HL Deb 26 October 2000 vol 618 cc488-501

3.38 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, with the permission of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows: "With permission, I wish to make a Statement on the report of the BSE inquiry chaired by Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers. Today, the Government are publishing the report, and I want to announce our initial response and to outline a package of measures for the benefit of people suffering from variant CJD and their families, as well as the families of people who have already died of the disease. This is not, however, the occasion to announce the Government's substantive response to the inquiry's report. That will come later.

"I should like to express the Government's thanks to Lord Phillips, Mrs June Bridgeman and Professor Malcolm Ferguson Smith for their very thorough inquiry which has occupied them for the best part of the past three years.

"As the Government recognised when setting up the inquiry, BSE is a national tragedy. To date, 85 definite or probable cases of variant CJD have been reported in the UK. Of those 85, 80 people have died. There is an unknown number of cases yet to come. It is not possible to give precise forecasts because of the many uncertainties about the disease. I know that the whole House will join me in expressing deepest sympathy to those who have fallen victim to variant CJD, and to their families.

"BSE has also had a serious impact on many tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on the rearing of livestock and the processing and manufacturing of meat products.

"The inquiry was set up by my right honourable friends the Member for Copeland, the Member for Holborn and St Pancras and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Its remit was to establish and review the history of the emergence and identification of BSE and new variant CJD and to reach conclusions on the adequacy of the response, taking into account the state of knowledge at the time.

"The inquiry report comprises 16 volumes and some 4,000 pages. Volume 1 sets out the key findings and conclusions. Quoting directly from the report's executive summary, the key conclusions are as follows: 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, proved a recipe for disaster. In the years up to March 1996 most of those responsible for responding to the challenge posed by BSE emerged with credit. However, there were a number of shortcomings in the way things were done. At the heart of the BSE story lie 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 measures, but they were not always timely, nor adequately implemented and enforced. The rigour with which policy measures were implemented for the protection of human health was affected by the belief of many prior to early 1996 that BSE was not a potential threat to human life. The Government were anxious to act in the best interests of human and animal health. To this end it sought and followed the advice of independent scientific experts—sometimes when decisions could have been reached more swiftly and satisfactorily within government. In dealing with BSE, it was not MAFF's policy to lean in favour of agricultural producers to the detriment of the consumer. At times officials showed a lack of rigour in considering how policy should be turned into practice, to the detriment of the efficacy of the measures taken. At times bureaucratic processes resulted in unacceptable delay in giving effect to policy. The Government introduced measures to guard against the risk that BSE might be a matter of life and death not merely for cattle but also for humans, but the possibility of a risk to humans was not communicated to the public or to those whose job it was to implement and enforce the precautionary measures. The Government did not lie to the public about BSE. They believed that the risks posed by BSE to humans were remote. The Government were preoccupied with preventing an alarmist overreaction to BSE because they believed that the risk was remote. It is now clear that this campaign of reassurance was a mistake. When on 20th March 1996 the Government announced that BSE had probably been transmitted to humans, the public felt that they had been betrayed. Confidence in government pronouncements about risk was a further casualty of BSE. Cases of a new variant of CJD were identified by the CJD Surveillance Unit and the conclusion that they were probably linked to BSE, was reached as early as was reasonably possible. The link between BSE and variant CJD is now clearly established, although the manner of infection is not clear'. Those are direct quotes from the Phillips report executive summary.

"The Government welcome the report. We will be studying its findings with care and looking closely at the lessons that flow from them. It is right that this House—and the wider public—should have the opportunity to do so too. They are important findings and they address some fundamental questions about the adequacy of the response to BSE.

"The report contains many lessons for public administration. Areas where we will be focusing our response include the implementation of policy decisions; the process of contingency planning; co-ordination across government departments and other agencies; the assessment, management and communication of risk; the role of scientific advisory committees; and government's assessment and use of scienitfic advice.

"Even now, there are some questions about BSE which are unresolved. We do not know with certainty how the disease entered the cattle herd; nor why it has been so predominantly a disease affecting this country. Lord Phillips's conclusion is that the origin of BSE is likely to have been a new prion mutation in cattle, or possibly sheep, in the early 1970s. In the light of this conclusion, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and I will be commissioning an independent assessment of current scientific understanding, including emerging findings, on the origins of the BSE epidemic. This study will then be considered by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and published.

"While it was beyond the remit of the inquiry to examine current public protection measures, the House will want to know that the chairman of the Food Standards Agency advises that the inquiry report gives rise to no immediate need for new food safety measures. He intends to discuss this aspect of the report at the next public meeting of the agency's ongoing BSE controls review.

"Both the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and the Food Standards Agency board propose to review relevant elements of the report. We will take account of any conclusions or advice they wish to offer in the Government's response to the report. The same applies to the Select Committees of this House.

"The Government will announce their substantive response to the report in the coining months. Following this announcement the House will have an early opportunity to debate in government time both the report and the Government's response.

"However, there is one element in the inquiry's report which the Government are singling out for attention now. That is the care of patients suffering from variant CJD and support for the families caring for them.

"The needs of variant CJD victims were frequently insufficiently addressed, especially in the early days of the disease. The rapidly degenerative nature of variant CJD requires timely and accurate diagnosis and a swift response from the local health and social services. Patient care has been variable in the past and not always responsive enough to the rapidly changing needs of patients.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health issued new guidelines in August to improve the care of variant CJD victims. The Government now intend to go further.

"I can tell the House that given the special circumstances of these patients, my right honourable friend will now establish a new national fund for the care of victims of variant CJD. The fund will ensure a speedy response to diagnosis and improvements in the quality of care for patients. This package will be co-ordinated through the national CJD surveillance unit in Edinburgh.

"The new national care fund will be used to purchase care and equipment appropriate to the individual needs of variant CJD patients. The fund will be held by the CJDSU care co-ordinator, supported by a new national network of experts available to support local clinicians and local social services caring for patients wherever they live.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health met families of variant CJD victims and representatives of the Human BSE Foundation yesterday to discuss this new package of care. Over the next few weeks his department will be working with the families affected to refine the package to ensure it is effective and properly meets the needs of patients.

"This dreadful disease has a devastating effect on victims and their families. The families have campaigned for improved diagnosis and care for those who may yet be affected by this national tragedy. I am sure the House will want to acknowledge the dignified and constructive way in which they have done so.

"In addition to the enhanced care package, we are determined to provide appropriate support for those who are suffering from variant CJD, for those who care for them and for the families of those who have already died.

"The Government therefore intend to put in place financial arrangements to benefit sufferers from variant CJD and their families, taking account of their particular needs in individual cases.

"The Government's preferred option would be to establish a compensation scheme, resulting in a special trust fund, which could amount to millions of pounds. There are a number of other possible options. We intend to work closely with the families affected to identify the best way forward. The first discussions with the families and their representatives will take place next week.

"The Government want to express their appreciation for the co-operation of all witnesses who have been called before the inquiry. Although the inquiry team stated that, 'any who have come to our Report hoping to find villains or scapegoats, should go away disappointed', the report does make a number of specific criticisms of a number of individuals.

"I shall not comment on individual cases. The report contains an annex listing those who are criticised. Some of the individuals criticised also receive praise from the inquiry. There is no corresponding list of individuals who are praised. Elsewhere, the report identifies shortcomings which do not amount to criticisms, and therefore do not feature in the annex. For both those reasons, it is important that the report is considered in its entirety.

"Whenever serving public servants are subjected to criticism by a public inquiry, the question arises whether any form of disciplinary action should be taken. The report states that, 'if those criticised were misguided, they were nonetheless acting in accordance with what they conceived to be the proper performance of their duties'. However, mindful of the importance of the issues covered by the inquiry, an independent person, Sheila Forbes, a Civil Service commissioner, will lead a review and advise accordingly. The Government want this review to be carried out quickly across the departments involved.

"The devolved administrations also received the report and will respond for their interests.

"Members will also wish to know that I am today sending copies of the report to the European Commission, the European Parliament and to the governments of each EU member state. In addition, I have arranged for the report to be placed on the Internet, accessible via the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's website.

"On taking office in 1997 the Government put consumers at the heart of decision-making on food safety issues. We have established the independent Food Standards Agency. We have opened up our scientific advisory committees, including the appointment of consumer representatives. We have put scientific advice to government in the public domain, encouraging a culture of openness, trusting the public and stimulating informed public debate. The 'deregulation culture' that called for a 'bonfire of regulations' has been replaced by a proportionate approach that strives for better regulation with the protection of the public at its heart. We have put in place working arrangements to encourage the sharing of ideas and information between government departments and agencies.

"The inquiry has made a very thorough assessment of the history of BSE and of the response of the government of the day. It has added greatly to our understanding of this detailed and complex area. Work is already under way across the whole of government to follow up on the inquiry's findings. Most importantly today, we are setting in hand improved packages of care and arrangements for financial support for victims of variant CJD and their families. I commend the inquiry's report to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.50 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier by her right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown. We welcome the BSE report and concur with the expressions of gratitude for the work of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, and his team. On behalf of these Benches, I want to emphasise how deeply I regret the suffering and loss of life of the CJD victims. We are very sorry for the suffering and bereavement experienced by those families. For all their sakes, we must work hard to prevent another such tragedy occurring in the future.

I warmly welcome the Government's acceptance of the need for compensation for the families. We look forward to hearing in due course the details of the Government's proposals. The Minister has said today that the Government will be establishing a new national fund for the care of victims of variant CJD. The hand will ensure a speedy response to diagnosis and improvements in the quality of care for patients. That is truly to be welcomed. We are glad to hear that discussions have already taken place with families. What we need to see is a swift response to their dilemma.

The Phillips report has been almost three years in preparation. It runs to 16 volumes and some 4,000 pages. I am grateful to the Minister and to the Government for allowing us the opportunity to see a copy of the report earlier today. Obviously, we have had time only to study it briefly. The Government are entirely right in not rushing to make a substantive response to the report. I am sure the House understands that at this stage I cannot try to comment on the many details and recommendations in the report. We will wait until we have all had the opportunity to read the report and the Government's response to the report before a full debate is arranged.

The Minister and the inquiry have already recognised that we are considering this whole issue with the enormous benefit of hindsight. The Minister referred to that. Before rushing into judgment on the actions of civil servants, many of whom are not in a position to answer for themselves in public, other advisers and Ministers, we must bear in mind the state of knowledge about BSE at the time the decisions now being scrutinised were made. Therefore, I welcome the Minister's announcement in that regard.

In the light of the Statement, perhaps I may ask five questions. First, does the Minister agree that all decisions must be based on the best available scientific advice? Does she consider that such advice was available at the time of the events considered in the report? Secondly, does the noble Baroness agree with the report that communications within and between departments and the various advisory groups were inadequate and led to misunderstandings and delay? Thirdly, does she agree with the report that the origin of the disease is still not absolutely certain and perhaps never will be certain? Fourthly, does she agree with the report that it was not MAFF's policy to lean in favour of agricultural producers to the detriment of consumers? Lastly, while our thoughts are first and foremost with the families afflicted by this great tragedy, does the Minister accept that it has had a huge impact on our farming community and that the whole industry has also been devastated?

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.

3.55 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and welcome the package of measures for the victims and their families. I thank her for making clear that the timescale for dealing with the issues raised by the report is the foremost priority. I hope that the House will have a chance to debate at the earliest opportunity all the extremely important issues raised in the report. Members of this House will particularly wish to examine the way in which the report highlights a culture of inappropriate structures and a climate of secrecy and of not trusting the public. Those factors lay very much at the base of the lack of advice given. Although the Minister said that the government did not lie to the public—we accept that—they ran a campaign of reassurance that beef was safe o eat. Therefore, the blame rests not so much on individuals as on a climate of secrecy. We must ensure that that climate of secrecy is not allowed to continue.

Given the conclusion of the report that advice should normally be made public, can the Minister say how the public will know if advice is not made public? That is at the heart of the worry of many noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches about the Freedom of Information Bill. If advice is not made public, we simply will not know.

Does the Minister agree that scientific research and knowledge should be shared? Perhaps one of the strongest statements in the report is that an advisory committee should not water down its formulated assessment of risk out of anxiety not to cause public alarm. How will the Government deal with that issue? As dealing with hazard is such a politically hot potato, do they accept that there needs to be a structured method of risk assessment, risk management and risk communication?

The other striking issue that comes over from the report is the length of time that passed before action was taken. In 1988 there were reports of transmission to other species, particularly mice, and mechanically recovered meat feedstuffs began to be restricted. There was then an eight-year gap before very much action was taken. With that in mind, will compensation for victims and their families be examined by the Government in the light of what was said in the Southwood report on the feeding of animal protein to herbivores? The report stated: We believe that the inevitable risks are such that it would be prudent to change agricultural practice so as to eliminate these novel pathways for pathogens". Given the fact that agriculture has been brought to its knees by this crisis, do the Government intend to review compensation payments for those livestock farmers who did not understand, of were not told of, the findings of that report?

We welcome a full debate on the Phillips report. We look forward to hearing more detail about the amount of funding that will be made available for research in areas that cause the public great concern—organophosphates, GM foodstuffs, and so on. The public should be given as much government information as possible.

4 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Baronesses for expressing their welcome for the Statement and in particular their welcome for the compensation and care package to be made to the families concerned, in recognition that they have paid the highest price for this tragedy. As I said earlier, we shall examine and refine the detail of the compensation and care package with the families.

Perhaps I may respond first to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. Everyone would agree that we need to have the best scientific advice available. If difficulties arise from that—it is a point that noble Lords in this House have mentioned on other occasions—we must bear in mind that there is no such thing as "the science"; namely, a scientific decision that is unchanging and unmoving. For myself, one of the lessons to be learnt from this is that it is necessary to be willing to expose uncertainties and to air balances of evidence and the consequent judgments that are made. Certain parts of the report make it clear that the campaign of reassurance, as it was described, has been criticised. That criticism has been levelled not because the campaign was launched with any malevolent intention, but rather because it was inappropriate to withhold from others the fact that dissenting views were expressed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about making scientific advice available to the public. I believe that we have moved a great deal on that front. Many committees, such as the Veterinary Products Committee and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, publish their findings. SEAC makes public its agendas and minutes and holds press conferences. Perhaps it will reassure the noble Baroness as regards the point she made on freedom of information if I mention that the Food Standards Agency has a right enshrined in statute to make available its own advice to Ministers, regardless of whether Ministers want that advice made public. That is extremely important and provides an illustration of how this Government have attempted to put consumer interests at the heart of government policy making. For example, the review of BSE controls currently being undertaken by the Food Standards Agency is being carried out openly, with public meetings.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked whether I could agree with her on certain conclusions of the report. I hope that I have made it clear that today the Government do not believe that it is right to publish their response to the conclusions of the report or to the recommendations, which have taken the form of lessons to be learnt. Those run to something in the order of 200. To pick and choose specific examples on this occasion would not be appropriate. The noble Baroness will forgive me if I do not respond to individual questions as regards whether the Government agree with individual conclusions.

Furthermore, the noble Baroness is right to counsel the House not to rush in its judgment or to assume too much in terms of criticism. On the other hand, I was glad to hear that in another place Mr Tim Yeo accepted certain criticisms and publicly voiced his recognition that the last government had made mistakes. The report makes sobering reading for anyone in government. Any individual who holds the responsibilities of political office will need to read the report very carefully and then look to his or her own actions, culture and ability to work with colleagues. But of course—and inevitably—the report will make the most sobering reading for those who were involved in the tragic events now under consideration.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. As one who, when in office, was never informed of the existence of BSE, but left the department within a few days of Ministers being told of it, perhaps I may say that the words in the Statement declaring that it was not MAFF's policy to lean in favour of the agricultural producers to the detriment of the consumer will be received by many who have held office in that department—from both parties—with some degree of satisfaction. I believe that that was the way in which we all tried to run the department.

Furthermore, in the light of her own experience as a Minister, does the noble Baroness agree that a Minister is at maximum risk of making a total fool of himself if he rejects or overrides advice from either scientists or lawyers when he is neither a scientist nor a lawyer? Quite understandably, most Ministers are very reluctant indeed to override such advice.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, many risks attach to the office of Minister. I am not sure that that is the greatest risk that can be taken. However, the report enjoins Ministers to reflect on whether it is appropriate, not to second-guess scientific advice, but to shelter behind it and not to recognise that, ultimately, policy responsibility goes wider than simply taking scientific advice. Certain areas of the report reflect on the need to recognise the realities of implementation and the need to formulate policy that is firmly based on scientific advice. While I agree that there is enormous risk—I have said as much at this Dispatch Box—in interposing one's lay judgment against the advice of scientific experts, the noble Lord has asked me for my personal opinion and I shall respond by saying that it is not something that I would counsel.

Equally, however, the report makes it clear that we shall all need to reflect on the need to incorporate the best scientific advice into policy making, but not to use scientific advisory committees as ciphers or alternatives to political responsibility.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, perhaps I may invite my noble friend to comment on the 50 per cent compensation scheme which, as she will recall, operated for some two years before the previous government then instituted the 100 per cent compensation scheme. Will she acknowledge that that scheme had the perverse effect of encouraging farmers to get rid of vulnerable animals by moving them off the farm and thus into the food trade—with all the attendant problems which went with that? Does my noble friend agree that the 50 per cent compensation scheme was short-sighted, risky and introduced a level of vulnerability for the consumer that has proved to be unacceptable to the British people?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, having said to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that I would not attempt to give the Government's response to individual points, I must be even-handed in dealing with my noble friend. However, he is right to say that the issue of compensation is dealt with in the report in terms that include a fair degree of criticism of the delay in introducing a full compulsory slaughter compensation scheme in 1988. I counsel my noble friend to read what the report states about what was a very contentious issue at the time, and which remains so.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the Minister agree that large numbers of farmers did their duty and accepted the loss, and turned their animals in for destruction at half price?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the evidence in the Phillips report—corroborated by the numbers of animals destroyed under the slaughter and compensation scheme—is that that happened.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as a junior MAFF Minister, I had the honour to serve under two of the most honourable men I know—the right honourable John MacGregor and the right honourable John Selwyn Gummer. BSE was never part of my portfolio and I was not called to give evidence before the commission. However, I obviously was present at some of the discussions and I obviously answered questions from that Dispatch Box, as the Minister is doing now. As my noble friend said, politicians are not scientists; all they can do is to repeat the best information they can obtain from the best available sources. To my certain knowledge, that is what those Ministers did.

I greatly resent criticisms in the press and elsewhere that the two Ministers I have named could have done other than what they did when faced with a unique and totally unknown situation, the enormity of which only became obvious with the passage of time. With something as large and unknown as the BSE situation, is there not a difficulty for Ministers in deciding between scaremongering and dealing with the matter as sensibly as they can?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Baroness is always robust in her description of the public service values she experienced while she was in the ministry. She is of course right to point out that people were dealing with an extremely difficult and unclear situation. There is no accusation of dishonourable conduct.

The report states that the Government did not lie to the public about BSE. They believed that the risks posed by BSE to humans were remote. The Government were pre-occupied with preventing an over-alarmist reaction to BSE because they believed that the risk was remote. It is now clear that this campaign of reassurance was a mistake. Beyond the issue of acting honourably, we have to ask how the situation arose over all those years; we have to ask how all the failures in the response, which are catalogued in the report, happened without malevolence. The report states that there were no villains and no scapegoats. In some ways it would be easier if there were a simple, single villain. In the absence of that, a more difficult question for all of us is how such terrible and tragic mistakes could still be made.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, while there was a serious failure, there was a response—a sweeping, costly and serious response—to which some of our European partners paid remarkably little heed. Is my noble friend surprised that in recent times the incidence of BSE in some of our neighbouring countries seems remarkably small? Despite that, we had the farce in Paris a few days ago. Can my noble friend assure the House that the United Kingdom Government will pay particular attention to the way in which the rest of Europe responds to the problem? If it fails to respond properly, sweeping problems could arise elsewhere.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as I said in the Statement, copies of the report are being sent to all member states and to the Commission. It is to be hoped that they will learn from it. The issue of the safety of imported beef is being addressed by the Food Standards Agency, which is looking at the matter in its current review of BSE controls. Earlier this year in Brussels, specified risk material removal rules were agreed and harmonised across the EU to ensure the safety of all EU beef. It is important that the report is understood across the Community and further afield, not only in relation to BSE and the safety of beef but equally in relation to other areas which might be analogous. We do not know what the next problem might be. There are disciplines to be learnt in regard to risk evaluation, risk management and risk communication which go wider than this single issue.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, the whole House will welcome a full debate on the report. The disease is very slow to yield up its secrets, and there are still many to be yielded up. Does the Minister agree that, despite the inaccurate and ungenerous hyperbole about BSE and the way the situation was handled, the officials in charge of the inquiry and making decisions were, in large part, acting in good faith and within the means and manpower that they had at their disposal? They were dealing with a new disease about which, at the time, we knew so little. There are still many lacunae to be filled before we fully understand a disease which has been utterly devastating to livestock production and to the families whose relatives have suffered from CJD.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I made clear in my quotations from the report's executive summary the conclusions that Lord Phillips had drawn about the way in which the majority of those involved had dealt with the issues that confronted them. There is praise for many people for the way in which they responded; and some of those who are criticised are also praised. The telling point he makes is that those who were the most active workers in this field were equally the most likely to make mistakes.

However, we cannot simply ignore the fact that the structures, the culture, the implementation of decisions, the use of scientific advice and the communication to the public could have been, and should have been, better, as indicated at various points throughout the report.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I join with others in welcoming the setting-up of the national care fund, the new package of care for patients with CJD and the proposals to set up a compensation scheme. Can the Minister confirm that eligibility for these schemes will be based purely on a medical diagnosis?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I should not like to deny the noble Lord's premise. I was trying to make clear earlier that, together with the families, we want to look at the most appropriate structure both for the care package and for the compensation. At the moment we are thinking in terms of a trust fund tailored to the circumstances of individual families. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me, but we think it is appropriate to leave it at that at the moment and to report back on the discussions which will take place with the families as the details of the package emerge.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will excuse me for returning to the charges made for the disposal of affected cattle at the time of the BSE crisis. Many people believed that the government at that time were "ripped off" by the large slaughterers and renderers in terms of the prices they charged for disposal. Will my noble friend expand on what the Phillips report says about that?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the main concerns about charging for disposal arose in relation to the Over Thirty Months Scheme introduced in 1996 and were, therefore, outwith the terms of the Phillips inquiry and are not, I believe, referred to in the report. An NAO report on the costs of the crisis did deal with these issues and there is regular renegotiation of the terms of contracts in this area to ensure value for money.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I declare an interest as having had some cows with BSE—some of my cattle did not have BSE but were destroyed nevertheless. Perhaps I may put two questions to the Minister. It is known that new variant CJD is the human form of BSE, but does the report contain any evidence of a proven—not a possible or even a likely, but a proven—transference from BSE in cattle to CJD in humans? The noble Baroness quoted the report as stating that the manner of infection is not clear. Therefore, there would seem to be some doubt.

My second question is of a far more sensitive nature. The Minister said that 86 people had died from this terrible disease, and we all feel the deepest sympathy for their relatives. Those deaths have taken place over a period of 10 years—eight deaths per year, as compared with 3,000 per year as the result of motor accidents and 30,000 per year from lung cancer. The awful thing is that we all have to die some time; most of us do not look forward to it and we ought to take every conceivable preventive measures. But are the Government right to offer compensation to one sector of people, and with an open cheque? Would it not be better to spend the money on ensuring that people have less chance of catching the disease in future, and that those who do are properly and adequately looked after?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, in response to the noble Earl's last point, these are not either/or questions. It is absolutely appropriate in these extraordinary and terrible circumstances to offer a care and compensation package to the families involved. That is not at the expense of a wide research programme into preventive measures; nor is at the expense of proper regulation and proper safeguards in relation to food safety.

So far as concerns the link between BSE and new variant CJD, as part of its remit SEAC reviews emerging scientific data on a regular basis. It has considered the results of a number of separate experiments and has concluded that new variant CJD is an acquired prion disease caused by exposure to BSE or a BSE-like agent. The research does not provide information into other aspects of the disease, such as the route of exposure. The noble Earl is right: the route of transmission is not known for certain. It possibly never will be. However, it is believed that the most likely route is through food. As I said in repeating the Statement, the Government have decided to commission a study of the current state of understanding which will be considered by SEAC and published.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, am I right in thinking that, until comparatively recently, there was no means of diagnosing new variant CJD until a patient had died? Now, there clearly is a means of earlier diagnosis, as is confirmed by the paragraphs in the report on compensation. Did that slow up the realisation that there was a link between the two diseases? I recall, from the first contact I had with a family whose young son developed the disease, that it was not known what the disease was until after his death. Did that slow up the process in working out a connection?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I think that the main obstacle to working out a connection was the long incubation period of human TSEs, which means that it is extremely difficult to make the connection. Even now, there are no easy diagnostic tools. There is no satisfactory blood test, either for animals or for human beings. That makes for extreme difficulty on a number of fronts. That is why one of the research priorities is still to find an effective blood test in order to discover the disease.