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Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): The Secretary of State will know that I wrote to her yesterday requesting an urgent statement on the failure of the tests. I am grateful to her for coming to the House this afternoon, even though it is clear that she should have made a statement last week and that all we have been treated to is a staggering display of complacency. There was not a word of regret, never a "sorry" from the Secretary of State, whose handling of the issue has been appalling. The day that this Government express embarrassment or dismay for any of their incompetencies or their ruthless approach to news management will be a red letter day indeed.

No responsible person will believe that the decision to announce the failure of the test by means of a press release at 10.30 at night on a website, the failure to inform specialist journalists and the failure to hold to a press conference were anything other than a concerted attempt to—in Jo Moore's shameful phrase—"bury" another embarrassing story from a Department that is becoming famous for its gaffes and incompetence. Last week I called for the individual responsible for the decision about the press release to be sacked. It now transpires that that person was none other than the Secretary of State herself. I doubt that she will sack herself—unfortunately—but perhaps she will answer a few questions.

At the weekend, the Secretary of State appeared to admit that her decision to slip out the press release at the dead of night was wrong. Why then did she not take the opportunity to put things right on Thursday when she had the chance? Why, instead and at very short notice, did she make a statement on Lord Haskins's disappointing report on foot and mouth? What does that tell us about the Government's priorities?

On Thursday, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, in the now time-honoured mantra:

The Secretary of State repeated the same nonsense just now—for open read "opaque" and for transparent read "evasive".

The Phillips report on BSE maintains that the possibility that it might have been transmitted to sheep is

Does the Secretary of State agree with that, and if so why has she given this issue so little priority? How is it possible that for four years Government scientists have been trying to establish whether BSE was present in sheep in the 1990s by investigating cows' brains? It beggars belief. Why did the late-night press release not come clean about what had happened? It simply said that cross- checking had

Why did it not state the case—that the whole experiment had been a fiasco? How much money has been wasted on this experiment over the years?

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Will the right hon. Lady confirm that Professor Bostock contacted the Veterinary Laboratories Agency nearly a year ago to express his concerns about the samples? Were Ministers advised about those concerns at the time? If so, when were they advised? If they did not know, why not? Will the right hon. Lady confirm that scientists told her Department early last summer that the material they were testing for BSE appeared to contain traces of bovine remains? If that is so, why did it take her two further months before she ordered DNA checks to be made? If Ministers were unsure of the validity of the experiments—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is wittering on, but I am coming on to his role in this affair. If Ministers were unsure of the validity of the experience, why did the Under-Secretary announce on 28 September that all Britain's 40 million sheep might have to be culled? Was that a responsible thing to say at a time when Britain's farmers were already facing a meltdown over foot and mouth?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that Professor Collinge, a member of SEAC, has been calling since 1997 for the use of a new testing system which, instead of taking years to identify BSE, takes just two days? Will she now insist on the use of this technology?

I note what the Secretary of State said about the safety of lamb products. However, is she aware that when the chairman of the FSA was recently asked about the safety of lamb in baby food, he replied that he was assured by manufacturers that they only used lamb from New Zealand? Will she confirm that British babies will be perfectly safe eating British lamb?

This whole episode is a humiliating embarrassment for the right hon. Lady's Department. We are quite used to those—they hardly matter any more. More important, however, it raises major questions about the Government's handling of bad news and, more important still, represents a massive setback to the credibility of Government scientific agencies and to the vital job of restoring confidence in our food. Who does the Minister hold responsible for this fiasco? What action will she take to ensure that those who are found to be responsible are never allowed near food safety and public health again?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman has made it quite clear by that rant that whoever is a responsible person in this matter, he is not one. I have seldom heard anything so dangerously irresponsible as his remarks.

First, the hon. Gentleman referred to the notice appearing at 10.30 pm on the website. He knows perfectly well that the notice was issued through the PA a great deal earlier in the evening because I wrote to him and gave him the details days ago. Secondly, he asked about the failure to inform the press and to hold a press conference. I have already made it plain that we issued a press notice that evening and that we held a separate press conference on the Haskins report on which, as he rightly said, I reported to the House. At that press conference, information packs were made available and I understand that this issue and the contents of the packs were drawn to the attention of the specialist journalists who might have had a particular interest in this case, so information was made available to the press.

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The hon. Gentleman talked about my appearing to say that we had handled this wrongly. I actually said that with the benefit of hindsight, if there was an error it might perhaps have been in deciding to issue the press release straight away. I will be quite honest and say that I do not believe that that was an error. I also believe that if we had not put out a press release that evening, as soon as we had cleared what we could then find out of the facts and put them into the public domain, the hon. Gentleman would be screaming even more loudly that we had never intended to make a press statement at all.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Collinge testing system. Yes, there has been considerable discussion about that. He will be aware that it is not a test that other people have found easy to replicate, but a great deal of other work is going on. Indeed, at present the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, which comprises Government scientists, has been conducting some tests using a similar technique. That work has not yet been formally reported, however; nor—this is more important—has it been peer reviewed. Work is going on to try to identify better and faster methods of getting some of these results—there we are on common ground—and it will of course be reported fully to the House in the proper way.

I do not have up-to-date figures, but from memory, a sum in the order of £200,000 was spent on the research in question. What comes through most clearly in the hon. Gentleman's approach to this matter today, and indeed in some of the press publicity over the weekend, is that although the hon. Gentleman asks me what the matter tells us of the Government's priorities, what it tells us of the Opposition's priorities is clear. The hon. Gentleman was at pains to try to make the case that the Government themselves are in some way at fault, even to the extent of talking about Government scientists. The Institute for Animal Health is not a body of Government scientists; it is an independent body, from which my Department commissioned the research.

What happened during the course of the past few days is clear to me. On Wednesday afternoon, we were told very disturbing news which cast grave doubts on the validity of that research. We put that into the public domain as early as we could—within hours that same evening—and followed it up by issuing a press pack to those whom we thought might be particularly interested. We were perfectly happy to answer questions from anyone who asked them. We were not altogether surprised that there was not much follow-up because inconclusive experiments are not usually very interesting to the press.

What then happened—about two days later—was that the Opposition decided to pretend that this was in some way an attempt to conceal the facts. It was the Opposition who blew this up out of all proportion, as a supposed Government cover-up—[Interruption.] It is the Opposition who have since sought to exploit the matter to make it as big a story as possible and to cast doubt in the public's mind about the safety of eating sheepmeat, the safety of experiments and the confidence the public can place in any of the scientific work on BSE. That is why I call what the hon. Gentleman said dangerously irresponsible.

None of these experiments will give us clear and conclusive answers: all we are ever going to have are experimental results that narrow down the range of uncertainty bit by bit. The hon. Gentleman has done

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neither sheep farmers nor the British public any service whatever by his disgraceful attempt to pretend that this is anything other than—yes—a series of grave errors that cause grave concern, but I see nothing—[Interruption.] To speak to the hon. Gentleman directly, as he is heckling me: what is it for which I am supposed to apologise?

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