Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 132)



  120. There did look to be a cultural problem within MAFF which also emerged from BSE in the sense there is an introspective culture and culture of secrecy in that it does not like accepting outside help. Has this been tackled? Do you recognise that?
  (Mr Bender) I recognise the image you are talking about but I do not recognise it as a reality. We certainly involved a lot of outside help. The 6,000 people I have described—the 4,000 on our books and 2,000 from the armed forces—included large numbers from other departments and agencies. One of the questions that I would expect Dr Anderson to look at on an issue like this is what are the trigger points in the future for involving national activities. Classical swine fever MAFF, as was, handled, largely internally; foot and mouth disease was plainly something which required a national effort because of the scale of the outbreak.

  121. Has the other work of the Department been delayed by the foot and mouth outbreak?
  (Mr Bender) Yes. There are three main areas I would mention. The reasons for the delay, or the effect, was a combination of diversion of staff effort and, also, secondly, the practical difficulties of getting on to farms. Those two together conspired. There were three main areas. First, the Rural Payments Agency, I mentioned earlier that its development has slipped a little as a result of FMD; there has also been some disruption of on-farm inspections where a recovery programme was agreed with the Commission, and there has been some difficulty in establishing eligibility of some of the sheep annual premium schemes to many FMD-affected producers. There has been some impact on the England Rural Development Programme scheme up-take, some staff diversion and site visit restrictions have affected application processing. Third, a subject close to the Committee's heart, the TB programme has been affected. Those are three where there has been a visible effect. There has also been a lot of hard work and indeed over work by the Department to minimise these effects.

  122. Can I move on to BSE? Why has there been a three-week delay in completing the audit of the Institute of Animal Health experiments?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not think you can say there has been a three-week delay.

  123. You announced a detailed audit of the Institute of Animal Health research on 22 October. You said that research would be undertaken by an independent risk assessment company, and that the audit would be complete "within a week or so". You said that in the House of Commons debate. We are now three weeks on.
  (Margaret Beckett) With respect, first of all, one announces something, but that does not mean it is a delay from then on. We are talking about a process rather than a delay. Secondly, it did take a little longer than we had hoped actually to get the audit started. We had hoped to be able to despatch someone almost immediately overnight, but it took a little longer to find people who were able and prepared to carry out audits to the timescale and to the degree of rigour that we wanted. There are now certainly two out of three audit processes being undertaken, one to look as speedily as is possible at what had happened, and then another to look at the more long-term perspective. I hope that we will get the results of the first audit in the not-too-distant future, but it is taking time, and that is bound to be the case, I think.

  124. Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith from the BSE Inquiry said that "any errors due to labelling or contamination in storage must be the responsibility of MAFF . . ." Do you accept that?
  (Margaret Beckett) No, given that MAFF is not carrying out those experiments and DEFRA is not carrying them out, I am not entirely sure how he comes to that conclusion.

  125. So there is no MAFF responsibility for mis-labelling the sample or for contamination?
  (Margaret Beckett) No. We did not send a sinister spy into the laboratory to do that. To be honest, without knowing the full contents of what was said, I find that extraordinary, I do not understand it.


  126. I am sure we can let you have the text.
  (Margaret Beckett) This is research that the former Department commissioned, but it did not carry it out, so when we come to the issue of how samples are handled, how can it be the responsibility of the Department?

Mr Mitchell

  127. How quickly do you expect that the more rapid test for BSE in sheep, which has been developed, will be ready for use?
  (Margaret Beckett) It will not be really possible to judge that at this moment. As you know, I believe a paper is on the verge of being published, and I think it may now be out for peer review, but obviously we are talking at the early stages of what is the cutting edge of science, and inevitably these things are not easy. The scientists who have conducted work on the scrapie tests are naturally hopeful, but obviously it depends on other people's judgement of the work that they have produced and hope very, very shortly to publish, and it does depend on people's judgement of that, on the quality of the work, and how quickly such a test could be validated.

Diana Organ

  128. None of the three inquiries into foot and mouth disease has yet reported—in fact, they have not really started—and yet you have found it necessary to introduce the Animal Health Bill now, with little consultation, when the countryside still has a very low morale, and there is a sort of emphasis in the Bill that maybe it is the farmers' fault all along, hence we need to take these even greater powers of entry and give more powers to officials within your department. Why have you chosen to introduce this piece of legislation now, before the inquiries have made any recommendations or reports? Why is it necessary not to put within that legislation something to tighten up the controls on the importation of meat that may have caused the infection in the first place?
  (Margaret Beckett) First of all, none of us really knows for sure how the outbreak started, but certainly we are reviewing and intending to take steps perhaps to tighten up the legislation which affects imports of meat. However, that can be done by statutory instrument, so that is not part of the Bill, because it does not need to be part of the Bill.


  129. We have had quite a detailed explanation from Elliot Morley actually.
  (Margaret Beckett) Right. As to the issue of why now, and the limit of the inquiries, first of all, of course, we do not anticipate that if the Bill receives the consent of Parliament that will in any way impede the work of the inquiries. It is likely, we believe, that these steps would have had to have been taken anyway. As to timing, the Government, in Second Reading in any case, with some considerable reluctance came to the conclusion that these were powers that we needed to have, that we might have needed to use and indeed, who knows, that we might still need to use, though let us hope not, whether in regard to foot and mouth or otherwise. Indeed, as I hope you will appreciate, what we have done is to put in place a structure of powers to deal with animal disease. Who knows, we have had a couple of episodes of very serious animal disease in recent years. There is nothing to say that we might not find ourselves with something different on our hands. With the experience of recent months, having identified areas of difficulty where it is felt that the Department lacked powers that it needed and, indeed, in some cases powers that people rather assumed that we had, it was thought that it would be irresponsible not to try to remedy that position. Of course, these are issues that are now before Parliament where no doubt there will be careful and thorough scrutiny, and the House will come to its own conclusions.

Mr Jack

  130. What was the source of the information that triggered the Central Veterinary Laboratory to look at and examine material which the IAH were using?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not think one could say that there was any particular, specific source of information. From the beginning there had been reservations expressed, I believe, in SEAC and no doubt outside it, as to whether it was worth trying to do this experiment, given that the material that had been collected had been collected for a totally different purpose and in a different form from what one would ideally want. None of the other experiments that have been carried out on looking for scrapie or looking for BSE or whatever have actually been conducted on material in this form, it has all been individual animal brains. This was collected in a different form for a different purpose, and there has always been a reservation and scientific dispute about whether in fact this was worth doing. It was decided to do it, my impression is, primarily because there was not really any other source of material from the 1990s, and it was thought that if one could get information from the position in the 1990s, that might be illuminating in terms of the wider issue of what the position is today. So I think—in fact, I know—that from the very beginning there has been that anxiety, and as we were coming towards the end of the experiment, and as the Institute was indicating that it thought that its results would have more force and would perhaps carry more weight than people might have thought, not just a contribution to the debate, but they believed a very considerable and weighty contribution, then it was regarded as even more urgent to have a final check, through a different means, on to what degree there might be cross-contamination because of the degree to which that might or might not cast doubt on the weight of the results.

Mr Borrow

  131. I understand it is very difficult to get a slot in the legislative timetable to get a Bill through.
  (Margaret Beckett) Very.

  132. Because a slot has been found for the Animal Health Bill it shows how important it is, not just for your Department but ministers generally. Is there any understanding that your Department has received from ministers generally that if the inquiries into the foot and mouth disease come forward with recommendations for legislative changes, a similar slot will be found for another Bill should that be necessary?
  (Margaret Beckett) Certainly if the inquiries come forward with other proposals for legislative change, obviously the Government will take that very seriously, but no minister or secretary of state should ever venture to commit the Government as a whole to a specific piece of legislation, and having so lately held a responsibility in that area I would be the last person to do so.

  Chairman: Secretary of State, we have ranged from Marrakech to brain patterns and I think it is about time we rolled up, and I intend to roll off! Thank you. We have had a very long but very productive session, it has been extremely helpful. Thank you and Mr Bender. We will see you again in the natural course of events and look forward to it. Thank you very much indeed.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 10 January 2002