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6.1 pm

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): It is a privilege to come here this evening to say something about the Phillips report, which I welcome. It is fair and reaches the right balance.

We have heard this afternoon that 86 people have died from this terrible disease. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) has graphically described the symptoms and the duration of the disease. It is tragic that young people with their lives ahead of them have been struck down by this terrible disease, which has no known cure. We all sympathise with the parents and relatives of those who have died and those who are still suffering. The fact that there are eight people who are presumably still suffering from the disease may provide some hope that the disease will not grow to the extent that some of us might fear.

When I first came to the House, I was always surprised by the attitude of the governing Labour party at Agriculture questions. There was always criticism of the Opposition; they were entirely responsible for £4 billion spent on BSE and for the tragedy. We must recognise that, in reality, we cannot blame any particular person. This disease could not have been foreseen. The scientists were working at the frontiers of science and it was impossible to predict the true nature of the disease until more symptoms appeared and more scientific knowledge became available.

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The inquiry was right to say that we should not look for scapegoats, because they are none. Indeed, Lord Phillips is right when he also says that if those criticised were misguided, they none the less acted in accordance with their conception of the proper performance of their duties.

We have heard some criticism of the civil service and past Ministers. The Minister was right to be measured in his criticism. He, too, faces difficult decisions. It is easy to criticise when one has never been a Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or held office. However, there are tremendous pressures on those who have to face the media and the likelihood of giving wrong or inadequate advice. The Minister should be commended on his restraint. I agree with the Phillips report that no one should be disciplined.

Happily for Northern Ireland, we did not suffer BSE to the same extent as the rest of the United Kingdom. That may be because of geography and the fact that we are separated by water. So far, there have been few cases of vCJD in Northern Ireland. I am glad to report that the incidence is decreasing in Northern Ireland, as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom.

A specific test was conducted in Northern Ireland on 2,546 animals last year. The Enfer test can indicate the possible presence of BSE in an animal. It produced 60 possible cases. After further microscopic examination, 54 cases were confirmed. At first sight, that figure may appear alarming. We used to have five or six cases, but the test revealed 54. However, 700 four-year-old animals were free of the disease. That is encouraging and shows that our approach is correct and that we are taking the right measures. In several years, we hope that older animals will be clear of the disease and that it will be eradicated.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Will my hon. Friend confirm that none of the cases that were examined could have entered the food chain?

Mr. Thompson: Yes. No animal that is over 30 months enters the food chain. That confirms that the food that we eat in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the United Kingdom is almost certainly free of the disease. That is welcome.

Let us consider the new European regulations. Europe is discovering that BSE exists there, too. The European Union is introducing new restrictions, including one on fishmeal. That will create difficulties in the United Kingdom. Fishmeal was never considered to have played a part in the BSE crisis. I understand that the view in Europe is that fishmeal may have become adulterated with meat and bonemeal. I ask the Minister for Public Health to update us on precisely what is happening in that regard. What are the consequences of excluding fishmeal from ruminant meal? If the Government have made a decision on the matter, when will regulations come into force?

As I know that time is of the essence in this debate, I shall conclude. I am grateful, however, for having had the opportunity to speak in it.

6.10 pm

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): Matthew Parker, from the village of Armthorpe in my constituency, was 19 when, in 1997, he died of variant CJD. Sarah Roberts, also from Armthorpe, was 28 when,

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in September 2000, she died of the same disease. Matthew's and Sarah's families are devastated by those deaths. The village of Armthorpe, a close-knit community, has been shocked and enormously saddened by the loss of those two young people.

I have kept in close touch with both Matthew's and Sarah's families. I pay tribute to them not only for their bravery in the dreadful circumstances that they have faced, but for their determination to do everything that they possibly can to ensure that other families do not suffer as they have.

Matthew's family--I am thinking particularly of his mother, Doreen, his grandfather and his father--campaigned vigorously for a public inquiry. I add my voice to those of right. hon. and hon. Members who have congratulated the Government on establishing the Phillips inquiry.

I have listened very carefully to Members' comments about the difficulty of laying blame at the door of any individual. It would be wrong of me, however, not to express the very real anger that I and the families in my constituency feel about the many mistakes that, as the Phillips report highlights, were made by the previous Administration.

Today, we have had apologies from two Conservative Members. Until today, however, as far as I am aware, only one Conservative Member--the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell)--had made an apology. The families in my constituency feel particularly angry about that. They feel that the response has been totally inadequate.

Mr. Yeo: May I draw the hon. Lady's attention to the fact that, when the Minister published the Phillips report, on the record, on behalf of the Conservative party, I expressed unreserved apologies? She is completely inaccurate in the claim that she has just made.

Ms Winterton: I have acknowledged that the hon. Gentleman made an apology today. I have also said that my constituents need personal apologies. I hope that he will accept that. I also hope that, in view of his comments, he will support the Government when they have to make difficult decisions on, for example, beef on the bone.

Mr. Yeo: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Winterton: I am sorry, but I cannot give way again because of time constraints.

My constituents want honesty about the past and openness in the future. Openness is crucial to maintaining trust. That was brought home to me recently when it was thought that there might be a cluster of CJD cases in my constituency. Not only had the two young people to whom I have referred died in Armthorpe, but it emerged that a third young man who had had connections with the village had died. An investigation was started into whether there was a connection between the three people who had contracted vCJD.

After the initial investigation, I asked Dr. John Radford, the director of public health, to meet me and the families to discuss the investigation. I know that Dr. Radford had some reservations about sharing the information with

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people from outside his profession, but we had the meeting and he was open with us about what had taken place during his investigation. He later wrote to me and said that the meeting

I want to put on record how helpful we all found Dr. Radford's open approach. I am extremely glad that the Government have made a commitment to ensuring openness and trust in the future.

One of the issues that we discussed at the meeting was the need to share information, especially about potential clusters. I understand that a template has been developed with the Colindale national communicable disease surveillance centre, with input from Doncaster and Leicestershire health authorities. That means that, if there are fears of clusters, the local authority can use the template to ensure that all avenues of investigation are covered. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that that is the case.

I welcome the Government's positive response to the finding of the Phillips inquiry that improvements are needed to speed up the diagnosis of vCJD. I hope that the Government will consider ways, perhaps through the office of the chief medical officer, to ensure that GPs and psychiatrists are made aware of the early symptoms to look out for and the presentation of vCJD.

I welcome the steps that the Government have taken to provide a care package for those who contract vCJD. I know that David Body, who was referred to earlier, has worked hard on that. I know that Matthew and Sarah's families felt that the support that they received from Doncaster social services was good, but they were also aware that the support varied enormously across the country.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that provision is the same across the country, of a high standard, and that the Government consider providing bereavement counselling for relatives--something that the director of public health in Doncaster feels should be available.

No amount of money can ever make up for the tragic loss that the families of those who have died from this terrible disease have suffered, but I believe that the Government moved quickly in their discussions with representatives of the families on compensation, and have responded positively to my concern about those who are in receipt of social security benefits. I know that an announcement was made yesterday about that. I welcome it, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to bring the regulations before Parliament quickly so that interim payments can be made.

I ask for an assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that the Government will maintain the highest standards of meat inspection in abattoirs. That concern has been raised by the Human BSE Foundation, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me some reassurance on that matter.

I am aware that, because of time constraints, I have not addressed many of the issues in the Phillips report. The matters that I raised are those that families in my constituency asked me to bring to the attention of Ministers. I am proud that it was the Labour Government who set up the Phillips inquiry, and I am proud that the

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Government are responding quickly to the findings of the inquiry. Finally, my plea is that the Government continue to do everything that they can to make sure that such a terrible tragedy never happens again.

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