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4.40 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to associate themselves with the early comments of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), and those of the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) about the anguish of the families. It is also common ground between us that Lord Phillips has produced an exemplary and exhaustive report. He has approached the subject with great clarity. Later I want to concentrate on an aspect on which further work remains to be done.

Although I was not criticised by Lord Phillips, it is right to try to draw some lessons from my experience and that wonderful thing, hindsight. I shall use the short time available to do that. I want to build on the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) about judicial review.

If we are to learn the lessons of the report, we must put ourselves in the position of a future Minister who tries to act differently, as it suggests. Such a Minister faces the continuing problem of the interpretation of the rule of law in the United Kingdom compared with many other nations. We do not have administrative law, and Ministers have to behave in a specific manner when making decisions.

Let us take the case of feeding meat protein to herbivores. The report states that the activity is not new, but dates back to the 1920s. Our legal system means that if, in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, a Minister had said, "That is unusual; I'm not happy about feeding meat protein to herbivores. I think it would be better to ban it", he would have been subject to judicial review and unable to effect his intention. That is also true today. Many might say that the same anxieties are provoked by feeding fishmeal to herbivores. However, I know that no Government or Minister could ban that practice in the absence of anything other than a general belief that such an activity was not proper.

If we try to examine the issues in the way that Lord Phillips suggests, we must consider carefully the implications of our system of judicial review. That runs counter to another aspect of the report that we want to support: the ability of people beyond the confines of Whitehall and Westminster to intervene and say that actions are unfair and unacceptable. It is a pride of our nation, stemming from 1688, that we have a system in which the rule of law, rules, regulations and attitudes apply as much to Ministers as to anyone else. I do not suggest that we are considering an easy problem or that I have a solution. However, it deserves serious consideration.

Mr. Boswell: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gummer: I prefer not to give way because I have only 15 minutes in which to speak.

The second issue that requires careful consideration is the relationship between openness and science. When I became Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I said that I would put in the public arena all the advice that I

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received. The present Minister will agree that there was no occasion when I failed to do that. He referred to such advice this afternoon. We are as one; that issue is not controversial.

However, the way in which one deals with risk is controversial. The Food Standards Agency recently had to consider the risks of imported French meat. The new, independent agency--its independence is uncontested--made a clear decision, which it stated. I accept the Minister's explanation of the two aspects that were tackled when my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk asked him about that. However, it cannot be said that the decision received universal approbation.

One of the difficulties of assessing risk is that it is not possible, in any circumstances, to say that there is no risk. All that one can do is say that the risk is small, remote or unlikely at one end of the spectrum, and likely at the other. Even if that is repeated constantly, there are two reactions, which are not necessarily rational. The first is, "If the risk is as small as that, why are you bothering about it?" The second is, "If you can't tell me there's no risk, there must be a big risk." The difficulty lies in communication.

There is a problem when scientists say that a risk is remote. Actions must be proportionate to that. That is the nature of English law and Scots law; in that context, we are at one. I refer the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston to stem cells--an issue on which he and I agree--to show the difficulty of assessing what scientists tell us. We both have several deep doubts about what they have said.

There have been concerns about genetically modified organisms. One has only to read the statements made by the Prime Minister on that issue, explaining the safety of GMOs, to see that he has based them on advice that he has properly taken from scientists. The Minister himself will know how difficult it is to frame legislation in a manner that not only protects the environment--I think that we share a similar view on the dangers posed by GMOs to the environment--but avoids the possibility of being caught in a judicial review that would overturn all ability to protect people in those circumstances. It is therefore a matter not only of the law but of how one can communicate the scientific view when that view very firmly asserts that there is little risk or that the risk is very remote.

Although I think that various possible cases were examined, I do not think that the Phillips report takes the view that there have been restrictions on scientists. Simply as a matter of fact, I must say that whenever I found someone who was speaking differently from my advisers, I went to great trouble to investigate that person and his comments and whether I should give them credence.

Although I think that the events occurred before my time, I certainly looked into and reviewed carefully some of the matters that were criticised by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). As he will know, in such circumstances, there can be no question of Ministers sacking anyone. However, that was not the issue. The issue was to determine whether those who spoke differently had something to contribute. In all

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circumstances, Ministers--like all hon. Members, I should hope--have to gather as many independent examples as possible, investigate the facts and heed them.

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

Mr. Gummer: No. I am really going to try to complete what I have to say in my 15 minutes, and I have only about five minutes left.

I have now to address the issue of the media--not to attack them, but for exemplary purposes. It would be very difficult to do what Phillips hopes that we shall do in future without taking that issue very seriously. I refer the Minister to one of my decisions which resulted in my closing a relatively large number of abattoirs. The media were not pressing me to close more abattoirs, but attacking me every time that I closed one. That situation continued, and even extended to enormous inaccuracies.

I remember taking one journalist to task. I told him that I had closed the abattoirs because I thought they had not been protecting the public health. I asked him why he did not telephone me before making such statements so that I could provide the facts. I said that I was quite open about providing the facts, which are all in the public domain. He said, "If I telephoned you I would not have a story, and I have to pay the school fees." Although that is an extreme example, it is a serious one. We have to recognise that moods in the media change enormously. Even if one is seeking to be an honourable and decent reporter of what is being said, one gets caught up in the particular mood.

I used abattoirs as an example because, in that case, the mood turned out to be entirely wrong. So tough was it, however, that I found it necessary to see every hon. Member--some were Labour Members--in whose constituency an abattoir was being closed, to explain in detail why we felt that closure was necessary. The attack from outside was that the closures were either a wicked Brussels invention, which is of course the most convenient explanation for the media, or that I had a thing about small family abattoirs, as some of them were. If the point on mood is true in that situation, it must be true also in the situations that we are discussing.

I come now to a difficult issue. It is easy to pick out examples of a person's comments that turn out to be right. It is also perfectly right for hon. Members to stand up and say, "I remind the Minister that, in 1988, I said so and so", and those comments turned out to be right. However, although I do not think it is necessary, I could read out a series of comments that people made in 1988, 1992 and 1994 that turned out to be entirely wrong.

There was, for example, great pressure on me to ban all milk produced in the United Kingdom because it might be an agent. The scientists told me, with the same firmness that they used when telling me that BSE transmission was a remote possibility, that transmission by milk was a remote possibility. The difficulty is that I happened to be right in one case, but--clearly, as events turned out--wrong in the other. The advice, however, was the same. In both cases, my determination to accept that advice and to reach to the edges in the direction of safety was precisely the same.

As I am in the fortunate position of not having been criticised, I am not trying to defend myself. I am merely saying that that is my experience of doing the job.

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A serious issue for future Ministers is to determine how, in the context of Phillips's concerns, we can square a circle that is difficult enough to deal with at the time.

In my last minute, I should like to say something about civil servants. I think that the Minister has taken a brave and proper stand in his decision neither to read nor to comment on what is a civil service matter. I come from a business background. I was a Minister for 16 years. One of the most difficult things about being a Minister is that one has no personnel responsibility. One could not run a business on that basis. I merely say that that is a right thing. It is a necessary protection for the public from politicking in the civil service. The time to stand up for principle is when it is most difficult. The Minister has done that, and I commend him for it.

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