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Miss McIntosh: Does the Solicitor-General share my concern at the increasing delays in the bringing of serious fraud cases to prosecution? Can he assure the House that the Human Rights Act 1998, once implemented, will not add to the delay? That is particularly important when someone is accused of a serious fraud and is subsequently cleared.
The Solicitor-General: We are conscious of the problems of delay. That is why reducing delays and bringing persistent young offenders to justice appeared on our pledge card as a prominent pledge. Serious fraud cases are frequently complicated and their scope is often international, so inquiries must be undertaken in other countries. One of the difficulties that we have faced in prosecuting international fraud is that sometimes other countries are not as co-operative as we would want.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): In view of what my hon. and learned Friend says about the complexity of many serious fraud cases, and the fact that with new technology the situation can become even more complex, what steps does he believe the Serious Fraud Office can take to increase the speed with which cases are dealt with and the effectiveness of prosecutions?
The Solicitor-General: I have no difficulty with the speed with which prosecutions are brought. The Serious Fraud Office is successful. In the current financial year, for example, the SFO has achieved 12 convictions, as against four acquittals--a 75 per cent. conviction rate. Of course, conviction rates are not an absolute test of the success of any prosecuting agency.
Only last week, for example, the SFO secured convictions against two directors of the Ostrich Farming Corporation Ltd. They had been selling ostriches as an investment opportunity and had attracted some 2,800 customers. They had an annual turnover of £21 million, but the birds sold did not exist. It was all very much like the Opposition: heads in the sand and selling duff policies.
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): With permission, I should like to answer the question orally. An animal born on 25 August 1996 was confirmed as a BSE case on 27 June this year. The date is significant because it is after 1 August 1996, when extra control measures on animal feed containing
Mr. Quinn: On behalf of all hon. Members, I thank you, Madam Speaker, for allowing my question to be answered orally. It is important for many people in agriculture to be fully informed of all the issues. Given that the animal was born after the ban was in place, what reasons can my right hon. Friend offer for the animal becoming infected? What assessment has he made of the health implications of the news for many consumers in my constituency and throughout the country? What impact will the news have on lifting the international ban on British beef? Does my right hon. Friend propose to hold any discussions on the information with his European colleagues, especially those in France?
Mr. Brown: There are several important points to make. First, I make it absolutely clear that there is no risk to food safety as a result of the case. The Food Standards Agency is issuing a statement to that effect today. The cow--aged 44 months at time of slaughter--would not have entered the human food chain, because of the rules that prevent animals aged over 30 months from getting into the food chain. The animal has one offspring, which has already been traced, and will not enter the food chain.
Secondly, the animal would have been ineligible for our date-based export scheme, not only because of its age, but because its mother was slaughtered as a casualty in November 1996, less than three months after the animal was born. As many hon. Members know, under the date-based export scheme, the dam must survive for at least six months after the birth of the calf and show no signs of BSE.
There is an automatic cull of offspring of animals that are confirmed cases of BSE. That would not, however, prevent cases of maternally transmitted BSE if the dam was slaughtered for reasons other than BSE when the disease was in its pre-clinical phase. That could be the explanation in the case that we are considering.
Investigations into the source of infection are continuing. In accordance with standing procedures, cohort animals born six months either side of the animal will be traced, placed under movement restrictions and barred from the food chain. The state veterinary service will thoroughly investigate the background to the case in order to establish whether anything about the BSE epidemic can be learned from it.
Mr. Brown: The case that we are discussing today has nothing to do with imported meat products. The hon. Gentleman asked me about siblings. Yes, they are being traced. He asked me about the possibility of contaminated feed being a route of transmission--an alternative theory to maternal transmission. Yes, I can confirm that the veterinary authorities are looking closely at that potential route. As the hon. Gentleman implied in his question, the animal concerned had been under surveillance for some time, but there was never any possibility of its entering the food chain. As for the procedure, I thought carefully about what would be proportionate. I carefully considered a statement, which frankly this single incident does not warrant. I considered providing a written answer, and had it not been for the fortuitous fact that Agriculture questions were today, I would have followed that route and probably will follow it for other such incidents--and it is forecast that they will occur.
Mr. Brown: We have unique, very powerful public protection measures in place. The German authorities visited recently when they were considering their own position on the date-based export scheme. They were very impressed by our public protection measures and reported favourably on them to the German federal Government and to the regional governments too. I regret the fact that the French Government are still persisting with their ban. There is no good reason why they should do so and today's incident gives no additional reason why they should do so.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I too welcome the openness with which the Government have approached this matter, in stark contrast to the previous Administration, who tried to hide the problem of BSE. It is important that we continue with this approach and that if any other cases come to light in the near future they should be reported. Will this news have any effect whatever on plans in respect of the continuance of the OTM scheme?
Mr. Brown: I know of no reason why it should do so. If anything, the discovery of this animal and the way it has been dealt with ought to provide additional reassurance to those who are interested in the scheme.
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Does my right hon. Friend believe that this case makes it all the more important to develop tests to detect the agent of BSE before the disease is apparent to clinical observation, so that we can detect whether an animal has the disease before it becomes ill?
Mr. Brown: I strongly agree with that. No country has more to gain from the development of a live test for BSE, particularly one that is effective before the clinical conditions become obvious. However, there is no such test at the moment, although there are some promising developments.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Is not the most important element the fact that the system of public surveillance and protection has worked, in that the mother, the animal, the offspring and the siblings can be and have all been traced and slaughtered? Is there any evidence that the animal was kept in proximity to other animals which might have had access to contaminated feed and hence offered a possible source of the problem?
Mr. Brown: I strongly agree with the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question. Traceability is one of the foundations of our powerful public protection measures. On his second question, I am not sure how far it is proper for me to discuss the individual details of the case, but the right hon. Gentleman has not said anything that I would dissent from in general or in principle.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): The right hon. Gentleman will, of course, accept that the news is a disappointment. Will he confirm that only one case has been discovered of an infected animal born after 1 August 1996? He will know that no farm should have had any contaminated foodstuffs after that date. Has he been able to eliminate that as a possible cause? Assuming that he has, it must be a case of maternal or vertical transmission. Can he confirm that?
Mr. Brown: I cannot tell the House the cause of the case with absolute certainty. Some evidence points to maternal transmission, but that does not rule out contaminated animal feed as a potential route. We are investigating every aspect thoroughly. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that it is disappointing--I agree--but to put it in context, those who advised SEAC anticipated 19 such cases before the end of this year. This is the first and only case so far, which speaks well for the public protection measures that we have in place and for the thoroughness with which the work was done in August 1996.
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the speed with which he has come to the House, which will prevent the rumour-mongering that would no doubt have occurred if he had not. Does the incident make any difference to the timetable by which eradication will be complete?
Mr. Brown: No, it makes no difference to the timetable. The incident was foreseeable, and the fact that it is the only one suggests that the public protection measures are working even more effectively than those who provided the forecasts to SEAC envisaged.
Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): The Minister has been frank in saying that he is not certain about the cause of the incident. Against that background, will he confirm that the Ministry will continue to give support, where appropriate, to further research work, not least the alternative hypothesis advanced by my constituent, Mark Purdey, and Dr. Brown of Cambridge university, about which I have already had a meeting with the Minister of State?
Mr. Brown: The Ministry has provided some funding for research based on alternatives to the prion theory, and I do not rule out the possibility of doing so in the future. However, the mainstream view from the scientific community--I am not a scientist, but a generalist who relies on being professionally advised--appears to be well founded. The combination of the public protection measures based on that scientific approach seems to be working effectively, and we will wish to draw the lessons from that.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): My right hon. Friend mentioned work that was being done on the issue of the pre-clinical live test. Could he give further details? In the event that a live test could be established, would it apply throughout the whole of the European Union, and have other nation states accepted it in principle?
Mr. Brown: I and my fellow Ministers at the Council of Ministers are all keen on the development of a live test and we can all see the huge advantages for the industry and for public protection of having such a test. Several different countries have projects, and some may offer a way forward, but we are not there yet.
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Has the Minister considered the possibility of introducing post-mortems for all cattle slaughtered over 30 months, which do not enter the food chain? When the post-mortem shows no trace of BSE, those animals could be allowed into the food chain. We would also have the assurance that we were picking up every case of BSE, even though it had not been diagnosed prior to slaughter.
Mr. Brown: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have an extensive testing programme on animals not destined for the human food chain. The purpose of that is to try to gauge the extent to which BSE is present in those animals. We have no cheap and easily administered test. At the moment, we have three tests--all of which were used in the present case--but they take time and carry a cost. Thus it is not realistic to test every animal. Once we have a live test--when that day comes--no country will have more to gain than ours, given our current position.