HL Deb 23 November 2000 vol 619 cc937-40

Lord Hunt of Chesterton asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of the report of Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers on the emergence of BSE and CJD, whether they will explain the principles on which they will introduce changes in the management of important scientific issues in government departments and agencies.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, the Government are studying the report's findings and looking closely at the lessons that flow from them. Our substantive response will be announced in the coming months. In July, the Government published the White Paper Science and Innovation and, with it, stronger guidelines from the Chief Scientific Adviser on scientific advice and policy making and proposals for a new code for scientific advisory committees. These set out the principles which underlie the Government's approach to the issues raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips. We are committed to a strong and transparent framework for assessing and controlling risks; early and effective response to difficult issues, involving the best experts; high standards of openness for scientific advisory committees; and support for public dialogue and debate on the issues which science raises for society.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. What arrangements will be made for the training of civil servants? Does my noble friend agree that it is as important for scientists to understand the public as it is for the public to understand about science?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it is important that scientists understand the public and can communicate their work to them. That is just as important as the public having a greater understanding of science. We have taken a number of steps to tackle the issue. We are building on the communication training work undertaken by the research councils. The BVSRC already has specialist media training courses and has developed a one-day workshop on science communication which is being taken round universities. In consultation on the code of practice for scientific advisory committees issued in July, we have proposed that each committee should have a policy for communicating its work to the public. The secretariats of those advisory committees will also have an obligation to provide specialist training in communication skills to the chairs of those committees. In partnership with the Wellcome Trust, we have carried out two surveys: one on the public's attitude to science and another on scientists' attitude to communication and working with the public. I believe that those provide a good background to the kind of training that we should be doing.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is unsatisfactory that the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, who is in his department, should have no power to co-ordinate or supervise the work in other departments? Would it not be better if he was, as his title implies, chief of the scientific civil service?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, this is a difficult question. In general, the responsibility of the Chief Scientific Adviser is to advise the Prime Minister, and he can do that on any area of science across government. The question is: how much scope should he have to take an overview of particular scientific and expert committees and say whether they are composed of the right kind of people? However, if one looks at the whole span of science across government, it is equally important that such activity is related to individual departments' strategies and the work that they do. Therefore, the first responsibility is to the department rather than trying to create a ministry of science which covers science across government.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, at the end of the day will the Government take scientific advice, as SEAC's advice was taken in the case of BSE, or is there an alternative approach?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we have issued two clear sets of guidelines, the second one in July, which cover the whole process whereby government takes scientific advice. This covers exactly the processes that we shall follow: the early identification of the need for advice; obtaining that advice from as wide a range of people as possible; how departments handle that advice; and how the Government communicate that advice to the public. Complete transparency of that advice is of critical importance so that the public know what advice the Government are receiving and that advice can be peer reviewed by other scientists.

Baroness Young

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that in the context of training sessions for civil servants to speak to scientists and the public one of the most difficult problems is understanding that very rarely, if ever, will scientists make an absolute commitment to something for the future? Does the Minister agree that it is that kind of assurance which the public often look for and which scientists are seldom, if ever, able to give?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I totally agree that one of the most complicated parts of this process is the communication of risk. One of the areas on which we are focusing specific attention is how scientists and civil servants handle that particular aspect.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, following the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, does the Minister agree that throughout the Phillips report there are phrases which indicate that as yet there is no conclusive scientific proof of any link between scrapie, BSE and CJD, so far as concerns infectivity, or that the feed given to cattle was the infective agent? Does the noble Lord agree that we need to make that clear to the public and do a lot more science before we go any further?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, one of the least understood factors in this area is that it was the absence of good scientific knowledge which made this a most difficult problem. Further work is continually taking place in this area. In addition, the Government have asked for a scientific review of the proposition put forward in the Phillips report about the cause of the outbreak.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether officials will be trained and encouraged to be proactive in the use of new freedom of information legislation and to be open with the public about scientific matters?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it is fundamental to both Guidelines 2000, which sets out the policy on the use of scientific advice in policy making, and the code of practice for scientific advisory committees, which was also published in July, that there should be complete transparency about information that is given. I believe that that is fundamental both to the public knowing what advice has been given and other scientists being able to peer review scientific advice.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, will the Minister take into account that sometimes when scientists pose scientific questions and warnings they are, quite reasonably from their point of view, interested in research grants for their own departments? Does the noble Lord agree that sometimes these matters can become slightly out of kilter and imbalance may arise?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Earl. Most scientists are asked to give advice in these areas. They try to get the scientific information as accurate as possible. We should pay tribute to the enormous amount of work that is done by the scientific advisory committees. They get little thanks from anyone for their work.

Lord Winston

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what Her Majesty's Government are doing to try to evaluate and use the advice given by scientists?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, Sir Robert May's guidelines are explicit about the actions that need to be taken in this area. There are four key areas. First, there is early identification of the problems. We are trying to improve that. Secondly, there is getting advice from as wide a range of people as possible and making certain that there is full representation of all different scientific viewpoints on a subject. Thirdly, there is the handling of the advice by departments. Finally, there are the implementation and review stages. We are working on all these stages to try to improve the process.