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Higher Education/Courses of National Strategic Importance

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): I have today asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to advise me about higher education subjects or courses of national strategic importance, where intervention might be appropriate to strengthen or secure them. I have asked for the council's views on the circumstances when such intervention might be right, and the types of intervention which it believes could be considered.

I have asked the council to consider the following subject areas:

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Over 30-Months Rule

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): Following the outbreak of BSE in this country measures were introduced to protect consumers and to eradicate BSE from the national herd. Incidences of BSE have declined in the UK in line with scientific projections.

vCJD is a dreadful disease. I and other Ministers pay tribute to the courage of the families who have been tragically affected by it. We consider the protection of the public from this devastating condition to be of paramount importance.

In 1996, when the possible link between BSE and cases of vCJD first became apparent, the then Government decided to ban the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal to all farmed livestock; to strengthen controls on the removal of specified risk material (SRM); and to introduce the over thirty month (OTM) rule prohibiting the sale for human consumption in the UK of meat from cattle aged over 30 months at slaughter. Studies had suggested that cattle presented a much higher risk to consumers in the year before the onset of clinical disease which occurs at an average age of 5 years. The rule thus excluded higher risk cattle.

One of the main public health control measures is the removal of SRM, which is estimated to remove over 99 per cent. of infectivity in cattle.

This Government have made great efforts to control BSE in cattle. There were 186 clinical cases last year, a reduction of over 99 per cent. since the peak year of 1992 when over 37,000 clinical cases were confirmed, and a significant reduction also since 1996, when over 8,000 BSE clinical cases were confirmed. This reduction is expected to continue and DEFRA and the other Departments involved are continuing to work towards the complete eradication of BSE.

Since 1996, rapid post-mortem tests for BSE have been developed. From January 2001, throughout the EU, it became compulsory to test at slaughter all cattle aged over thirty months sold for human consumption. Other member states, where BSE emerged later, and at lower levels, do not have an OTM rule. Instead they rely on an EU-wide feed ban introduced in January 2001, SRM controls, and BSE testing. However, they have not had the high level of BSE that was present in the UK.

The OTM rule was introduced at a time when BSE posed a significant risk to UK consumers, and it has been one effective component of our wide ranging BSE controls. The risk is now greatly reduced and very low, although no risk can ever be completely eliminated.

In year 2000 the FSA was set up as an independent agency to advise Ministers on issues of food and consumer safety.
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In July 2004, that agency advised Ministers that, subject to putting a robust testing regime in place, it would now be acceptable to replace the OTM rule with BSE testing for OTM cattle born after July 1996. The science of vCJD remains highly imprecise, and for this reason it is impossible to be precise about the risks, but the estimates are based on conservative current assumptions. The FSA risk assessment, with valuable input from the independent Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), concluded that it would be consistent on the basis of the risk involved for Government to lift the OTM rule if a robust testing system was in place.

In April 2004 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had already agreed that

UK Government Ministers, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government have agreed today to announce the start of a managed transition towards the lifting of the OTM rule.

It is essential to establish a robust and independently quality-assured testing regime, taking account of the significant recent failures in the existing testing regime. The main public health protection measure—the removal of specified risk material—has been and will continue to be rigorously enforced by the meat hygiene service.

I believe it is responsible for the Government to proceed cautiously. A further process of stakeholder engagement will now take place, which will include key Government advisers, such as the FSA and the chief medical officer.

A final switch-over from the OTM rule to BSE testing will happen only when the Agency has advised Ministers that the testing regime is robust. This change, when introduced, would bring the UK into line with the arrangements which apply throughout the EU, except that UK cattle born before August 1996 would remain permanently excluded from the food chain.

I and other Ministers have also agreed that the Food Standards Agency should be responsible for the on-going audit and review of the testing system. This role in relation to testing will be in addition to the agency's continuing responsibility, as an independent body set up to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food, for monitoring developments and advising Government on the scientific evidence on the food-borne BSE risk to consumers. In advising on the robustness of testing, the agency will be assisted by a group of independent experts which includes experts in food safety and consumer affairs. This group will take into account recent failings in current testing arrangements, including in relation to casualty cattle.

The FSA will be conducting a full public consultation on draft legislation to replace the OTM rule by testing for OTM cattle born after July 1996.
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The timing of any changeover would be dependent on the agency advising Ministers that it is satisfied that the testing regime is robust and on other matters such as the outcome of the consultation, amendments to legislation and the recruitment of additional meat hygiene service staff. Testing arrangements are not yet properly quality assured. This is a source of concern and therefore further work is necessary to ensure the testing regime is robust. This is expected to take until the latter half of next year in Great Britain. Given the recent more favourable European Commission report on the testing system in Northern Ireland, I do not rule out earlier change there.

Ministers have also agreed that it would be desirable for the ban on OTM imports to be lifted at the same time as the domestic OTM Rule, and that every effort should be made to accelerate the lifting of the EU restrictions on UK beef exports. Before export restrictions can be eased, there will need to be a further inspection visit from the EU's food and veterinary office to check our BSE controls and our testing arrangements, a proposal from the European Commission to amend EU legislation, and agreement by other EU member states. This is likely to take until late next year.

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