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Judy Mallaber: From my right hon. Friend's experience, would he agree that some of these lessons might not have been learned if the inquiry had not been established? Will he speculate on whether, if the Conservatives had unfortunately got into government at the last election, they would have set up such an inquiry? I would like to ask the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) that question, as he made complimentary remarks about many aspects of the report, although he included some caveats. Does my right hon. Friend think that the inquiry and report would have happened if there had not been a change of Government? What would have been the outcome of not holding the Phillips inquiry?
Dr. Strang: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. We would almost certainly not have had this report: the issue would certainly not have been examined with such thoroughness. When the Opposition reply to the debate, it would be helpful if they made it clear that, in the unlikely event of a Conservative Government coming to power after the next election, they would carry forward this work and implement all the measures that my right hon. Friend has pledged to put in place.
There were failings in the handling of the BSE crisis. The harsh reality is that animals and, almost certainly, some people who should have been protected from BSE have been exposed to it. We are seeing the end of the disease in cattle, but we still have no idea of the scale of the human disaster resulting from BSE. We can only hope that the number of new cases of variant CJD in humans will begin to fall.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I agree with many of the points made by Labour Members, and I understand the justification offered by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor). I extend the sympathies of Liberal Democrat Members to all who have been tragically affected by BSE. I do not want to dwell on the mistakes of the past, because I would much rather examine ways of working together to ensure that a national tragedy such as BSE is never allowed to happen again. With hindsight, many people who have examined this issue over a long period and many of the public now accept that there were difficulties, but they want leadership from the Government to ensure that the changes required do take place.
The Government have produced their interim response to the inquiry, which I welcome. I acknowledge the work of Lord Phillips and his team in producing such a wide-ranging, far-reaching and exhaustive report. I hope that we shall return to it in the future, because its recommendations extend far beyond the BSE crisis.
The report has not been received without criticism, however, and interestingly the Government chose to make an initial response prior to this debate, which in turn has shifted the emphasis and diminished the opportunity to discuss the merits and demerits of the report. I, and perhaps other hon. Members, have been contacted by some of those involved in the inquiry who have voiced a number of concerns, two of which deserve a mention.
First, there is concern that the inquiry went about verifying certain prejudged conclusions rather than seeking answers from scratch. That is a serious allegation, but I am minded to discount it, given the meticulous attention to fairness that the language of the report denotes, and the fact that it is broadly accepted by both sides of the House.
The second charge gives greater cause for concern, and has been touched on by other hon. Members. The report, without warning, in effect altered the status of civil servants in such a way that personal responsibility was accorded to civil servants who had previously been afforded the privilege of being covered by ministerial responsibility. That the actions of civil servants were scrutinised seems right in the circumstances, but given the very public nature of the inquiry's scrutiny, more attention should have been paid to protecting some individuals, especially those who faced extremely serious allegations that were published on the internet but later not upheld. Although I welcome the fact that the Phillips inquiry left no stone unturned, we must always be mindful of protecting our public servants from unjustified media or public attention.
The key to the future is the way in which the Government have responded to the report's findings. I want to examine what I believe are the three crucial areas in need of improvement that were highlighted by the report: first, the way the Government deal with risk; secondly, the need for Governments to operate more openly both between Departments and in their interaction with the public; and, thirdly, the way the Government operate internally in their practices and protocol.
The main element of the Government's response to the BSE inquiry is the establishment of the Food Standards Agency: a body that we have supported and which we want to succeed. On the face of it, the Food Standards Agency should be able to address the immediate problems raised by the Phillips inquiry. It is independent, so it should be able to command greater credibility in an age of scepticism; it conducts its business in public; and it puts all its research contracts out to tender to attract the best scientific minds available to inform it.
The Food Standards Agency cannot be the solution to all the problems highlighted by the inquiry, however. Give or take a few other smaller measures, the general impression is that the Government think they have done enough, but questions remain, the most important of which is whether the FSA is getting it right. Is it properly perceived as independent of Government, or would it be better if it reported direct to a Committee of the House rather than to a Government Department? Is it considering all the best scientific opinion? Perhaps more importantly, are its pronouncements heard and trusted by the general public?
To my mind, we are at an early stage and we cannot answer those questions for certain. The FSA is very young and its mettle is being tested by the new European BSE situation. Even if we accept that the FSA is doing all it was intended to do, the job, as laid out by Phillips, is by no means done. First, much more was brought out by the report. For example, are the Government making adequate contingency plans while awaiting the advice of their expert advisers--now the FSA? That fundamental question must be addressed, and I shall return to it later.
A yet more serious problem is raised by the "FSA solves all" approach. The findings of the BSE report have implications for the Government which range far beyond just food safety. The report specifically mentions medicines, but as yet the Government have done little to address that issue. More importantly, its comments on the treatment of risk should have caused the Government to re-examine their practices across all policy areas. On health, what is the situation in respect of single-use instruments? What about sterilisation procedures and blood transfusions throughout the United Kingdom? What about the labelling of medication?
A clear issue on which Lord Phillip's findings should have informed policy is the Government's treatment of the risks associated with mobile phones and telecommunications base stations. That issue will never be addressed by the FSA, but it leads me clearly to the first of my three concerns: risk.
How to treat risks to the public is a dilemma for any Government. It was clearly a dilemma for the previous Conservative Administration, and it remains a dilemma for this Government. There is no point in causing unnecessary scares, but the Government have a
Since the period that Lord Phillips investigated, a number of risks have been identified by many individuals and groups. Genetically modified foods and the MMR vaccine have been mentioned. I am pleased to note the presence of the Minister for Public Health, who will doubtless comment on that. The most recent risk--the new outbreak of BSE on the continent--has been dealt with by the Food Standards Agency, rather well in my view. It might well be posited, however, that the lack of public panic had more to do with the fact that the media did not have enough sensational revelations from journalists with which to plaster their pages than--necessarily--with the fact that the FSA's openness has reassured the public. There has, however, been no cover-up, deliberate or otherwise, which is commendable.
Another risk that has come to the fore recently--I have already mentioned this--is posed by mobile telephones. In this respect, the situation is less clear. It is plain that some lessons from Phillips have been learned: the Government admitted that they did not know what the risks were, and recruited experts to investigate. When the experts concluded that they, too, did not know what the risks were, the Government published the report and put the science behind it in the public domain by publishing a leaflet.
That was very commendable. So far, so good. The Government congratulate themselves on that good work--but the most important aspect highlighted by the BSE report is the need to act even when the risk is only potential. We are talking about the so-called precautionary principle.
Although the Stewart report recommended the taking of precautions in relation to mobile telephone base station sites many months ago, we still hear that case upon case of applications for base stations near schools, and in dense residential areas, are accepted every day. The public are naturally very concerned, and we are seeing a growing number of petitions and demonstrations. What is the point of all this communication of risk, if precautions are not being taken until the risk has been spread?