Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): May I ask a very obvious question? Although hindsight is a marvellous thing to have, why on earth was not normal laboratory practice followed and identification of the material confirmed when it came to the laboratory, especially as it had been taken out of some fridge of doubtful provenance? Why was not normal laboratory practice followed?
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is a very pertinent question. Further tests have been conducted. Tests were conducted when this experiment began, and from time to time down the years further tests have been conducted. It is far from clear why the results of the tests that were conducted then and the results of the tests conducted at the laboratory of the Government chemist the other day are so disparate. That is precisely the issue that the independent scientific audit will have to address. I know that my hon. Friend will understand precisely why I said that there is a great deal of confusion in the information presently available to the Government.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): Is the Secretary of State aware that when I was in Brussels last Wednesday, officials from both the Commission and the European Parliament told me that they expected research to be published in the next 24 hours which would confirm that BSE was present in the British sheep flock? Surely, the issue that she needs to address is how we got so close to an announcement that would have had disastrous consequences for our industry, why the error was not discovered earlier and why, indeed, it was possible, over a period of months, for doubts to have been expressed but not, apparently, addressed?
The Secretary of State said, correctly, that the IAH is not the Department but a client of the Department. However, can she say whether the Department was in any way involved in supplying the relevant material or what it did to supervise that? How can she ensure that when the Department commissions research in future, it can satisfy itself that the people carrying it out can be trusted to do so properly, professionally and competently? Does she not acknowledge that there is a great deal of concern that, as MAFF's successor, her Department still suffers from low morale and motivation as well as, in many cases, a poor calibre of decision making and management? If that is the case, does she not recognise that she has a responsibility to put things right so that we can have confidence that the Department is capable of commissioning research that will deliver results? We must recognise and welcome the fact that there is no such evidence in the British sheep flock, but what will she do to ensure that any research now conducted does not raise any further doubts?
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right in that we have been in touch with the European Commission which, like us, was expecting the results of the work on Friday. However, he is wrong about what those results
The hon. Gentleman asked about the supervision of the collection of the sample and so on. At the moment, I do not know who supervised the collection of material but, as I said in my statement, it was collected for a completely different purpose. Cow brain was collected in the 1990s under the supervision of the Conservative Government to test the effect of rendering on BSE prions; sheep brain was collected to test the effect of rendering on the clinical signs of scrapie. All the material was kept at the IAH and, as far as I am aware, was not in the custody of my Department; I am not aware of any role that we had in supervising its custody. It was thought that there would be merit in conducting experiments on brain material collected in the 1990s, but clearly a limited amount of such material was still available, which is why it was decided to take the risk of using material collected under different circumstances and for a different purpose.
The hon. Gentleman asked about doubts that had been expressed. There were questions and doubts down the years because there must always be some scientific dubiety when material is collected under different circumstances and for a different reason. Moreover, I understand that when people became concerned about cross-contamination, it was felt that the material might have been worked on on benches on which cow brain had also been worked on. We were therefore talking about the possibility of contamination occurring during experimental work and research rather than a mixing of the material itself. I must tell the hon. Gentleman and the House in all seriousness that there are important issues to be addressed, so it is essential that we have the independent scientific audit and do not speculate about what happened.
Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland): Is my right hon. Friend aware that she is right not to be deflected by the incoherent ramblings of the party that caused all those problems in the first place and left the nation with that appalling legacy? Will she confirm that the independent and, I hope, rigorous audit of the work will go wide enough to include an audit of all similar or related work in that area being carried out for the Department and the Government? If it is the case that there was a failure to provide the proper tissues for research, we need to know that similar failures have not occurred in other research carried out in the IAH or other institutions. So will my right hon. Friend ensure that all the work that is going on in this important, sensitive and difficult area is properly and independently[Interruption.]rigorously assessed before any further decisions are taken?
Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend is entirely right, and I share his views. He will know that I have already demanded an independent audit. I have also demanded a thorough review of all the work that is being undertaken, and I am asking for people to consider whether there is yet further research that we ought to undertake. It is important that all that is done. I noticed that Opposition Members were emphasising the need for independent scrutiny. That is a view which I share. I again remind them that the reason that we know about the
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): But we have had an extremely close call. It is just possible that we could have been here today listening to a statement about measures taken to protect the public from eating lamb. As the Secretary of State knows, the farming community has an apocalyptic view that that could extend to the slaughter of the entire flock. It would be helpful if we had the parameters of a response if that were discovered. If the work is being done at more than one institutethe experiment was only part of the workis it possible that we still may be able to find out whether BSE was present, masked by scrapie, in the sheep flock in the 1990s? Is there other work, as the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said, which may have led to policy announcements, although we now doubt the veracity of the research on which it was based? As public money is involved, can the Government have recourse to the institutes to recover it, given that it was spent in a futile cause in the exercise in question?
Margaret Beckett: No doubt that issue will have to be considered in the fulness of time. Of course I am aware of the grave anxieties in the farming community. That is why I regret that the episode has been hijacked for an entirely different political purpose. It is a matter of great concern. As far as I am awareI will write to the right hon. Gentleman if I am wrongthere may not be much other work going on that will tell us about what happened in sheep brain in the 1990s because, by definition, only a limited amount of material is available. I am not aware that there is other work of that period. Most of the other work that is being undertaken is in many ways more pertinent to the anxieties of the public and of the farming community, as it is being undertaken on sheep that are in the food chain now.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is well aware that up to the present time, which is all that we can say as we are dealing with uncertainties, none of that work has yet detected the presence of BSE in the national flock. We must hope that that continues to be the case, but that does not absolve any of us from our responsibility to do everything we can to make sure that we get further information and have it properly and rigorously assessed, and to do everything possible to try to eradicate scrapie and, with it, the risk of BSE.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): When exactly in 1997 was the flawed research commissioned? Would my right hon. Friend welcome a full investigation of the matter by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?