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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Will the Secretary of State publish the evidence that she has to support her statement that eating contaminated chicken, providing it is well cooked, presents no threat to health?
Ms Hewitt: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the website of the Food Standards Agency, the independent body that reached that conclusion on the basis of expert evidence. If it will help, I will also place that information in the Library.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has urged people several times to go and get their seasonal flu jab. When I, a member of an at-risk group, phoned the surgery this morning, as I normally do at this time of year, I was told that it had no vaccine and will have none until towards the end of November, so there was no point in my contacting it before then. Is the natural public concern about bird flu causing excessive demand for the seasonal flu vaccine? Is that causing a difficulty? Can my right hon. Friend guarantee that there will be enough supplies?
I asked that very question of our chief medical officer and I am assured by our experts that
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there are adequate supplies available to GPs to ensure that anyone who is at risk and who therefore should have the vaccination can have it. However, if my hon. Friend lets me have further details of the difficulty that he encountered, I shall pursue the matter further.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Has the Secretary of State spoken to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about additional moneys to deal with the pandemic and, if so, what was the response? Does she agree that, in the light of a possible pandemic, the closure of beds in community hospitals such as the one at Hornsea in my constituency is inappropriate and should be reversed?
Ms Hewitt: I have already dealt with finance. The matter will be kept under review if the risk increases and preparations step up. On community hospitals, it is for the national health service locally to examine the configuration of services and ensure that they continue to be improved so that we deliver the best possible health care with the best possible value for taxpayers' money.
Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I am glad to hear the Secretary of State stress several times the need for vulnerable groups such as older people to have their flu jab, but is there not a need for a Government information campaign that makes it absolutely clear that we are talking about three different threats to health: seasonal flu every year; avian flu, which is not yet established in this country; and a pandemic that may or may not happen in this country? Do we not need to make sure that it is clear in the public mind that there are three separate issues? I fear that some of the media coverage is confusing the public and making the right hon. Lady's job more difficult.
Ms Hewitt: We ran this year's information campaign on seasonal flu earlier this month. We are using Department of Health and other agency websites to disseminate a great deal of accurate information about the three different issuesseasonal flu, avian flu and potential pandemic flu. We shall continue to broadcast that information as much as we can, especially through the briefings that the chief medical officer and other experts give to the media and, through the media, to the public. On Thursday, when we publish the updated pandemic contingency plan, we shall also make available to GPs communication materials to go directly into their surgeries.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The right hon. Lady has made it clear that the threat has been known about for a long time. Would she therefore be kind enough to explain why funding for the Health Protection Agency was cut earlier this year?
The simple answer is that I do not know. However, it was probably the result of our continuing determination to reduce administrative costs throughout the public sector. If it was something else, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and let him know.
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Mr. Stephen Byers (North Tyneside) (Lab): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a personal statement concerning the evidence I gave to the Transport Select Committee at its hearing on 14 November 2001.
As the House will be aware, the High Court has recently heard the case of Weir and others v. Secretary of State for Transport and the Department for Transport. The action was brought on behalf of the Railtrack Private Shareholders Action Group. Their claim was for misfeasance in public office and concerned decisions I had taken in relation to Railtrack when I was Secretary of State for Transport. The central allegation made was that, by refusing to grant further taxpayers' money to Railtrack and by petitioning the court for its administration, I had shown targeted malice toward those holding shares in Railtrack. It was claimed that, as a result, I had committed a deliberate and dishonest abuse of my powers as Secretary of State by impairing the value of their shares in Railtrack without paying compensation and without the approval of Parliament.
Last Friday, the High Court delivered its judgments in the case and found in favour of the Secretary of State for Transport and the Department for Transport. In the process of giving my testimony to the High Court, I was cross-examined on the evidence that I gave to the Transport Select Committee at its hearing on 14 November 2001. In particular, my attention was drawn to the reply that I gave to a question from the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). That was question 857 of the Select Committee evidence. The hon. Gentleman asked whether there
"was there any discussion, theoretical or otherwise, in your department before 25 July about the possibility of a future change in status for Railtrack, whether nationalisation, the move into a company limited by guarantee or whatever?"
It was pointed out to me in court that that answer was inconsistent with the documents that had been disclosed to the court. I must inform the House that my reply was factually inaccurate. However, I must also tell the House that I did not intend deliberately to mislead the Select Committee. I would like to explain to the House what happened.
On coming into office after the 2001 general election, I received a wide range of briefing papers covering all aspects of my Department's responsibilities. A number
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of these papers related to the railways. As a consequence, I asked for an options paper on the future of Railtrack to be drawn up. Initially, this was to be done solely by my Department but subsequently I asked that it be carried out jointly with the No. 10 policy directorate and the Treasury. At the time, I regarded the commissioning of this work as simply sensible contingency planning. However, it is my request for this work to be carried out that I now recognise could be interpreted as a discussion, and that would make my reply to the Select Committee factually inaccurate.
A critical meeting took place on 25 July when the chairman of Railtrack outlined to me the financial difficulties that the company faced. It was only after that meeting that substantive discussions began about the possibility of changing the status of the company.
Since the court hearing, I have thought long and hard about why I gave the answer that I did to the Select Committee. Having reviewed the documents that were put before the court, it would have been because I considered the meeting of 25 July to be the moment at which discussions began and that the commissioning of work to be carried out on the future options for Railtrack did not represent discussions in the true meaning of that word.
I want the House to know that I did not lie to the Select Committee and that I did not deliberately mislead the Select Committee but that due to an inadvertent error I gave factually inaccurate evidence to the Committee. I deeply regret that this has happened. I wish to offer my sincere apologies to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the whole House.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will have heard from the statement of the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), I was the person who asked the question that is the subject of discussion today. I listened extremely carefully to what he has just said. I have also studied again the transcripts of what was said at the time as well as documents that are now available to us. I do not accept and I am not satisfied with his explanation and I seek your guidance on how to press the matter further.
The hon. Gentleman has heard the statement by the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers). The best thing that he can do is reflect on it. If he is unsatisfied, he should come to the Speaker's Office and speak to the Speaker's secretary.
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