Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 71-79)


17 MARCH 2008

  Q71 Chairman: Can I welcome Dr Paul Logan, principal specialist inspector at the Specialised Industries Division of the HSE, Dr Matthew Penrose, principal specialist inspector at the Specialised Industries Division of the HSE, Mrs Ruth Lysons, deputy director, Food and Farming Group, Defra, and Dr Nick Coulson, the head of international animal health at Defra. Mrs Lysons, why did it take the Callaghan review to highlight the flaws in the regulatory system work on dangerous pathogens? Why did Defra not pick it up before?

  Mrs Lysons: The review makes clear that the primary responsibility for managing risks lies with the facility that does the work that generates those risks. As regulators, Defra's responsibilities do not extend to taking responsibility for those risks.

  Q72  Chairman: Do you agree with Callaghan's report?

  Mrs Lysons: Yes. The government has accepted all of the recommendations that pertain to government within the Callaghan report. We were certainly content that our intention was to identify any shortcomings that there may be and act to remedy those. That was why we commissioned an independent review of the system.

  Q73  Chairman: The point that we find a little odd is, if it was so obvious following the Callaghan review, why was it not picked up before. Why were people not beating a path to government's door, whether Defra or elsewhere, to say, "We need the regulations changing"?

  Dr Coulson: We were considering as the landscape to change with Hampton and the better regulation agenda whether it would make sense to move to a single regulator and we have had some discussions with HSE on that matter. We were not aware that the situation as it was currently standing was going to lead to the type of situation that it did. We did expect the management of the facility to be implementing the standards that were in place at the time.

  Q74  Chairman: In terms of the outbreak of foot and mouth at Pirbright last summer, was it principally, in your view, a fault of the regulatory system?

  Dr Coulson: No. As the reports from HSE and Spratt have found, with the series of events that occurred that led to the outbreak at Pirbright, we will never exactly know what happened but there is a likely pathway that was established where a series of events occurred in order for the chain to be made. There were regulatory issues that we were aware of at Pirbright and we were working with them. We had action plans when we found things that needed improving. We do though recognise from the Callaghan review that the system can be improved, that there is a role for a single regulator. We highlighted a potential conflict of interest. We recognised that the system could be improved and that was why we were happy to accept his recommendations in full.

  Q75  Chairman: Pardon me for being somewhat na[doti][lcodot]ve but what you both seem to be saying on behalf of Defra is that somehow Defra was not culpable here and yet there is an agreement with the HSE approach, which Callaghan recommended and you have accepted in its totality, so either something was seriously wrong before which needed putting right, in which case Defra that was responsible did not have it right, or somebody else was responsible. I do not know who else was responsible if it was not Defra.

  Dr Coulson: We accept that the regulatory system can be improved. We do not accept that the regulatory system was responsible for the release from Pirbright. There was a series of failings that the HSE found on the site. We do not accept that that was the responsibility of the regulator. The regulator is not responsible for biosecurity. We are responsible for issuing licences in respect of the site but the responsibility for biosecurity on the site is for the management of the site.

  Q76  Dr Gibson: Why do we not combine the two functions, licences and the regulation?

  Dr Coulson: Within Defra the current regime under SAPO is that we issue the licence and inspect.

  Q77  Chairman: I find it staggering, if you are responsible for regulation, for issuing the licence and the inspection, that you are not responsible somehow for the outcome. There seems to be something seriously wrong there.

  Dr Coulson: You asked if we were to blame for the outcome and I said I do not think we were.

  Chairman: I did not mean were you personally responsible.

  Q78  Dr Gibson: I remember Hilary Benn said in a debate that there was something wrong when the two functions were combined like this. He has just been speaking. Do you agree with that? Should they be separated?

  Dr Coulson: The licensing and the inspection?

  Q79  Dr Gibson: Yes.

  Mrs Lysons: The Secretary of State was talking about a potential conflict of interest in being a customer and a regulator. That is largely where we feel the strengthening of the regulatory system will come. We did have and do have a system of risk assessment and an assessment of protocols and documentary evidence, much as has been described for the way forward. We do recognise, as was pointed out by Sir Bill, that there is a potential for conflict of interest because we also are a customer and pay for quite a lot of the work that is done.

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