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3.23 pm

Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk): There are many things that I would like to say about the matter. I shall not be able to deal with them all in a short debate, and those to which I refer will have to be dealt with briefly.

I begin by expressing my deep sympathy for the victims of nvCJD and their relatives. The Phillips report brought out the fact that everyone involved was naturally concerned to take the right decisions, and quickly. Most of us are parents. All of us have the greatest concern for protecting human life and health. In my experience,

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everyone involved with BSE pursued all the issues most conscientiously. That is fully recognised in the Phillips report.

I deeply regret that the outcome has been such human tragedy. However, as is recognised in the Phillips report, we were dealing with what turned out to be an unprecedented situation. The report describes BSE as a novel and alarming zoonosis. It was certainly one that was not in the experience of anyone who was trying to identify it at the time. Professor Sir Richard Southwood and other scientists--the best international experts that we could find to advise us on the issue--described us as dealing at the frontiers of science.

The chief veterinary officer once told me--I think that it is in the Phillips report--that 40 new animal diseases a year are identified. We never know which one will be the most difficult. As the Minister will know, there is a disease in the pig industry that is known as PDNS. It probably has a more damaging impact than classical swine fever. It has emerged only in the past two years, and we still do not know what is causing it. After two years, the Minister cannot take action on it because he does not know what action to take. That was the problem that we faced with BSE.

In two instances, I shall be critical of the Phillips report. However, I put on record immediately my congratulations to Lord Phillips on what I regard as an exhaustively thorough and balanced analysis. There will always be lessons to be learned from something so major and so difficult to come to grips with. I compliment the Phillips team on the way in which it has drawn the lessons together. I compliment the Government also on the thoroughness of the interim response.

I can speak only for the two years when I was the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which was in the early stages of BSE. Most of the events discussed in the Phillips report--especially the implementation of decisions that we took--came after my time. I did not follow events quite so closely thereafter, and it would not be right for me to comment on them.

I have already referred to uncertainty. I was always conscious, and certainly at the early stages--I shall make a direct response to the criticisms of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)--that we were taking decisions without being entirely sure of the scientific assessments underlying them. When I took the initial decisions about the banning of meat and bonemeal, I was conscious that we were only 80 per cent. sure that it was a cause of BSE. There was always the risk of being completely wrong and being challenged on judicial review or in the courts by the industry or anyone else for taking actions that were not based on any proper scientific assessment.

My first answer to the right hon. Member for South Shields on the meat and bonemeal ban is that I received the final paper from the chief veterinary officer, in which he analysed what he thought was the cause of BSE--namely, meat and bonemeal--only in May 1988. That was when I had the evidence on which to act. Within three weeks, or less, I had banned it. That was a quick response.

As for the slaughter and compensation proposal, I agree with the criticism in the report that there was delay. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should have been in contact with the Department of Health earlier about that proposal. However, the chief medical officer

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took the view that that Department, once consulted, did not have the necessary expertise to consider the proposal. Therefore, the Southwood committee was set up. Within days of receiving the interim Southwood report about the slaughter and compensation scheme, I went to the Treasury. Within a week, I secured Treasury agreement. An announcement was made almost immediately thereafter. That was a rapid response.

The right hon. Member for South Shields is completely wrong about the final Southwood report. I received that report in early February, and published it as quickly as I could. I had been to Cabinet and obtained the Government's decisions on it as well. I not only published the report immediately, but announced the Government's actions. In each instance the right hon. Gentleman is wrong.

Dr. David Clark: How does the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House the comments of Professor Southwood, when he says:

transmission from cow to calf--

Mr. MacGregor: That is not a reference to the interim report, because we came out with all of that early on. I cannot remember the position on the particular issues that the right hon. Gentleman is raising, but I was anxious throughout to act immediately on the Southwood recommendations, and I did so.

Uncertainty is an important issue.

Mr. Ainger: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor: No. If I give way a great deal, I shall go on for too long. There are still a number of issues within the report with which I want to deal.

Paragraph 1151 of the Phillips report states:

Most of us in the House took that view; it was certainly my view. Therefore paragraph 166 in the Phillips report surprised me. It states:

The report states that that probably occurred in the early 1970s. It continues:

I took the received view--the best view of everyone at the time--that the cause was the change in the rendering of meat and bonemeal in the early 1980s and that sheep scrapie was coming through the process. That turned out to be partly right, as meat and bonemeal were the cause of the spread. However, according to Phillips, the rendering had nothing to do with it. I remember that the right hon. Member for South Shields raised that process with me frequently, but in fact rendering turned out to be a false cause.

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I was surprised even more by the fact that scrapie had nothing to do with the cause. That is significant, as all the received scientific assessment at the time suggested that BSE came from scrapie, which led to the view that the risk to human health was remote. The reason for that was simple: scrapie had been around for 200 years, and had not had any consequences for human health.

Mr. Tom Clarke: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor: I shall do so just once.

Mr. Clarke: I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will not worry too much about time, because we respect his courage in coming to the House and applying himself to the matter.

May I briefly put to him a comment in the Phillips report and invite his response? The report states:

That is, the question why action should be taken on baby food and not other food. The report continues:

Would the right hon. Gentleman care to respond to that criticism?

Mr. MacGregor: If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall respond to both criticisms at the right place in my speech.

I shall finish my point about uncertainty, which is terribly important. The scrapie analysis led to the scientific assessment, to which nearly everyone subscribed at the time, that the risk to human health was, as the Southwood report states, "most unlikely and remote". However, Southwood and others emphasised that if those conclusions were wrong, the consequences would be extremely serious. I never sought to disguise that. I frequently made that point wherever I went, as well as the point about the remoteness of the risk and the relationship to scrapie.

It is not only a question of scientists getting some things right and some things wrong in their early assessment. Indeed, the Phillips report does not criticise them at all for that. The Phillips report itself may be wrong about the cause; it admits that it simply does not know. I was surprised by the certainty with which it discussed the mutation theory--it may be wrong. It is essential that we continue to assess the causes, which is why the Government are right to ask Professor Horn to review the origins of BSE. That is one of the most important actions that they can take because, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said, the ramifications may go wider than BSE itself.

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