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5.20 pm

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): I am grateful to have the opportunity to participate in this important debate.

All hon. Members hold advice surgeries and I first became involved with the issue of vCJD after I held a surgery in my constituency. In a cold hall in the village of Eaglesham one of my surgeries turned out be anything but routine. A gentleman, whom I did not know, appeared to explain what had happened to his family. I have the permission of that gentleman, Mr. Tibbert, to mention the fact that, tragically, he lost his wife, Margaret, when she was 29. Listening to the experience of the Tibbert family and learning that a very young son had lost his mother to the disease ignited my interest in the issue.

Since the terrible but important circumstances in which I met Mr. Tibbert, I have come to learn that a second family in my constituency--they do not desire any publicity--have lost a young son to this terrible disease. I have also come to know them and discussed their tragic experiences with them.

I have explained the background to my keen interest in the subject and, as the first paragraph of the introduction of the Phillips report makes clear, the issue is not only a tragedy for the families involved, but it has become a national tragedy. In my conversations with those who have become interested in the subject because of their personal experiences or through their interest in food safety, food hygiene and public safety, I have learned that there is a general welcome for the way in which the Government have dealt with the tragedy and continue to seek to deal with it.

The Government commissioned the Phillips report, responded positively to it and have made a genuine attempt to provide a care package to support the families affected. I do not think that that is a party political point, because I believe that a care package was not in place in the past because this was a newly discovered disease that Governments were not accustomed to dealing with. The package has now been put in place, but I dare say that, if the Conservative party were in power, it would also be undertaking to provide a care package, to consult the families of the victims and to consider proposals for compensation.

As with the compensation for far east prisoners of war, it is not the money but recognition of the problems that is important. Therefore, I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to make strenuous efforts to continue to consult the families of the victims, because they believe that to be crucially important.

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All hon. Members who have met the families of the victims would have several outstanding questions. Some of those questions about who knew what and when and about where we apportion the primary responsibility may never be answered. I suspect only the consciences and memories of the Ministers and civil servants who were directly involved and who attended the meetings will be the true testimony to what happened.

I do not seek to put words into the mouths of my constituents but there is a desperate desire among the victims' families to get to the bottom of some of the questions. All I ask is that everyone who has taken part in this interesting debate and those Members who read it will try for a moment--I know that it is an impossible task--to consider what they would do if one of their loved ones or relatives was involved. What would they expect the Government or Opposition to do? Sometimes such demands seem to be unrealistic, or are perceived to be, in the world of the civil service, or that of the Government. We should have empathy with those who are making the demands, and I know that my right hon. Friend has. We should understand their loss. It is that sense of loss that continues to motivate them, and it will do so every day of their lives until they feel that they have got to the bottom of what really happened.

There is the question of who was at fault. It is undoubted that some politicians share a proportion of the blame. The Phillips report says that the campaign of reassurance that was undertaken was mistaken. It identifies the fact that the March 1996 Cabinet refused to ban meat from animals older than 30 months, but that, subsequently, that policy was changed.

I suspect that the Conservative politicians who were involved at the time will have an opportunity to play a part in the debate. I think that they will do themselves a disservice, and a disservice to the House, if they try to rewrite history and their role in it. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, we should accept the report in the round, including in equal measure its criticisms and its acknowledgements. We should acknowledge that mistakes were made and individuals should not try to wash their hands of them. No attempt should be made to rewrite history. Those involved should accept the portion of blame that is rightly attributed to them. The families of the victims will think much more of the former Ministers who were involved if they do that.

I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) about the civil service. I am echoing also the words of one of my constituents, Mr. Tibbert. The civil service is unaccountable and cannot respond to the criticisms that are made of it. However, the Phillips report states that even the policies that were belatedly agreed to were not fully implemented.

My right hon. Friend said that it was primarily or exclusively the responsibility of the permanent secretary to ensure that lessons are learned within the civil service. I understand that. Given that we have not heard the last of this tragic issue, it should be understood that the families of the victims want to find answers wherever they may be, whether in the political sphere or the wider sphere of government.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor)--he is no longer in his place, but I do not think that I shall quote him unfairly--was asked by

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my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston about paragraph 553 of the Phillips report, which deals with the safety of baby food and whether a ban should be extended to all foodstuffs. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that he asked that question, and requested that the ban should be extended. He suggested that the report is inaccurate in its criticism of him. Whether that is a denial of convenience or one of conviction, I do not know. I am not in a position to make that judgment.

The Minister of the day is identified in the report and it is suggested that he failed in his duty and responsibility. It seems that he contests that and suggests that the blame lies elsewhere. That may amplify demands among some relatives that answers should be sought in a much wider sphere. I accept what has been said about the role of the permanent secretary, but in this instance it seems that the right hon. Member for South Norfolk is saying that such a dialogue took place between him and the then permanent secretary. Sensitivity--which I know my right hon. Friend the Minister has--will be needed in future regarding the role of the civil service. While my right hon. Friend does not have direct responsibility in any way for the civil service, can he make sure that the permanent secretary ensures that lessons are learned in the wider civil service?

As other Members have said, it is important to concentrate on what can be done now. The establishment of the Food Standards Agency is an important and ground-breaking initiative which, hopefully, will reduce the chances of this tragedy being repeated. Tragically, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), described the creation of the FSA as public relations nonsense. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman regrets saying that and is considerably wiser now that the agency is up and running and doing important work.

In the short time available, I should like to single out an issue that has not yet been identified in our debate--the failure of Departments in Scotland to deal with the issue. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for dealing with different aspects of that matter. Paragraph 1104 on page 216 of the report, which deals with the appraisal of concerns about human health, states that in Scotland, any analysis was conducted by the agriculture department. There was no wider consultation; others did not participate in it and did not give their opinion.

In the report, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland is quoted as saying that it expected its comments to form

in Scotland. That statement is worrying, and I hope that in the welcome, but complex, interrelationship between the House of Commons and the devolved institutions throughout the United Kingdom, there will be discussions and dialogues between different Departments in each devolved Administration and between Departments of different Assemblies and Parliaments.

A real concern of which I have experience involves the fact that the support services that I mentioned were missing in the past and a care package was not available. I welcome comments that the financial contribution to a future care package will be increased. Should the need

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arise--heaven forfend--the current £1 million will be increased. I hope that my right hon. Friend will confirm that that substantial commitment will be extended if, unfortunately, that is the case.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's earlier comments on openness and the fact that he will publish the research that informs his decisions on any future matters of this nature. Of course, we all wish that that had been the case and that a minimum level of best practice had been applied by the previous Government; we wish that all of the information that informed decisions had been placed in the public domain. Sadly, however, those in office at the time chose not to do that.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will take the bold decision to publish research that he discounts in reaching his decisions, not simply that with which he agrees.

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