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Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I begin by expressing my appreciation of the quality of the statement that my right hon. Friend has made. This is a complex subject that needs to be considered with proper reflection, and I admire the way in which the Government have deliberately responded first to the issue of urgency while setting aside time in the future for the public and ordinary Members of Parliament to comment on other matters in the report. It would have been easy to rush to judgment and make partisan points, and I admire the fact that my right hon. Friend has refrained from doing that.
My right hon. Friend may want to consider two matters. The first is the adequacy of the research base supporting agriculture. Some of my right hon. Friend's remarks about the genesis of the problem may relate to the appropriateness of the research resource and its targeting in the past, and this is an opportunity to reflect on whether we now have the balance right. The second matter concerns whether we have a culture in our public service that occasionally dwells more on process and less on outcome. I suspect that one of the difficulties that the report may reveal is that decisions are made but not enough attention is given to the delivery of the outcome that is sought in those decisions.
Mr. Brown: Both of those points are well made. Lord Phillips has something to say about the implementation of Government decisions, and it is clear that a part of the tragedy was a failure, not to put a proper regime of public protection in place, but to ensure that it was implemented--the outcome on which my hon. Friend focuses. Lord Phillips sets out a range of reasons for that. I do not want to respond now, but I urge right hon. and hon. Members to consider that part of the report.
On the research base, my hon. Friend will be aware that the budget is held across Departments. There has been a substantial shift in research expenditure towards transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, and that is right, but clearly we will want to review research and priorities in this area in the light of what Lord Phillips has to say.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The Minister has, understandably, sent copies of the report to the European Commission and our Community partners. Does he envisage taking any steps to ensure that a balanced and proper debate on the findings takes place among our partners and the Commission?
Mr. Brown: The report has been sent to our partners in the European Union in order to be completely open and candid with the Commission and the individual member states. In my time as a Minister, I have found that to be the best approach to adopt. I hope that the report will
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): I have a 21-year-old constituent, Donna McIntyre, who is a suspected victim of new variant CJD. Obviously, no words that I can use can adequately express that tragedy, but may I say on behalf of Donna and those who care for her that I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement? Am I correct in understanding from it that suspected sufferers from the disease will be provided with the fullest possible care and that they and their families are guaranteed compensation?
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right to raise the case of his constituent. I express the sorrow of the whole House for his constituent and her friends and relatives. My hon. Friend is right in his understanding that there are two components to what we are announcing today: the enhanced care package, the exact nature of which is already the subject of discussions with those representing the interests of the patients and their carers; and the compensation element, discussions about which will proceed with those representatives next week. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is determined to act expeditiously.
Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): With all the awful difficulty and tragedy associated with this matter, is it not still the case that, even after 15 years, we remain unsure about the origins of BSE? Are we to understand from the Minister's statement that the research effort is to be enhanced? If so, will he ensure that it takes into account the widest possible range of view and study, as it is urgent that we identify the cause of the disease?
Mr. Brown: That is a very important point. There is no absolute certainty about the true origin of BSE, although we know more about it than we did in the mid-1980s, let alone the 1970s. The findings in Lord Phillips's report make very interesting reading. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I have asked for a comprehensive review of everything that is known at present. That review will also include emerging science, so that we will have an understanding of the current state of knowledge and of what remains to be discovered, as we still do not know the whole story.
Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the main lessons to be learned from this chapter is the importance of the precautionary principle? There was always a danger that BSE was transmissible to humans, but, for more than a decade, we lived with the myth that somehow we would be immune to it. That myth persisted even after it was shown that the disease could be transmitted to laboratory animals and cats.
In opposition, when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and I, among others, raised such questions, we were accused of scaremongering. It has turned out that there will be dozens, or even hundreds, of human casualties. Will my right hon. Friend reassure
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right in what he says about the precautionary principle. He is also correct in saying that Lord Phillips's report has a substantial amount to tell us about the emerging view in the scientific community that BSE can jump the species barrier. Steps on the journey towards that understanding include the findings of the Southwood report, and laboratory experimentation with a pig. That experimentation showed that a pig could acquire the condition when the disease was injected into its brain. There was also the discovery that a feline spongiform encephalopathy existed, which showed that the species barrier had been jumped and that the condition--or something very like it--was prevalent in cats.
The scientific view started to change, and Phillips has something to say about how quickly that changing scientific view was transmitted and acted on within government. However, I do not want to respond on that matter now: hon. Members really should read the report in its entirety.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): Whatever the motives of those who withheld from the public information about the risks associated with BSE, does the Minister accept that the consequences of that action were absolutely devastating to all the interests that they may have thought they were protecting? My constituency was completely devastated by the introduction of the scheme to cull cows and the collapse of the beef market.
First, given the long incubation period of new variant CJD, what measures will be taken to step up research to find ways to prevent, treat and cure the disease? Successful research in that direction would mean that we would be able to deal with a significant rise in the numbers of people affected by it.
Secondly, will the Minister accept the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), that the history of the disease justifies a much more open freedom of information regime?
Thirdly, the Government have put in place measures to protect people in this country from BSE, but there has been a rise in the incidence of CJD in France. How will the Minister ensure that there is no danger of the disease reaching us by way of imported products?
Mr. Brown: The setting up of the Food Standards Agency is a key public protection measure. Responsibility for food safety is not now a matter for me, as a Minister, or for my Ministry. That is the whole point of setting up an independent agency. The hon. Gentleman should look to Sir John Krebs for statements about the safety of food products from France or elsewhere.
As for candour, I endeavour to put scientific advice to Ministers--and, indeed, other advice--in the public domain. On a number of occasions, I have also placed such advice in the Library, so that, on controversial topics, all Members of the House can see what advice has been given.
Lord Phillips clearly identifies a failure to communicate. The Government have done a great deal to address that concern, from the election onwards. We want to trust the public; we want to be candid. The advisory committees, whose lay representation includes consumers, put their advice into the public domain. In addition, of course, the Food Standards Agency meets in public and puts its advice to Ministers into the public domain at the same time. Those are some of the measures that the Government have already taken to address some of the points that have arisen in the process of the Phillips inquiry.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned motives. I know that I have said this before, but I urge him to read the report in its entirety before rushing to judgment. I accept that he has not seen it, but he really should read it. It deserves a period of mature consideration before we make subjective value judgments.