Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): My right hon. Friend has made a robust response to the issue, on which I congratulate him. He said in an interview on 12 February:

That is excellent. Will that apply across government? Will all the scientific advice to Ministers be public?

Mr. Brown: I shall answer to the House for what I am accountable for. The scientific advice that informs my ministerial decision making will go into the public domain. That is my commitment to the House and my response to my hon. Friend's question. There may be all sorts of caveats involved in other Ministers' day-to-day operations of which I am not aware, so I cannot give a blanket response; but where a policy decision is made in MAFF and that decision is informed by scientific appraisal, the appraisal will be put into the public domain. People will be able to read it, and I will explain and justify the decisions that I have made. Ultimately, as the Minister, I am accountable to the House.

Lord Phillips identifies the need for rigour in the development and implementation of policy. Of course, we all want to be rigorous in the development of policy, but how is that to be tested? Surely putting the information on which the decision has been based, if it is a scientific issue, in the public domain and having it tested in the

15 Feb 2001 : Column 490

House in front of Select Committees is the best way to test it. Lord Phillips identifies the importance of having the right structure of government and legislative framework in place.

Even before Lord Phillips's team reported, the new Labour Government had already made significant changes to address the points that I have mentioned. Again, I should like to take the House through the most significant of them. We have set up the Food Standards Agency as an independent agency with consumer protection as its main objective. Its board meetings are held in public. It puts its advice to Ministers in the public domain. We have opened up scientific advisory committees to much greater public scrutiny, including the appointment of committee members specifically representing consumers. A new code of practice for scientific advisory committees is being developed, covering many issues raised by the inquiry. The House will want to know that we will be consulting on that later in the spring.

The chief scientific adviser's new "Guidelines 2000" make it clear that Departments should think ahead, identifying at an early stage the issues where scientific advice is needed. Departments should get a wide range of advice from the best sources, particularly where there is scientific uncertainty. Departments should publish the scientific advice they receive and all the relevant papers.

We have begun the process of modernising Government and of civil service reform. The aim is to improve strategic policy making and to promote a genuinely joined-up approach to problem solving. Departments, including those within the devolved Administrations, have been forging closer links to improve co-operation and consultation on matters of shared interest. For example, formal arrangements, such as the National Zoonoses Group, chaired by the chief medical officer and with members from the Department of Heath, MAFF, the Food Standards Agency and the devolved Administrations, are supported by greater informal contact. The secretariat for the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee is now drawn from three departments--MAFF, the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency.

We are proposing to enhance the role of the chief veterinary officer to make it comparable with that of the Government's chief medical officer. In future, the chief veterinary officer will advise the Government as a whole on veterinary matters and may be asked to provide advice for publication.

We are making progress in relation to risk management. All Departments have prepared a risk management framework. Some frameworks--including those of MAFF and the Department of Health--have already been published. The Food Standards Agency has published for consultation draft statements on its approach to risk. The interdepartmental liaison group on risk assessment and its subgroup on risk communication now ensure better sharing of information between Government officials and a more consistent approach to risk across Departments.

We have passed the Freedom of Information Act 2000, creating a statutory right of access to all information held by public bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, unless it is covered--as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out--by certain tightly defined conditions: for example, where disclosure would be illegal or against the public interest.

15 Feb 2001 : Column 491

All that is real progress. The inquiry report itself acknowledges that

Progress has been made, but there is more to do.

Institutional shortcomings cannot be corrected overnight. The whole approach and behaviour of Departments and individuals will need to change to ensure that the lessons identified by the inquiry are properly absorbed and implemented.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): The right hon. Gentleman gives a most impressive account of the administrative action that he has taken in his Department and in respect of matters for which he is directly and currently accountable. Does he acknowledge that his tenure--although, on merit, he may well remain in his post for a long time--is limited? What is needed is an assurance that can be guaranteed only by a legal requirement of openness--one that endures and enables members of the public to know about the scientific advice that is being proffered, precisely so as to ensure that the very measures that the right hon. Gentleman has taken, which he has outlined at length, are pursued by his successors.

Mr. Brown: In responding to the Phillips report and in presenting the Government's interim response to the House, I do so for the Government. I am the Minister who co-ordinates the Government's response on the matter; I do not speak only for MAFF. When I make a commitment for MAFF, I am careful to make that clear. What I cannot do is to cover every possible caveat that might arise in the departmental responsibilities of other Ministers, so I am very careful not to do so. The commitment to be open and to publish the advice that is available to Government from the FSA--the agency, too, has a commitment to meet in public and to put its advice to Government into the public domain--is made on behalf of the Government, not just on behalf of MAFF.

Dr. Iddon: Is not one of the problems the fact that we are entering a more technical age? The scientific advice given to Government is becoming ever more technical; there are several examples of that--on genetic modification, stem-cell technology and BSE. Is it not important that, throughout the civil service--especially at the top, where senior civil servants are advising Ministers--we should introduce more scientific literacy? Are senior Ministers taking measures on that matter?

Mr. Brown: Yes. Indeed, on my arrival at MAFF, I was struck by how much science there is in the Ministry already. As my hon. Friend will know from his experience as a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, there is a programme of research--especially on TSEs--that I have just enhanced. There is certainly a recognition of the point that he makes.

Dr. Gibson: Will my right hon. Friend explain why the Ministry's budget plummeted at the very time it should have been increased so as to investigate the scientific problems to which he referred? The Select Committee

15 Feb 2001 : Column 492

found that, at the time of those problems, the MAFF budget showed the greatest percentage decrease of all departmental budgets.

Mr. Brown: We did not decrease expenditure on TSEs. My hon. Friend is right to note that there was a small downturn in the budget as a whole--a matter that I am trying hard to rectify.

To return to the main thrust of my remarks on the Phillips report, the purpose of the interim response is to hold an open, public consultation before finalising the Government's position. That is the right approach. The questions raised by the inquiry report go to the heart of some of the most difficult aspects of public administration. Although it is unusual, I believe that we are right to seek views on all the central issues raised by the inquiry report, before finalising our response.

The following are among the key questions. What else might be done to ensure that Departments maintain an effective research, management and scientific advisory system? How can Government ensure that the full range of scientific opinions can be heard by those developing policy? Do the initiatives by the Food Standards Agency on openness meet the challenges of public confidence in food safety and the specific lessons of BSE? Is there more that the agency might do?

How might Departments best implement the Government's commitment to trusting the public and continue to develop ways of being open and consulting widely while developing policy? Should the Government do more to increase access to information about publicly funded research and development programmes? What more can be done by Government on risk management in science and in food safety?

Are current and proposed arrangements sufficient to ensure that consumer protection legislation can be properly enforced and its effectiveness monitored? Are there any perceived gaps in the powers available to the Government to respond urgently and proportionately to an apparent hazard to human or animal health?

The interim response sets out the Government's thinking on those issues and on each of the 167 recommendations and lessons of the inquiry report. It is right that we should be open about the mistakes of the past, the action that has been taken to put them right, and the areas where there is still room for improvement.

One central question that remains unresolved is the origin of BSE. The Government--in an initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and me--have asked Professor Gabriel Horn to lead a group that will pull together all the scientific research on the origins of BSE. We expect Professor Horn to make his report in time for inclusion in the Government's final response.

There has been a significant loss of public confidence in the arrangements for handling food safety and standards, in large part due to the events surrounding BSE. The report of Lord Phillips identifies institutional and political failure throughout the BSE story. Our task today is to do everything we can to ensure that those failures do not happen again. Since coming to office, the Government have committed themselves to a policy of open and transparent working on issues of food safety. Our aim is to provide consumers and others with timely, accurate and science-based information and advice,

15 Feb 2001 : Column 493

enabling people to make informed decisions and choices. To establish credibility, it is necessary to generate trust. Trust can be generated only by openness. Openness requires that, where there is uncertainty, it is recognised and explained.

The BSE inquiry report is an important and thorough piece of work. It documents a national tragedy that has so far claimed the lives of 86 of our fellow citizens and has wreaked havoc on an entire industry. The report sets out what happened, what went right and what went wrong. It sets out lessons for the future. The Government are committed to learning those lessons.

Our interim response is a forward-looking document. It sets out what has been done, what we intend to do, and why. It forms the basis of an important consultation, which I intend to be comprehensive and thorough. I commend both the inquiry report and the Government's interim response to the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page