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Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): According to the hon. Gentleman's argument, should not mobile phones be banned outright? The danger is likely to lie not in the mast but in the phone itself.
Mr. Breed: I agree. I think that the science should be in the public domain, and that we should adopt the precautionary principle--especially when it involves the recommendations of an independent report, which in this case was instigated by the Government.
I realise that the Minister may not wish to comment on those specific points, but I feel that comments on the broader issues relating to the handling of risk are important, and they arise from the Phillips report.
Closer, perhaps, to the hearts of many who take part in agriculture debates is the classical swine fever outbreak, which is fresh in many of our memories. It raises another aspect of the Government's attitude to risk. In their interim response, the Government responded to Lord Phillips's view that insufficient resources were available for research and veterinary services when the problem of
Have we really done enough to cover such emergencies? That is a question that the Government must answer. The rundown in Government research and testing facilities over many years may well have precipitated some of the problems revealed by the Phillips report. Are those facilities now being given the resources that they require?
There is another crucial question. Has enough been done to tackle concerns about openness and communication within Government, and between various Government Departments and offices? A response was published before today's debate, on the basis of which I think we should ask a few more questions.
I have registered my concerns about excessive reliance on the Food Standards Agency to deliver all the changes required by Phillips. More noticeable by its absence from the Government's interim response, however, is any reference to a serious look at the need to improve intragovernmental communication and openness, and to tackle the cultural problems identified in the report.
We are told in the Government's response that they have established a number of concordats between various Departments and offices to enshrine the principles of better communication; but where precisely is the communication link that was so sorely missing during the period covered by the report--the link between the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? I am not at all convinced that enough communication channels exist as yet. Perhaps some are in the process of being set up--the Minister may be able to enlighten us a little later--but it sometimes seems that rather than redressing the lack of communication between those two Departments, the FSA has been passed the buck. It will not do the job; it must be done by Government Departments acting together.
I welcome some measures announced in the interim response. A cross-departmental committee on zoonoses has been set up, and the secretariat of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee now involves members of both Departments. Those are positive developments--but what of the other lesson that must be learned if the report is to make a real difference? I refer to the fact that, too often, important documents sat on desks rather than being attended to with the urgency that is due to them.
All too often, it was left to those outside Government to identify the areas in which discussion was lacking. The report tells us that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) was instrumental in raising the problem of head-splitting. I think we know what that means: I suspect that my hon. Friend was talking in animal terms. The issue had been the subject of an internal memo that had apparently been ignored.
Research commissioned by Pedigree Foods originally identified what should be classed as specified bovine offals. Pedigree Foods took the initiative to answer questions raised by the Government's own inquiries. The report specifically notes, moreover, that the measures to
The Government clearly do not talk among themselves enough. I, for one, feel sceptical about the possibility that more concordats and rules will substantially change the culture in Whitehall that has dominated us for so many years. In one circumstance after another, I still find examples of exactly the culture that the BSE report urges against, that of secrecy and closeness--be it refusing to answer straightforward questions, or refusing to meet people informally rather than undertaking formal and expensive studies and consultation. Consultations are a safe way of dealing with issues as far as the Government are concerned, but in many cases more openness would limit the need for such cumbersome exercises.
That brings me to the last issue I want to raise: the operation of government. The BSE inquiry raised many examples of bureaucracy that would be laughable if their consequences had not been so tragic. One example is the urgent note to abattoirs--a key document--explaining the importance of enforcing regulations, which took more than a year to draft and redraft. Examples of delay--Labour Members have made clear the existence of such examples--have been a significant factor in this whole affair. We need to know that such bureaucratic idiocy has ceased, and that action will be taken much more promptly.
The inquiry made it clear that the Government should not use openness and consultation as an excuse for dither and delay: they must be ready to act, and to act quickly, when there is any possible risk. Yet even in the Government's response, we see further evidence of the operational logjamming in Whitehall. One of the inquiry's crucial findings was that the Government did not have sufficient understanding of their own operation to determine who should be informed of, and who should act on, the new risks posed by BSE. The report recommends that
Only recently, the rural White Paper gave a clear example of how action can be put to one side and preference given to constant drafting and redrafting. While t's were being crossed and i's dotted, the countryside continued to decline. The Government must learn these lessons, put them into action, and monitor their own performance.
In short, we cannot say that the Phillips report is done and dusted. Its recommendations and suggestions need to be regularly referred to, and perhaps a formal annual review should be established to ensure that the recommendations accepted by the Government have been transferred into Government performance. It is all too easy to slip back into the old way of doing things. We
It is tempting to revisit the past regularly to remind ourselves of the horrors of what went on, but we have to look forward. We must do so with confidence that the report's recommendations will truly transform the performance of government.
It is true that the Food Standards Agency has been a step forward, and it is currently cutting its teeth on the very complex issues of European BSE. However, the Government need to learn more of the lessons from the report--about their internal workings, about the need for communication and openness across the board, and about the need for action, even in uncertainty.
For example, the European BSE issue raises certain questions. Are contingency plans being made in case the FSA urges a ban? Have the industry and the scientists, including those outside the existing SEAC and FSA structures, been consulted, and has contact with them been maintained? Who will be in charge of taking forward any policy? Is the Department of Trade and Industry on standby? Are MAFF and the Department of Health in agreement with whatever contingency plans have been drawn up?
Beyond that, what more is planned? Are the Government working on establishing who is responsible now, before their consultation on this interim response comes in? Is contingency planning on the basis of the outcome of the Krebs trials under way?
It is undeniable that BSE was a national tragedy. The Government are learning the lessons, and that is vital. This is not a party political issue, because it is about government and how it works, whichever party is in office and whatever hazards come to light during a Government's time in office.
The BSE inquiry was thorough--I think that all hon. Members agree on that. The Government must now be as thorough in their response, both in the immediate time frame, and in the future.