HL Deb 01 July 1996 vol 573 cc1214-6

2.58 p.m.

The Earl of Dudley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will order a public inquiry into the causes of the infection of British beef and dairy herds with BSE and the links with CJD, and, if so, whether they will publish a report of the findings of the inquiry.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, no. This is a question of the limits of scientific knowledge. Scientific facts, in so far as they are known, have been published and an independent inquiry would not be able to generate new scientific information.

The Earl of Dudley

My Lords, while I thank my noble friend on the Front Bench for the courtesy of his reply, I simply wish to establish the relevant facts. Does my noble friend agree that there are precedents for tribunals of inquiry into disasters, such as Aberfan in 1966, and that the infection of British dairy and beef herds by BSE can be regarded as a disaster? Does he agree that, as the discussions and negotiations with other European governments and the European Commission which have encapsulated the Government's action in respect of BSE have been confidential, there is a need for further action to allay the anxiety of the British public, both as taxpayers in view of the billions which have been expended on BSE and as consumers in view of the unquantified contingent risk of infection by CJD?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that tribunals are a useful method of finding out the facts where they are not evident. Indeed, not long ago I announced one into child abuse in North Wales. That seems to me the type of situation in which tribunals and inquiries are justified. In this case, there is nothing to be discovered that is not already public. That is principally because our scientific knowledge of this disease is so limited that we have no tools with which to discover further facts. In those circumstances, a public inquiry could do nothing but delay the scientific inquiry which is already taking place.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does the Minister recall that nearly 30 years ago when there were outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and rabies, I set up an inquiry? Since then, there has been no foot and mouth and no rabies. Is there not a case here for setting up a public inquiry?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I did not know. I am afraid that I must confess to the noble Lord that I was not paying attention at the time and it slipped my notice. In those cases, we understand the mechanism of the diseases. We know what causes them and we know how they spread. There is in both cases an infectious agent that we can isolate and study. In BSE, we just do not know. We have our suspicions, but we do not know what causes it. We do not know how it spreads. We cannot replicate it in the laboratory. We have no tools with which to study it. An inquiry would achieve nothing but delay the scientific investigation.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, bearing in mind that there is a known connection between giving growth hormones to children and their later development of CJD, has any inquiry been made into the possibility of growth hormones being given to cattle causing them to develop BSE for onward spread to humans in the form of CJD?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the two situations are different. In the case of humans, the growth hormones were derived from dead bodies. Those dead bodies turned out to be carrying CJD. In the case of cattle, the growth hormones are derived from bacteria, and the opportunity to infect them with BSE does not arise.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not time that we got away from the idea that BSE is an infection? After 10 years of research no infective agent has been found. Would it not be better to use the term "causative agent"? Does the Minister agree that there are many neuro-degenerative diseases, both in animals and in humans, for which no cause has been found and which are much more prevalent than BSE or CJD?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, no, I believe that it is right to term at least the current epidemic of BSE as an infection. We can infect cattle by feeding them the brains of infected cattle. That, to my mind, is as good a definition of infection as one can get. The origin of the disease may be due to a causative agent, but the present epidemic is one of infection.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, in answer to my Written Question, the Minister's noble friend the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, said: there is still no scientific evidence to link positively any case of Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease to exposure to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy". The Minister has emphasised that point, but is he aware that in my Question I pointed out that the neuro-surgeon, Alan Colchester, in giving evidence to the Canterbury City Council on 25th May referred to: 'The transmissions of prions, the infectious agents causing scrapie in sheep, BSE in cattle and CJD in man, to farm animals, wild animals, domestic pets and man".—[Official Report, 26/6/96; col. WA61.] On the basis of that evidence, which satisfied him and many other people, he successfully opposed the grant of planning permission to renderers to occupy a nearby field. Is that evidence not to be taken into consideration? Does it not add to the idea that a public inquiry might reveal more than we know at present?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, no. I do not know the gentleman concerned, and I am not familiar with that case. Clearly the idea that prions are the infectious agent in this case is a hypothesis. It is a long way from being proved, and there are many reasons to doubt it, such as the existence of different strains of the disease which are not explained by the basic prion hypothesis. There is a great deal that we do not understand about this, including whether it is possible to transfer BSE to humans. That is something which is entirely unproven as yet. We may have some indication during the next year or two as a result of the experiments we are undertaking, but there is no evidence either way at the moment, merely supposition.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that many thousands of cattle born after the imposition in 1988 of the BSE prohibition order on infected feedstuffs have become infected? Can he offer any clear explanation of why that should be so? It gives rise to concern that infected feedstuffs have continued to be used. I should have thought that that was a matter which would merit greater clarification than it has received. I should be grateful if my noble friend could offer it.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, within the imperfections that all these answers have, our best indications are that the continuing contamination arose from feed that continued to be stored on farms and, due to the design of their hoppers, was only released at a later date, and cross-contamination in the feed mills which were producing feed for both bovine animals, as they are called, and other species.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, why do the Government refuse to investigate why so much contaminated feed reached cattle after the feed ban was imposed in 1988? Two thirds of the new cases of BSE occur in such cattle. Is there not a strong case here, as the noble Lord who preceded me has asked, for a public inquiry—not an extended inquiry? There is an obligation to consumers to probe the facts with a view at least to setting fears at rest, if no more than that.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, it is difficult to see how such things could be proved. It is a long time ago. This disease has such a long gestation period that we did not know until six years after the event that there was a problem. Looking back six years, and at such records as were kept, it is extremely difficult to establish—we have been trying to establish for our own scientific purposes—what happened. It is merely supposition. I do not believe that there is any evidence lying out there to which a scientific inquiry could address itself.

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