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

Mr. MacGregor: I want to make progress, as I know that so many hon. Members want to speak.

I say to the Minister that Government must not let the desire for wider consultation or the need for further review delay action if they conclude that a particular

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proposal or policy decision must be implemented quickly. If one consults widely, there is a risk that that may happen. I had to take two or three of my decisions very quickly.

The question of openness and sedation is difficult--the Minister is also likely to find it problematic--because of the media reaction. We were anxious to convey the precise scientific views that were taken about the risk. However, we always had to be careful about misleading headlines, so conveying such views was always a difficult matter of presentation. My other criticism of the report is that it does not give attention to the response and attitude of the media. That was hardly mentioned, but a whole chapter on it would have been helpful. I suspect that the Government's response does not deal with the importance of the media either. It contains a brief reference to training civil servants in respect of dealing with the media, but the matter is wider than that.

Although openness is entirely right, it will not solve all the problems when some sections of the media are interested merely in a sensational headline or a good scare story. I suspect that even the Food Standards Agency and its director will find that that is the case from time to time. I have always felt that one of the key qualifications for the director, apart from being a scientist, is skill in dealing with the media.

I wholly support the need for a much more informed public debate on risk assessment and management. I have often tried to get such debate going, not only as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but as Secretary of State for Transport. Initiating such debate is not, however, an easy thing to do. Such matters are rather boring and an accident or food scare is much more interesting than proper risk assessment. I fully support every effort to get proper risk assessment and management more into the public debate.

I strongly support the codification of good practice in respect of the scientific committees. The Neill committee on standards in public life, of which I am a member, has been codifying good practice in public life for the past few years. The lessons of the past and up-to-date thinking mean that codification is worth while.

I have a couple of points that relate to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). It is important sometimes to pay our advisers, who have a big work load, as is mentioned in the report. There is also a risk that they will be unwilling to serve if every piece of advice that they give is subjected to the sort of treatment given by the Phillips report. I suspect that some members of the Southwood committee feel aggrieved at the way in which their actions have been analysed. In future, advisers might need reassurance on indemnity. As my hon. Friend suggested, that is important in this age of blame culture and ambulance chasing.

The report refers also to training scientists in the use of plain language, which is important, but above all, media training is highly desirable. I often felt that the precision to which scientists are used can be at odds with some journalists' desire to get a good headline.

I turn finally to two other important matters. On Government action and legislation, I was surprised at how little reference was made to judicial review in the main body of the report. It was mentioned once or twice, but Ministers at the time were conscious of its dangers. I once worked in a Department that was subjected to judicial

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review in respect of a particular case, so I know about all the risks of legal action that would have arisen if we had taken decisions that were not properly based.

There is a very interesting question about the matter that has not been fully explored. Paragraph 1329 of the report states that powers

That is where judicial review comes in and, from about paragraph 1303 onwards, the report contains an interesting analysis in that regard, although I shall not bore the House by reading it out. The message that I took was that it is always important to get the balance right. One has to continue to give the opportunity for outside interests to challenge through judicial review a Minister's action and the basis for it. On the other hand, if one is to proceed as Phillips recommends when the issue at stake and the scientific evidence are very unclear, the implications of judicial review must be thought through. That has not yet been done properly, so I ask the Minister to think a bit more about that issue.

I could say so much more, but I should like finally to deal with tests. We were greatly handicapped in the early years by the lack of a reliable test. We had no test to detect animal protein in compound feed, let alone ruminant protein. That was extremely difficult in respect of the bonemeal ban. I would have loved to have a test, and the enzyme linked immuno sorbent assay--or ELISA--test was eventually developed. Even more important, however, was the detection of BSE. Decisions taken by the European Union now depend greatly on having a reliable test for BSE. My understanding is that there are still defects in the existing post mortem tests, in terms both of their complete reliability and of the speed with which they can be carried out. We must ask in how much better a position we would be if a test in live animals could be developed. Indeed, the Government make that point on page 40 of their response. I attach enormous importance to the development of a reliable test, as it would make it so much easier to deal with the disease. I am glad that the Government are putting so much effort into that.

I apologise for having spoken so long. My conclusion is that we did seek the best scientific advice that we could and we always acted on it. We never did less and occasionally did more. We also took what Phillips described as far-sighted measures. However, BSE was an unprecedented phenomenon from which lessons are bound to have been learned. The Phillips report gives the right framework and, in my view, the Government are right to follow it up rigorously.

3.49 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) will understand if I do not comment in detail on what he said because many other hon. Members wish to speak.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), my interest in BSE developed when I was the Opposition agriculture spokesman, a post which I held until the 1997 election. As long as I live, I will remember the day when British Ministers came to the

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House of Commons to announce the likely link between BSE and CJD. It is a measure of how serious the issue was that, in the morning, the Government sent the chief medical officer, the permanent secretary at the Agriculture Ministry, and the Cabinet Secretary to brief me and my right hon. Friend Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who was then the shadow health spokesman, on the seriousness of the statement that the Government were to make that afternoon.

A great deal has happened since that day, and I congratulate the Government on setting up the Phillips inquiry. There is no doubt that that inquiry was necessary and there is a great deal to be learned from this episode in British history. I should like to start by quoting from the report:

That key conclusion of the Phillips committee explains why disease in cattle was allowed to develop on such a massive scale.

We know the proportions of the BSE crisis. The disease was first recognised in November 1986, and since then we have had nearly 180,000 cases of BSE on more than 35,000 farms in Great Britain. Since the statement by the then Government in March 1996, measures have been taken which have cost the British taxpayer £4 billion.

We can now quantify the cost of BSE in terms of the animal population, but we are not in a position to judge how big a tragedy it will be for the human population. There have been a number of articles in The Lancet and the British Medical Journal during the past year on new variant CJD. There have been 94 probable or definite cases to date, of which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said, 86 have died. That is not a large number, certainly not compared with the 17,000 cases of AIDS, but the numbers are rising and no one can say how many cases will develop in the years that lie ahead.

The impact of BSE has not been confined to the UK. The EU budget now faces serious problems because of the collapse in the beef price, and two German Ministers were forced to resign only recently on the issue.

What went wrong? I want to specify four failings in particular. First, there was delay. Measures to protect human and animal health were not put in place as quickly as they should have been. BSE was first identified in November 1986, but animals showing symptoms of the disease were still allowed to go into human food until August 1988.

When it was realised that cattle and sheep should not eat cattle and sheep, the Government gave the industry five weeks' grace to clear their stocks of feed, and we know that many in the industry took much longer than that so that stocks were used long after the ban came into force.

It was not until November 1989 that the brain and spinal cord of all cattle were banned from human food in England and Wales, and January 1990 in Scotland. The mechanical recovery of meat, which can result in spinal cord entering human food, was not banned until 1995.

Secondly, there was under-enforcement. Measures to protect human and animal health were appallingly badly enforced in the feedmills and slaughterhouses. Our cattle

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were still eating contaminated feed many years after it was banned in 1988, and BSE has been confirmed in an animal born as late as 1996. More than 42,000 cases of BSE have been confirmed in cattle born after the feed ban. With regard to human food, nearly half the slaughterhouses visited in September 1995 were found to be in breach of BSE controls designed to keep infected offal out of our food--five years after the offal ban was put in place.

Thirdly, there were failures of communication. Far too often in the BSE story, Departments failed to talk to one another. That is borne out by the Phillips report. Lack of communication between MAFF and the Department of Health resulted, as the right hon. Member for South Norfolk confirmed to his credit, in the delay in introducing the slaughter and compensation policy and in addressing the risk posed by bovine products in human medicines.

The experts at the neuropathogenesis unit, based in Edinburgh, could have told the Government years before that it was possible that a small amount of infective material could transmit the disease.

Fourthly, the public were given the false impression that BSE posed no risk. So keen were the Government to try to prevent food scares that the public were not properly informed of the risks presented by BSE. Lord Phillips says:

When the news broke in March 1996 about the link with variant CJD, therefore,

There was then a massive crisis in public confidence, not only in the safety of beef but in the trustworthiness of official advice, a point which my right hon. Friend made recently. We are still suffering from that and it will take a long time to regain the British people's confidence in ministerial statements.

Disastrously, people in the food industry were listening to the Government's campaign of reassurance. The BSE report concludes that the lack of diligence in keeping our food safe was attributable in part to the Government's efforts to ensure that news about BSE did not give rise to public concern.

I want to touch on the role of scientists. I was an animal scientist myself before I entered the House. The BSE inquiry report makes many valuable points. In particular, Lord Phillips points out:

One area that is not expanded on in the report is the ability of scientists to publish their findings. The Minister may be aware that there are scientists who worked on behalf of the Government on BSE matters who are quite clear that they were prevented from making their findings public. Dr. Valerie Ellis, assistant general secretary of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, the trade union representing many Government scientists, states:

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One example put to the BSE inquiry of where publication was prevented was a paper on the possibility of a link between BSE and feline spongiform encephalopathy. That is an area that needs to be considered further, which I hope will happen in the fullness of time and before the full report is published.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement today that he has appointed a distinguished scientist to consider the science of BSE. As was pointed out by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk, we do not know for sure how BSE first developed, and we still have a lot to learn about it.

I welcome the fact that the Government moved so quickly to set up the independent Food Standards Agency and my right hon. Friend's important restatement of the fact that all the advice and scientific information in this area is now in the public domain. There is no question but that that is a quantum change. I also welcome the new care arrangements for new variant CJD patients and the proposed improvements in the machinery of government.

What will happen if a new disease appears in future? What key lessons have been learned from the BSE crisis? The first is that we should apply the precautionary principle. When human health is involved, it is always wise in the first instance to err on the side of caution, or--dare I say it?--perhaps on the side of overkill. Secondly, we should identify all possible routes of transmission to other animals and humans, and impose all measures necessary to reduce the risk of transmission to as low a level as possible. We should ensure that all measures to protect human and animal health are properly enforced. That is vital, and arguably the most important lesson to learn from the crisis. All of us, including Conservative Members, know that those measures had not been effectively enforced for years.

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