on the research work conducted by Professor Ebringer in August 2001.

Mr. Dalyell

In view of Professor Ebringer's report that BSE is probably an auto-immune disease caused by a soil bacterium, which therefore cannot be passed on by meat consumption, does the Department propose to support further research on developing an ante-mortem test to avoid unnecessary cattle culling and thereby save large sums of taxpayers' money? May we hope that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has no vested interests of the mind in this controversy? The consequences are enormous if Professor Ebringer is right. May we have the assurance that the Department will consider carefully any work from the university of Chicago, a distinguished peer group that may pass judgment on Professor Ebringer's report?

Margaret Beckett

As my hon. Friend knows very well, Professor Ebringer's theory is not universally supported, although it is very interesting. My Department does indeed keep an open mind on new theories on BSE. Where Professor Ebringer's work includes development of a diagnostic test, we are providing funding for him to test his theories more rigorously. My hon. Friend asked about SEAC having a vested interest. I am not aware of any such interest, but he may like to know that the SEAC chairman has, I believe, written to Professor Ebringer inviting him to attend a meeting of the committee.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that it would be a great pity if Professor Ebringer's team has to be dissolved because the grant that runs out in December is not renewed? As the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) rightly said, that extremely important but controversial work should be considered. Is she aware that there is grave concern that any research with which DEFRA is not automatically happy is quietly shunted into a siding? Does she agree that that work is important and should continue to be funded?

Margaret Beckett

Of course I accept that it is important, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, my Department is funding it. I do not think it fair to say that there is no interest in it. If there were no interest in alternative theories, we would not be funding work now. He will also know that Professor Horn's team, for example, which earlier this year investigated the origin of BSE, was unable to agree with Professor Ebringer's theory. We shall keep the funding issue under review. Although I have no current plans to extend that funding, there is no question of the research being in any way suppressed; it is supported.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I at least welcome the fact that the Department is funding further rigorous research into Professor Ebringer's theory, but will the right hon. Lady address in particular the connection between Professor Ebringer's work and the conclusion of the Phillips inquiry that there may well be a connection between the spread of BSE—not the origin of the disease—and the use of organophosphate warble fly dressings in the 1980s? As there seems to be a direct connection, is further research being done to establish whether the Phillips inquiry was correct in that conclusion'?

Margaret Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a great deal of research is being conducted. Although there is almost a plethora of theories, up to now there has been no clear and simple explanation that everyone has accepted, other than that which is familiar to all hon. Members about the possibility of animal feed being the cause. My Department, and SEAC advising it, keep all those different ideas under review and continue to support a range of research into such issues.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is it the Government's and the Department's policy to pay out grants to everyone who has a controversial idea? I can think of a thousand and one controversial ideas. Where does the policy begin and where does it end? If this fellow gets a grant for doing controversial work, should that not apply to a lot of others who would like to take part in the exercise? It sounds like a DEFRA new deal.

Margaret Beckett

I do not think that it is quite that. If I may remind the House, any research funding that my Department undertakes is provided on the basis of thorough scientific evaluation and advice, but I take my hon. Friend's point—many people are investigating different theories. When there is a possibility of scientific validity, we try to avoid squeezing out theories that are initially controversial and new, which is what my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mrs Dalyell) expressed concern about. We try to ensure that we investigate the right range of potential answers. I am nevertheless grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for pointing out that we cannot do absolutely everything.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

The right hon. Lady might have told the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that Professor Ebringer heads up a world-class laboratory that deserves support and his findings deserve to be taken very seriously indeed. Do not those findings in relation to BSE underline yet again the disturbing confusion in the scientific world over those vital matters of food safety and health?

I sympathise with the right hon. Lady. It is extremely difficult to base far-reaching Government policy on science when science appears to shift like sand, but does she accept that Professor Ebringer's evidence only emphasises the need to take account of scientific opinion beyond her own advisers at SEAC, particularly bearing in mind the fact that scientists show a natural reluctance to alter their opinions once they have reached a decision and published it?

Margaret Beckett

We all understand that, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his understanding, but perhaps he is being a little unfair in saying that there is disturbing confusion in the scientific world. As he is well aware, we are talking about people who operate at the cutting edge of science.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right about Professor Ebringer, but many of those engaged in this range of work, some of whom have different ideas, also work in world-class research institutes, as one would expect of people who are trying to establish a greater scientific consensus on an issue that is so very difficult and that is at the cutting edge of science. We very much take and heed the advice of SEAC, but we also try to keep an open mind, as SEAC itself does, and try not to stifle an interesting new theory, wherever it may come from.