Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Margaret Beckett: No, I did not. Both my special advisers happened to be away ill.

22 Oct 2001 : Column 28

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the EU Veterinary Standing Committee will soon be considering lifting the export ban on lamb and sheepmeat. What impact, if any, does she think that today's statement will have on its decision?

Margaret Beckett: All these issues must be taken carefully into account. I hope that there will be greater understanding by those who are considering these matters in the relative calm in which they make their decisions on the experiments and on what the questioning of them means.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Farmers in my constituency now have no faith in the Department. If specialists have been examining cows' brains for the past four years, farmers would like to know why they did not find BSE.

Margaret Beckett: I do not want to prejudge what is said to be the outcome of the experiment that has been called into question. I believe that those who conducted it felt that there was some evidence that BSE might have been in the material that they were testing in the 1990s. I do not want to go further than that. The issue of the validity of the experiment, what it means and what it might mean is under question. In addition, these are matters that will have to be considered by SEAC. I am not sure whether farmers in the hon. Gentleman's constituency will be grateful to him for raising even more doubts.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): This is obviously a grave announcement. To what extent does my right hon. Friend think that the Phillips report, rather than helping us understand the cause and transmission of BSE, has made the case for understanding these matters that much more difficult? Will she take due account of that in future and ensure that investigations are reported more quickly, and perhaps pull together some of the scientific evidence in a more opportune manner?

Margaret Beckett: I take my hon. Friend's point. One of the concerns about the work of the Phillips committee, without any discredit to the distinguished individuals who carried it out, was that it took so long. It was not easy for the members of it to draw together the scientific evidence in a way that made it clear. That is one of the reasons why the Government have chosen a different route for the inquiries that we have announced into foot and mouth disease.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): In March, the right hon. Lady's Department received memorandums from the Select Committee on work on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Dr. Dickson, formerly of the neuropathological unit in Edinburgh, contributed to it. He said:

He added:

With that critical comment, I ask the right hon. Lady when her Department first became aware of doubts about the scientific validity of this work. Who provided the source

22 Oct 2001 : Column 29

of the doubts? Is it true that the Department knew about them in September? If so, why is it that we have heard about it only now?

Margaret Beckett: With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman—I regard him as usually a serious contributor to these issues—I do not think that he has listened to what has been said. The material was already pooled. Nobody drew together a brain pool to conduct the experiments. The material was in that form. As it was one of the small amounts of material available from the 1990s, it was decided to take the risk of using it for the experiment. It seems from what I know that from the beginning there has been something of a question mark over whether the research would show us much of great value. That is something that has always been in dispute. I do not have any names. My impression is that there are a number of scientist who have some reservations about the issue and the experiment. The right hon. Gentleman will know that it is ever thus: scientists do differ about the work of different experiments.

Mr. Jack: When did the right hon. Lady know?

Margaret Beckett: The experiment was commissioned by the Conservative Government in January 1997. From the beginning there have been those who have had doubts about its validity.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): My right hon. Friend was quite right to make the information public as soon as it became available. It is no sin not to spin; that differs from the Conservative party's attitude to BSE.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the genuine public anxiety about the safety of feeding lamb to young children? Without resorting to feeding her grandchildren a lamb burger, unlike a former Conservative Minister, what can she say to parents about the safety of feeding British lamb to their children?

Margaret Beckett: Quite rightly and properly, food safety is in the hands of the independent Food Standards Agency, not least because of our experiences under the Conservative Government. No FSA advice states that baby food manufacturers should not use United Kingdom lamb or that lamb should not be consumed.

I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier remarks and simply observe what should be evident to anybody: although it may be inconvenient, life does not always correspond to media deadlines.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): We are considering a grave matter. In what form was the tissue in the 1990 scrapie brain pool kept: complete organs or histological specimens? Given the high economic and scientific stakes that were being played for in the experiment, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) pointed out, would not any contamination of samples with bovine tissue render the entire experiment pointless? What checks were built into the experimental protocols when the experiment was designed to ensure that the tissues were not contaminated and that the results were consequently valid?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman asks, first, about the form of the material. I understand that it was

22 Oct 2001 : Column 30

pooled brains in the form of a paste. He also asked about checks and said that any trace of bovine material would invalidate the experiment. Several checks were made— I am not sure of the number, but I believe that it was three or four—over the lifetime of the four-year experiment.

Although some people will undoubtedly share the hon. Gentleman's view that any trace of bovine material would call the results into question, those who conducted the experiment would not accept that. They believe that any minor contamination—one would have to consider their definition of minor—would not necessarily invalidate the results. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee was set up to discuss and evaluate exactly such an issue. It would undoubtedly have held such a discussion on Friday if my Department had not commissioned the cross-check.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Why cannot the right hon. Lady be clear about the issue and simply apologise? Is it not clear that scientists working for her Department have been experimenting on the brains of cows, not those of sheep, for the past four years? She says that she was trying to be transparent. If so, why does not the word "cow" appear in the press release? She could hardly bear to use it today; instead, she talked about "non-sheep material". Was not the press release opaque, unclear and thoroughly discreditable, and put out by an increasingly discredited Government?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman asks why we cannot be clearer and simply apologise. I repeat that the Government are not conducting the research; the previous Conservative Government, whom the hon. Gentleman supported, commissioned it, and it continues under the present Government. He says that it is clear that the scientists have been working all the time on bovine material.

Mr. Cameron: Say "cows".

Margaret Beckett: Cows, sheep—it is not clear that they have been working on material from cattle all the time. What has happened is not clear; the purpose of the independent scientific audit is to find out.

The hon. Gentleman claims that "cow" does not appear in the press release, but "cattle" does. The press release states that the "cross-checking research" was

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members must give the Secretary of State a chance to reply.

Margaret Beckett: The press release continues:

As I pointed out in my statement, that is because I am not confident that we can be sure that the material that was checked at the laboratory of the Government chemist was the same as that used in the experiments. Although the institute initially suggested on Wednesday afternoon that the material was the same, it has subsequently said that perhaps it was not.

Next Section

IndexHome Page