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4.55 pm

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I listened carefully to the comments of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I remember his years as the Minister in charge of agriculture from 1988 to 1992. I would have preferred it if he had addressed most of his remarks to his period in office rather than commenting on judicial review and criticising the media. Those were smokescreens rather than proper accountability for his period in government and the decisions taken at that time.

I have taken a strong interest in BSE since my election as a Member of Parliament. I am a scientist and the constituency that I represent is rural. West Wales has a great deal of livestock agriculture. The first speech that my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) made in the House in 1988 was an Adjournment debate, in which he drew attention to the problem of BSE. I remember having a conversation with him about it the following week. In the months and years that followed, as the epidemic unrolled across Britain, I took part in debates here, watched what was happening in the media and was in touch with farmers and farming unions in my constituency, and my views are based on that first-hand experience.

Much of my experience is reflected in the Phillips report, although my view is more polarised and less generous than that of Lord Phillips. I want to refer to two comments made by farmers. I am surprised that, in the two or three hours of the debate so far, little direct reference has been made to farmers, their unions and their role in the crisis. A large part of the secrecy and the hiding of the crisis came from individual farmers and the farming unions, the Conservative constituency associations, MAFF and so on.

In 1989, a farmer came to see me at one of my surgeries to reveal something connected with the problem of BSE. He said that a cow on his smallholding that had contracted BSE had had a calf just a month or two before. He was surprised that, although the cow was destroyed and he had received compensation, the calf was allowed to survive and develop. As the cow must have been developing BSE during most of its pregnancy, he thought that there was a danger of maternal transmission.

I wrote to MAFF and tabled a series of parliamentary questions, because it struck me forcefully that the precautionary principle was not operating. It was

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self-evident common sense to the farmer and to me that it would safeguard human health to destroy the calf as well as the cow. When I told that story a few months later to a prominent member of my local farming union at the united counties show in Carmarthen, he said that there was no risk whatever of transmission. He told me that a cow on his farm had had BSE. The price of calves was good in the late 1980s. He knew that there was a valuable calf inside the cow, so he arranged for a caesarean section so that the calf could survive. He was so convinced that there was no risk that he arranged for a vet to come out and conduct an operation.

Sadly, that was the climate that prevailed among farmers, the farmers unions and, indeed, in MAFF. They believed that although an animal was severely diseased, there was zero risk of maternal transmission--there was no problem. The then Government completely denied that there could be any relationship between BSE and a risk to human health, even though, as we heard earlier, the Southwood report conceded in 1990 that there was a remote risk of such transmission.

In May 1990, the House debated the subject. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal was then the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) opened the debate for the Labour Opposition. When I re-read my own contribution to the debate, I found that my Labour colleagues and I reflected the views of the Labour party at the time. We made it clear that the transmission of BSE to humans could never be ruled out. Indeed, by 1990, there was evidence of transmission to other species--zoo animals, cats and so on. Prudence or the precautionary principle should have told us of the risk.

Hansard shows that, during that debate, Labour Members--especially my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields--were howled down by Conservative Back Benchers, who accused us throughout of scaremongering. Unfortunately, however, what we feared came to pass. We were constantly told that there was no evidence of BSE being transmitted to humans, but the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There is always that danger.

I am delighted that, during the first few years of a Labour Government, we established the Food Standards Agency; it is important that, instead of being part of MAFF--with its conflict of interest between consumer and producer--the agency is independent of Government and reports to the Department of Health. The producer thus has no direct involvement.

Several hon. Members have cited the comments in the Phillips report about the then Government's policy when BSE became a problem. Their fears of public over- reaction resulted in the presentation of policy by Ministers "whose object was sedation". They tried to pretend that there was no problem and to cover up its very existence.

Reference has been made to civil servants and former Ministers. I regret that no action is to be taken against any individual. A front-page report in today's Western Mail quotes a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger). It says:

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Parents and relatives of CJD victims share that view, as do the general public. An enormous blunder was committed; it spanned about 15 years and no one has owned up to their errors, nor explained why what was originally a problem has become a catastrophe.

I hope that, under the new Government and certainly with the Minister in charge, all scientific committees, not just those in MAFF, become much more open and transparent. They should conduct as many of their meetings as they can in public, so that they can be publicly reported. Not only their advice but their meetings should be open to the press and public.

I welcome consumer representation, but it needs to go wider. Environmental groups, especially those dealing with GM foods and anything that has a consequence for the environment, should be as broadly based as possible. We need to incorporate dissenting voices much more. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields referred to the experience of Dr. Harash Narang in the BSE story. Other people, such as Richard Lacey and Stephen Dealer, expressed dissenting opinions, but their opinions were not generally taken into account.

When in opposition in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Labour party pressed for much greater effort to be put into BSE research and into developing a diagnostic test, first in dead animals and then in live ones. That research work was not done on a sufficient scale in the 1990s, when £1 million, £2 million or £3 million was involved, and the epidemic is now costing us at least £1 billion a year. That early work should have been done. There are tests now, but they are not very reliable. In a sense, we have lost five or 10 years simply by not making such research a priority in the 1990s.

The costs of BSE are incalculable. So far, there have been 94 victims of CJD in Britain, but we do not know whether the eventual total will be hundreds or thousands. We have heard about the problems with blood transfusion and the fact that it is impossible to sterilise surgical instruments if they are infected with prions because they are so robust and heat resistant. The cost to the NHS will, therefore, be substantial.

There are now incidents of BSE in France, Germany, Ireland and Portugal. Instead of being disappointed and sorry for their problems, some Conservative Back Benchers and farmers almost revel in the fact that BSE is now found in other countries. In fact, Britain exported BSE to Europe. It can all be traced back to animal feed that was recklessly exported. Feed contaminated with meat and bonemeal was banned in Britain in 1988, but it was sent abroad.

Could BSE happen again? Could we suffer from something like it again? Of course there is a danger that such diseases could evolve, but I hope that the Government now have in place suitable mechanisms--through greater transparency and openness, but particularly through the Food Standards Agency--to ensure that it cannot happen again.

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5.8 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I thank the Minister for his measured and careful approach to this extremely difficult and distressing situation. I congratulate him on his forward-looking approach and the fact that he is determined to build on the lessons referred to in the Phillips report.

I should like to associate myself with the apologies and regrets expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the Conservative spokesman on agriculture. The tragic fact is that, no matter what we say this afternoon, nothing can bring back the loved ones of the families that have been so tragically affected by the whole episode of BSE. The very best that we can do is to take the lessons that have to be learned from the circumstances and the experiences that we have all had. In that respect, I wish to express my regrets for the agriculture industry, whose once prosperous and thriving cattle sector is a shadow of its former self, although obviously it is rebuilding itself.

The report is admirable and expresses the issues very clearly in a readable and comprehensible manner. It makes every possible effort to be fair and even-handed. In such a debate, it is to be expected that hon. Members will be tempted to quote selectively from the report. However, Lord Phillips laid it on the line that the Government of the time were

He said:

He also said that

That is clear and unequivocal.

Equally, however, things went wrong, and obviously there are lessons to be learned. I shall concentrate on only two, which I have briefly discussed, in passing, with the Minister. The first lesson relates to openness and media reaction. In his opening remarks, the Minister described that as a notoriously difficult area. There were several food scares in the late 1980s and the 1990s. We had the salmonella in eggs episode; questions were asked about soft cheeses; there was a problem with apple juice--and, I seem to recall, with carrots; I cannot now remember what it was, but I recall headlines of the "killer carrots" variety.

There is undoubtedly a genuine dilemma, which the Minister has already faced and will continue to face, concerning how best to explain what are, in all fairness, half-completed scientific findings, which may or may not be confirmed, without there being a huge, terrified and unjustified media outcry. Some may say that a media outcry does not matter. Some of my right hon. Friends have expressed their fear that a judicial review may arise from an unjustified media outcry. The public can make up their own mind if they have access to the correct facts, but "killer carrots" was not a factual description of the problem with that particular food.

During my time at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which was only 14 months, there was a change in the scientific advice that we were given based on the finding of infectivity in the distal ileum of calves. That episode is described in great detail on pages 137 and

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138 of volume 1 of the report. It was also exhaustively examined in the evidence that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), the then Parliamentary Secretary at MAFF, and I gave to the inquiry. There is no doubt that we strained every nerve in an attempt to give information as completely, accurately and speedily as possible. Within five days of receiving the advice from SEAC, we had produced a complete press report and informed the EU and, it goes without saying, Parliament. The report commended us for that.

However, I recall--this is a point for the Minister--that having given a lengthy, detailed press conference and issued a press release, there was a curious silence from the sound and television media. Fearing that I had not been as open as possible, I went to Millbank and said, "Does anyone want to interview me about an increase of infectivity in the distal ileum of calves?" Although I was trying to be open with the media, they were not too interested. It is possible that I might have been accused of trying to cover something up merely because an issue, which was important and serious and which represented a new development, seemed, on the face of it, to be boring and technical. It is easier for the media to say, "Killer carrot". It is not always as easy as it seems to be as open as one should be. I know that the Minister realises that, and I am trying to share my experience of that problem with the House.

The issue of accountability and responsibility causes me some anxiety on the Minister's behalf. On page 30 of volume 1, the report refers to the division of responsibility for enforcing regulations between central and local government. It says:

Local authorities were required to attend the inquiry and gave evidence collectively, which was fine. I am not in the least worried about taking responsibility for the safe practices of slaughterhouses. Although other people--the chairmen of environmental health committees in local government--had been elected to take responsibility for the conditions in them, I accept that the Minister stands at the end of the line. However, as the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) said, there was the issue of the division of responsibility.

To address that problem, we took the controversial decision of creating the Meat Hygiene Service, which took on responsibility for many matters. The report deals with that in the section on lessons to be learned. We believed that we had gone some way to solving the problems. I think that the Minister may face similar difficulties because responsibilities have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The report says:

its word--

the Department of Health. It went on:

I know that the Minister has the situation in hand, but it is important for people to march together when there is an overarching issue of public health. I am sure that he

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will continue to maintain that approach. The matter is delicate. New elected and devolved institutions are naturally wary of any encroachment of what they see as their territory, although public health is clearly relevant across the country.

I want again to express my heartfelt regret and sorrow for those families who have been so grievously affected by the episode. In explaining how it was to be a Minister in government at that time, when less scientific knowledge was available, the report helps to explain today's circumstances. However, we cannot expect the families to see it that way--how can they? I believe that the Minister's positive approach and the support that has been expressed on both sides of the House may help individuals and families to cope with their grief.

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