Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001
MP, AND MR
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
(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 describedthe
4,000 on our books and 2,000 from the armed forcesincluded
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
(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
(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?
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.
128. None of the three inquiries into foot and
mouth disease has yet reportedin fact, they have not really
startedand 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.
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 thinkin
fact, I knowthat 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.
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