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5.48 pm

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): In their moving speeches, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) spoke of two of his constituents and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) told us about Donna McGivern, and I want to dedicate my remarks to one of my constituents, Donna McIntyre.

Donna was born on 13 July 1979. She lived initially in Northfield in my constituency, and went to Old Meldrum primary school and later to Dyce academy. Reading the profile that she wrote about herself at the end of her time at the school, I was reminded of many of the pupils whom I taught over the years in Aberdeen.

Donna talked about her interests: the brownies, the guides, the choir, swimming, badminton and squash. She said how she enjoyed going on holiday with a friend's family to Malta, and going on holiday to Holland with the choir in 1994. She talked of how she enjoyed her work experience as a nursery nurse and helping in an old people's home, and her ambition to go into nursing or accounting. That fits closely with the account of her by her family and friends as a caring, helpful and loving person. In 1999, she worked with the Prince's Trust Volunteers.

Towards the end of 1999 and the beginning of the millennium, Donna began to suffer from depression. In the early months of last year, she became increasingly confused. She went missing from her flat, and her sister, Lisa, found her and took her back to her father's home. She started to behave as if she were drunk. She started to lose co-ordination and basic control of her movements. She went to the doctor, and then to Fosterhill hospital on 26 August, and in the following month it was diagnosed that she almost certainly had new variant CJD. She has had very good care ever since, but her condition has steadily deteriorated. Since November she has not been able to speak. She sleeps a lot, and responds to being hugged and held by friends and family; sometimes she gives a great smile. But to appreciate the extent of the tragedy it is important to realise fully the awfulness of each person's case, and also the potential scale of the problem.

I want to express my gratitude to Donna's father, Billy McIntyre, who is present in the Strangers Gallery and who has shared his experience with me, and to Professor Hugh Pennington, the recognised leading authority on the subject, who has shared his professional expertise with me. I shall try to speak on Billy's behalf. He told me that he wanted to speak not just on his own behalf, but on behalf of other victims' families. I cannot presume to give voice to what Donna would say if she were not deprived of speech.

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When we discussed the scale of this, Billy said to me, "This could be a time bomb." Professor Hugh Pennington told me, "There are so many unpredictable factors that we really cannot know the potential scale." Because the disease is a new variant, we do not know whether it will behave in the same way as the comparatively rare disease that we know as CJD. Indeed, if it is similar to that disease, the incubation period could be as long as 40 years. At present, it seems that all who have suffered have had a similar genetic make-up involving the MM prion. Apparently, just under 40 per cent. of the population harbour the prion.

Professor Pennington told me that we could be talking about hundreds or about hundreds of thousands. Taking the worst-case analysis, we should think of the resulting devastation of our economy, given the cost of compensation and care; but we should think even more of the human cost and the personal devastation.

As was rightly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams), the disease originated in Britain. Tragically, for too long and to an excessive extent we exported it not just to the rest of Europe but to the rest of the world, including the third world. That means that some of the world's poorest people may be affected. All too often disasters hit the poorest, in disproportionate measure.

Indeed, we may find a disproportionate distribution by wealth in our own country. One of the most infectious causes of the disease is MRM--mechanically recovered meat--which went into the cheapest sausages, pies and burgers. I now see a disturbing hypocrisy in past occasions when comparatively affluent people could be observed eating prime beef that would never be a source of danger, and saying that British beef was safe.

I want to discuss three things: blame, lessons and restitution. First, let me deal with blame. Billy told me that it was difficult to express the degree of anger and incomprehension that he was experiencing. He said it was an irony that what was done yesterday was described as no-fault compensation. Some people certainly had no fault--the poor victims, who could not be more innocent.

Billy said something that ties in with what was said by my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr. He asked who would be brave enough to plead guilty. Would it be the feed manufacturers who put commercial interests before the public interest? Would it be the farmers--I am certain that there are some, somewhere--who were less than scrupulous about suspected BSE? Would it be the abattoirs and renderers who took insufficient care in extracting SBO? Would it be some of the members of the media--a question raised by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer)? They prefer not to remember now that they were not all very helpful at one time. What about civil servants and Ministers?

Billy McIntyre said that he feels that two people are especially to blame. The first is a civil servant--Keith Meldrum, the chief veterinary officer. I recognise that Phillips says that Keith Meldrum was very active later on, and I accept that he was. I also accept the points made in his defence by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), but I still believe that Mr. Meldrum deserves blame.

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For far too long, Keith Meldrum held to the dogmatic assumption that only large quantities of infected material would pass on the disease. For that reason, he did not realise the importance of separating the processing of feeds. He delayed the introduction of bans for too long, and there was insufficient rigour in the inspection and enforcement regimes. Moreover, exports should have been halted as soon as fear of the disease emerged. In fact, those exports were vastly increased at precisely that stage.

There is a real worry that the concerns of the industry weighed more heavily with Mr. Meldrum in the early stages than did the concerns of safety. To be fair, however, he is representative of others who are responsible in the same way. I repeat a point that is often made: in this country, we do not give sufficient recognition to corporate criminal liability--what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food called institutional failure.

As a result, Phillips too often blames fairly senior civil servants and Ministers, who may have been directly responsible, but he forgets that the chain of command goes to a much higher level, in the civil service and among Ministers. Billy McIntyre offers a balance in that respect--he told me that the other person whom he really blames is Margaret Thatcher.

I accept the point made by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk, who said that Phillips makes a completely convincing case in relation to the issue of rendering in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher had been accused of direct responsibility. Phillips found that rendering did not make a difference, and that BSE could not be destroyed by rendering.

Other influences were at work, however. Among them are the cuts in research funding, including that for animal and veterinary services, the pressures on research institutes to get external funding and to devote more time to those matters that helped commerce and less to what was necessary for safety, the decreases in the veterinary services referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), and the emphasis on deregulation referred to by my right hon. Friend the Minister and by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. Ministers, civil servants and scientists were all affected by an ethos that, far too often and far too readily, put profits before people, wealth before health and, as it turned out, money before life.

Billy says he feels disgust at the honours with which Baroness Thatcher is loaded. There will doubtless be many memorials to her, probably including some in this House, but it should be remembered that for some people her memorial may be the terrible mad-cow legacy of BSE and CJD. Donna was born just a few weeks after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. We must eradicate the BSE infection, but we must also eradicate the more crass and materialistic aspects of Thatcherism.

There are other lessons to be learned. Billy says that we must guarantee that this does not happen again, and we must first guarantee that transmission of BSE and CJD is not still going on. In that respect, we must look at what is happening in Germany, and in respect of possible medical transmission.

Putting those guarantees in place means that we must be vigilant. We must improve surveillance, and not do so at the expense of research into the causes of the disease and into possible cures--or at least research into the

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possibility of arresting the disease. Secrecy must no longer hold sway. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is in place, but we need far more openness, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) said. Departmentalism must be broken down; we must have joined-up government, including across devolution, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood said. There must be an end to the dogmatic defence of departmental positions, which can still far too often go on. There must be less arrogance and more flexibility. We need more scientists in certain Departments at top levels.

Although I see no rational connection between BSE and genetically modified foods--in fact, some of the suspicions of the latter that have followed are irrational--I recognise the point made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal; that MBMs were being used as feed for half a century before we began to discover what was happening, and were used for most of the last century. We must always observe the precautionary principle.

I conclude by speaking of restitution. The £25 million initial compensation is very welcome as a start, and the vast increase in help with care assistance is also immensely valuable. However, I am again reminded of something that Billy McIntyre said to me. He said that the Government gave compensation to farmers so that they could replace lost animals. No compensation given to families can replace a lost daughter or a lost son. What compensation can one ever give to Donna and her fellow sufferers for the fact that they are no longer able to enjoy family life? They will not be able to enjoy the right to have a family of their own. They will not even be able to enjoy the right to life.

I talked earlier of memorials. The best memorial we could have to Donna and her fellow sufferers will be if we fight as hard as we can to eradicate both BSE and CJD and the errors that led to their becoming so widespread.

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