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Dr. Gibson: Does the hon. Gentleman remember a former Prime Minister describing the agency as "PR nonsense"?

Mr. Yeo: I do not remember that. We debated the agency in Standing Committee earlier in this Parliament. It is now up and running and it has our support. I wish it well. Having said all that, it seems doubtful that even if the agency had existed in the period covered by the

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Phillips inquiry, that fact alone would have prevented, or even significantly alleviated, the difficulties that the inquiry has exposed.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Yeo: I shall give way in a moment.

Lord Phillips concluded that in dealing with BSE the Ministry of Agriculture did not lean in favour of agricultural producers to the detriment of consumers. Although the agency's independence is important and valuable, and is potentially central to its future success, I do not think that it would have made a material difference to the matters that we are debating.

Mr. Nick Brown: There are two different points here. The agency's value in circumstances such as these is that it can make a robust, independent assessment of the science and then put the information in the public domain. Realisation of the link between BSE and vCJD emerged between 1984 and 1996, and, if the agency had existed then, that emerging scientific opinion would have been made public and a response would have been required, which did not happen in the events that Phillips described.

Mr. Yeo: I understand the Minister's point. Nevertheless, it is significant that Lord Phillips said in his summary that he did not think the Ministry of Agriculture--

Mr. Brown: Just to clarify, I was agreeing with that point. The hon. Gentleman was making a separate point.

Mr. Yeo: In that case, there is not a great difference between us.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: No, I am sorry; I am anxious to make progress. Many Members who are directly involved in the report want to speak in the debate, and I did not intend to speak for more than 20 minutes.

Good communication is needed not only within Britain but between the Food Standards Agency and agencies in countries from which we import food. There is concern about that.

I turn now to the second message, which concerned the need for a timely response to new information on emerging problems. I do not pretend that that is an easy balance to strike. The public can be alarmed by an over-hasty response to a situation, and the ability of producers to deliver safe, healthy food at prices that suit consumers might even be jeopardised by excessive caution or over-regulation. Nevertheless, the Phillips report suggests that inaction and delay can pose equal, perhaps even greater, dangers.

The safety of the food chain and the protection of consumers must always be the paramount concern of the Government. Preserving that safety often requires prompt action. The precautionary principle has an important role to play. Timely action, even if it is embarrassing to the Government, inconvenient to the industry or costly to

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consumers, often offers better value in every respect in the long run than a delayed response, which can be more drastic, expensive and time consuming.

There are a number of examples demonstrating that need, which I will not go into now because they are in the report for everybody to read. One of the lessons to be learned from those examples is that it is not only the decision but its implementation that has to be timely. Sometimes that is difficult because when a policy maker makes a decision in a structure as complex as government, the speed with which it is implemented is not always visible to the policy maker, or indeed the public, until a retrospective study such as this is undertaken.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: No, I have given way several times. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends are referred to in the report, and my giving way will reduce their opportunities to contribute to the debate,

The third and crucial message from the report is the need for greater openness in Government decision making on food safety issues. It goes without saying that statements on such a sensitive subject by Ministers and their advisers must be meticulously accurate. The publication, without any censorship or editing, of advice that Ministers receive from scientific and other bodies can contribute to greater transparency. The need for openness is accompanied by a difficult requirement for Governments to achieve--the need to strike the right note in offering consumers reassurance about food safety. As the Phillips report points out, when the full consequences of BSE began to be understood, the public felt that early statements had been too reassuring. That territory has been explored many times already.

Today's debate is unlikely to be the last on this subject in the House. A great deal more work needs to be done on BSE and CJD if these matters are to be completely understood.

Other concerns are sometimes expressed, such as those about sheep. We do not--and may not--know for many years the full consequences of BSE in Britain, let alone in those countries where the incidence of BSE is increasing and the same steps have not been taken to deal with it. There are alternative theories about the causes of CJD and its link to BSE. The messages of the Phillips report apply not only to BSE and beef, but across the food chain and beyond. As the Minister said, the systemic failures that Lord Phillips identifies will be completely eradicated only by a wholehearted effort on the part of Ministers and civil servants. If they are eradicated, the sad history of BSE in Britain will at least have had one beneficial result. I join the Minister in commending the report to the House.

3 pm

Dr. David Clark (South Shields): I thank Lord Phillips and his team for their work in producing such a long and useful report. I also thank the Government for establishing the inquiry. It is interesting that it took a new Government to wipe the slate clean and have a proper examination of what went wrong. We suspected that things were going wrong, and Lord Phillips confirms that. The report is workmanlike, thorough and exhaustive, but it contains much new information.

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Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I was invited by Lord Phillips to make a statement to the inquiry, which I was glad to do. For the five years between 1987 and 1992, I was the shadow agriculture spokesman and opposed Conservative Members who were in government and who are here today. We had four major robust debates on the issue, including on some Supply days. I did not apologise for that then, and I do not apologise for it now.

My experiences during that time convinced me that, unless we had a freedom of information Act and legislative rights, the consumer could never be properly protected. That is why, when I was in government, I was so pleased to publish the White Paper on freedom of information. I was also pleased to chair the Cabinet Committee that was involved in setting up the Food Standards Agency. Although those two measures do not mean that problems like BSE or TSE will not arise again, we are now more likely to know what is going on. I do not apologise for that.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will reconsider the Forbes report. I understand his argument, although I hope that he will not discuss it with his permanent secretary. Many wrongs were done when BSE was emerging, and people may have died as a result. Someone must be responsible. My experience of the civil service--fine as it is--is that there is an ethos of self-protection.

Mr. Nick Brown: I understand my right hon. Friend's point, but I must emphasise that the inquiries by the civil service commissioners go only as far as the five individuals who are still serving civil servants. What he suggests would probably run wider than that.

Dr. Clark: I accept that, but I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the report's introduction. It says:

Even after Ministers reached a decision, there was a delay in the bureaucratic process. We need to be certain in public that that process and the people who run it have put those wrongs right.

Lord Phillips' report is a fine analytical work. If I have one criticism it is that he does not pick up on the nuances or the pressure that was placed on politicians who attempted to raise the issue. I shall concentrate on the period between 1987 and 1992. I believe--I think the report supports my view--that the Conservative Government made a series of basic errors of judgment, which helped to exacerbate the problem in a number of key ways. They were not strong enough to break the culture of secrecy in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and their approach was too short term.

Farmers and the general public widely regarded the Ministry as a Ministry for farmers, although that charge would have been denied. I understand that it was the job of Ministers to promote that great industry, but sometimes we have to look beyond the short term. Again, the culture of secrecy, which was probably stronger in the Ministry than in any other Department, exacerbated the problem. As Lord Phillips and many other people said, there was little or inadequate co-ordination between the Ministry and the Department of Health.

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I remember participating in many debates and being howled down by Conservative Members who said, "Do you want to ruin the beef industry in this country?" The answer was no, but had we acted earlier, we could have saved a greater proportion of our beef industry and perhaps eased the conditions that the farming industry is experiencing today.

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