HC Deb 30 April 1998 vol 311 cc250-1W
Mr. Campbell-Savours

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (1) what is the remit of the BSE unit; [39996]

(2) how many persons work in the BSE unit; [39997]

(3) what is the role of his Department's BSE unit in relation to the independent inquiry into BSE; [39998]

(4) what is the total proposed budget for the BSE unit for each year of its operation; [39999]

(5) how many staff are allocated to his Department's BSE unit by grade; [40000]

(6) if he will give the name and grade of the civil servant who is in charge of his Department's BSE unit; [40001]

(7) if he will make a statement on the arrangements for ensuring the accountability of officials in his Department's BSE unit to Ministers; [40002]

(8) if his Department's BSE defence unit and BSE unit are the same organisations. [40003]

Mr. Rooker

The MAFF BSE Inquiry Liaison Unit was set up to assist the BSE Inquiry in establishing the relevant facts into which it is inquiring; to deal scrupulously and promptly with the Inquiry's requests for information; and to provide appropriate documentary and legal support for individual MAFF witnesses, including former Ministers, in their dealings with the Inquiry.

In accordance with the conventions on access to papers of previous Administrations, Ministers are playing no part in the presentation of evidence to the Inquiry by their departments. The Liaison Unit's support to the Inquiry and to witnesses is therefore being provided under the authority of the Permanent Secretary, in accordance with guidance from the Cabinet Secretary. Staff working in the Liaison Unit otherwise remain accountable to Ministers in the normal way, including for support on the Government's policy towards the Inquiry.

The Department does not have a separate "BSE defence unit". It is primarily for individual witnesses, including former Ministers and the then responsible senior officials, to explain in their evidence to the Inquiry their and the Ministry's part in the emergence and control of BSE. In line with precedent, the Liaison Unit is providing witnesses with documentary, logistical and, where necessary, legal support in the task.

The Unit's estimated budget for the current year is some £1.5 million, excluding the costs of legal advice to MAFF witnesses. The Unit reports to Mr. Neil Thornton, a member of the senior civil service, and then to the Permanent Secretary.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the Department has already provided over half a million pages of photocopies to meet the Inquiry's needs.

The Unit comprises the following posts by grade:
Grade Number
Grade6 1
Grade 7 3
HEO (D) 1
E0 5
AO 3
AA 4
PS 2
Paperkeeper 1
Total Staff 26

In accordance with the Inquiry Chairman's wishes, the Department has also appointed Counsel to help with the presentation of evidence.