Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Nick Brown indicated assent.

Mr. MacGregor: I note that the Minister is nodding.

That possibility demonstrates the difficulties of grappling with the issue at the time.

Judy Mallaber: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor: No, I will not.

15 Feb 2001 : Column 507

I want to concentrate on the lessons. First, I must briefly address criticisms of individuals, the vast majority of which were addressed to civil servants, who do not have the opportunity to reply. In my experience, they were extremely dedicated in dealing, in many cases, with extraordinarily difficult issues on top of an already heavy work load. Of course, mistakes were made. However, far more often, Phillips concludes that the right and, critically, key decisions were, in most cases, taken speedily in frequently difficult circumstances, and in the context of available knowledge. Indeed, there are many commendations to that effect in the report.

To deal with the criticisms made by the right hon. Member for South Shields, Phillips makes it clear that there were no cover-ups or deceptions. The right hon. Gentleman's point about MAFF being close to the farming industry is rejected absolutely in the report. The accusation that the 50 per cent. compensation led to an increase in the number of people trying to evade controls is also rejected. All of those accusations were analysed carefully in the report, and were rejected.

One reason--I put this criticism mildly--why there has been a focus on individuals is that individual criticisms were listed in an appendix, on which there was a media focus. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was right and rather kind in his original statement to the House, when he indicated that there was not a similar appendix drawing out all the commendations and praiseworthy comments in the report about individuals. If that had been done, the report might have been rather more balanced.

I obviously do not want to make comments about too many civil servants, but my own permanent secretary, Sir Derek Andrews, was meticulous and conscientious in dealing with the matter. I felt particularly for the chief veterinary officer, Keith Meldrum, and Dr. Pickles from the Department of Health, who received individual criticisms. However, if one considers the overall balance of the report, they come out extremely well. I should especially like to talk about Keith Meldrum, whom the report describes as

I want to put that on the record, as it is only fair to that individual.

Judy Mallaber rose--

Mr. MacGregor: If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I have a lot to say.

I also want to emphasise that the three vital measures that we took during my time at MAFF were warmly praised in the Phillips report; it is important that that be understood. First, Mr. Wilesmith, who undertook the initial analysis of the disease, was given great praise for his speedy identification of meat and bonemeal as a cause of the spread of the disease. There was wide praise for the fact that we banned meat and bonemeal very soon after--I believe that the report refers to our swift and appropriate response--which directly contradicts what the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston said. As the report makes clear, that action reduced the rate of infection by 80 per cent. overnight.

15 Feb 2001 : Column 508

Equally, the slaughter and compensation scheme and the specified bovine offal ban were described as vital measures for the protection of human health. Indeed, to respond to the point of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston, the report describes one of those measures as far-seeing and of great importance.

Having set out that context, I shall deal briefly with the two individual criticisms of me. The first--to which I think the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston was referring--was that, after the final Southwood report, I did not ask for a review of the report's suggestion, namely, that if SBO materials were not to be used in baby food, why not ban their use in all food? But that is precisely what I did. It is on record that that was one of the first questions that I asked internally in the Ministry. As I considered the issue of baby food, that question was increasingly on my mind, and that of many people. That matter was raised in the Ministry.

The proof of that is the action I took on the Southwood report to ban SBOs in all food. I acted in response to my first question, so the Phillips report's criticism of me is rather strange. The reason that criticism is in the report--which is important for the context of future inquiries--is that many of us who went to the public hearings for the Phillips report, and had questions put to us by the report's counsel, frequently had to point out that not everything that takes place in Departments is written down. We had the strong impression that a paper trail alone was being pursued and that discussions that were not recorded in detail were thought not to have taken place.

In fact, I did ask the question about SBOs, which is why I came to my decision, and why I am surprised by the criticism in the report. There is therefore a problem in relation to the inquiries undertaken by the Phillips team. The report rightly refers to the fact that the civil service is a Rolls-Royce machine, but criticises it for taking too long to reach conclusions on issues and on its tendency to draft and redraft guidelines. That is a fair criticism. Of course, if people are asked why they did not do something 10 years after the event because no record exists that they asked a certain question, or if they are asked why a matter was not raised at a ministerial meeting because the minutes of that meeting did not refer to it, that will lead to a situation in which everything will be written down and ultra-caution will be practised to protect the civil servants.

I know for a fact--and I am sure that the Minister would agree--that in many of our meetings, the private secretary, rushed off his or her feet, takes a quick note of the conclusions and that is it. Somehow or other, the Phillips inquiry gained the impression that, unless it was all written down, something never happened. There is a risk of banking up double safety mechanisms in the civil service, which could lead to even greater delays.

The report makes another criticism of me, which I must read out briefly. With reference to the SBO ban, it states:

That is the only other criticism, which suggests that I should have added another sentence or two to the parliamentary answer that announced the SBO ban. I have wrestled with the matter, which is one of judgment. At

15 Feb 2001 : Column 509

the time, I was anxious about exceeding Professor Southwood's recommendations. I was worried that the next day's headlines would say "Minister and advisers disagree", when I wanted them to refer instead to the action that we were taking as an ultra-safe precaution for human health. Indeed, Professor Southwood described the precaution as being belt and braces in the extreme. In order to avoid the wrong interpretation and to show that the measure had developed from the Southwood report, I added some important additional points. They are itemised in the Phillips report, so I shall not repeat them now. That was my focus, but I am criticised for not adding a sentence saying that risk still remained to human health.

The answer to that criticism is twofold. First, there had been widespread debate in the media about the issue in the weeks leading up to my decision. The way in which it was received by the press shows that the action that I was taking in the background was fully understood. Secondly, I was assured by all the scientists that the action that I was taking was not scientifically necessary. I therefore made the point that if there was a risk and we turned out to be wrong, I would already have taken the action to deal with it. That is the way in which I presented the matter, and I leave that to the House to consider. I thought that I had presented it reasonably well.

Mr. Boswell: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the flavour of those two points justifies fears that the practice of defensive medicine might be growing? Just as it might be difficult to pursue specialties in medicine because of the risk of being sued thereafter, Ministers might be inhibited, if we persist in the constant habit of having to find an audit trail, in making decisions because they must act in an over-defensive way in order to justify them subsequently.

Mr. MacGregor: I shall return to that interesting point during my consideration of the report's lessons. I apologise to the House for taking so long to make my speech, but as I was criticised in the report, I think it reasonable for me to respond, even if very briefly.

I am in broad agreement with the Phillips report's conclusions on the areas about which I have relevant knowledge, and with those in the Government's response.

Judy Mallaber: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor: I am sorry; I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I continue.

I want to concentrate on some particular lessons, having made the point that I am broadly in agreement with them. I entirely agree about openness. I always tried to release information and reports as quickly as I could, especially with regard to communication of risk. I reject the idea that I knowingly suppressed any information, and I am sure that those of my right hon. Friends who have had similar responsibilities will say exactly the same.

Next Section

IndexHome Page