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6.50 pm

The Minister for Public Health (Yvette Cooper): We have had a measured, thoughtful and constructive debate this afternoon about the BSE inquiry and the tragedy of new variant CJD that lies behind it. Many Members began their speeches by expressing sympathy for the families whose lives have been turned upside down and often devastated by nvCJD. I join them, for we need always to bear in mind that reality when we consider the events that lie behind the BSE inquiry.

My right hon. Friend the Minister gave a clear summary of the extremely thorough and extensive Phillips report, and the shortcomings and problems that it identified. He also explained the key themes in the Government's interim response. I shall not go over that ground and I apologise now to any Members whose points I am not able to respond to in the time that remains.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) discussed issues of openness; he and the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) both welcomed the report. I welcome their commitment to pursuing the issues behind the report and its conclusions. My right hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) described their concerns and the questions that they asked in the 1990s. They described their frustration in raising those issues in discussion and debate at that time.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) welcomed the report and raised important issues, based on his experience. I am certainly

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interested in considering further the questions that he asked about whether or not the fear of judicial review might prevent an effective precautionary approach from being adopted. That is clearly an area in which the publication of scientific evidence can play an important role, and we need to consider it further.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) expressed support for the Food Standards Agency, which I welcome. However, I disagree that the Government consider the Phillips report as a done and dusted deal and believe that no more needs to be done. The reverse is true, as our debate has shown. A huge amount needs to be done to ensure that the response to the report is properly embedded across Government. Already, a huge amount has been done, but there is certainly more to do.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), and my hon. Friends the Members for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge), for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) and for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) described powerfully the experiences both of constituents who are suffering today from nvCJD and of the families of those who have died from the condition. Many of those accounts were moving. I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. and hon. Friends have done in raising their constituents' concerns. Certainly, many of them have expressed those concerns directly to Ministers, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston came to see Ministers with a delegation to outline concerns especially about the need for care packages and the importance of improving care for those suffering from nvCJD.

I would like to highlight a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central; many of those victims' families have campaigned for a public inquiry for a long time. Those of us who will benefit from the conclusions of the Phillips report and their implementation in future owe those families a debt for their tenacity in pursuing that issue at an extremely difficult time for them.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams) spoke about how much was known about the transmission of the disease at an early stage. The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard)--whose speech I apologise for missing--made interesting points about the importance of the media in communicating risk. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) referred to the need to find the origins of BSE and nvCJD, and the role that OPs may have played. My right hon. Friend the Minister is happy to look into the report that he mentioned, and will write to him on that issue.

The hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) welcomed the measures that are making a difference to controlling BSE in Northern Ireland. He raised the ban on feeding fishmeal to ruminants. I can tell him that the EU ban will be reviewed before 1 July. The Government will consider the UK position in the light of further scientific advice, the results of the Commission's missions to member states and other developments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley spoke about the failure to deal with uncertainty. I should like to return to discussion on that subject in future. I shall return also to the specific points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central about care and compensation. On her concerns about meat inspection, however, I can tell her that no formal proposals have been

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made to change the rules, although I understand that the European Commission has circulated a working document containing initial ideas on a risk-based meat inspection system. The Government's concern at every stage will be to ensure that proper standards are in place to protect public health.

In the remaining time, I want to concentrate on three health issues that have arisen several times in the debate. First, I should like to deal with the care and support that we provide for those who are now suffering because of what went wrong in the past in respect of BSE and nvCJD. I know that many of the affected families understandably feel angry and that their troubles have been exacerbated by struggling to get the care and support that they need. The BSE inquiry identified a lack of sufficient support for patients and their families. All the lessons that we learn for the future will have come too late for those people.

Many hon. Members have expressed their concern about that to the Department. That is why the Government announced on the report's publication that £1 million would be made available for a care fund to support patients who were being nursed at home by their families. The fund is already being used to support patients in the community and to pay for elements of care that cannot readily be supplied by local health and social services. We are keen to ensure that those care packages continue to be shaped around the families' views and needs.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood that we will certainly review the size of that fund if more cases arise. It is being administered by the CJD surveillance unit in Edinburgh and its aim is to provide uniform care throughout the country, to ensure that families can speedily access the expertise that they need to support them whenever they find themselves in this dreadful situation. We intend forthcoming guidance on home care charges to state that CJD patients should not pay them.

We also announced on the report's publication that we intended to make special compensation payments to those who contracted nvCJD and their families. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced that, although discussions are continuing with the legal representatives of the affected families, we will make interim payments of £25,000 in the meantime. We will also introduce regulations to ensure that the payments are not taken into account in the calculation of income-related social security benefits. We will do that as swiftly as we can.

I want to deal briefly with the important, but not easy, issue of assessing and communicating risk. The Phillips report states:

That is extremely serious; it is about not only BSE, but trust in Government across the board and in pronouncements on health and safety. As many hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, the key is openness and honesty with the public about risk. That means publicising scientific advice and providing people with the facts so that they can make their own decisions about whether the Government are making a sensible policy judgment. We must also be able to distinguish between circumstances in which there is said to be no scientific evidence of a risk because there is lots of

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scientific evidence that does not support it, and circumstances in which there is simply no good evidence at all. There is a distinction between the two that we have not always made in the past in public health, but we must do so now.

For example, the experts tell us that there is a good deal of evidence to show that there is no link between MMR vaccines and autism. On mobile phones, on the other hand, they tell us that there is simply no good evidence at all, which is why we must take a different approach with regard to those matters. We must publish all the scientific evidence at every stage, whether or not it favours our conclusions. That is critical to providing people with increasing confidence in Government pronouncements.

It is of great concern that public confidence in Government pronouncements has been undermined. Hon. Members on both sides of the House must do everything that we can to improve that.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.


Motion made,

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