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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am very sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is not able to be with us tonight and I hope that we shall soon hear him in good voice before the House. I am sure that I carry the wishes of other noble Lords when I say that.

I am sure that the Minister and other noble Lords taking part in this debate will recall my objections to the TSE (England) Regulations 2002, which we debated in May 2002. They will not be surprised that I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for allowing me to return to the fray this evening. I declare my interest as the wife of a sheep and goat farmer. As well as being a goat cheesemaker, I take an active part in our livestock management.

I was astonished to read in the regulations that goats are to be dealt with far more harshly than sheep. In the Explanatory Memorandum is the statement:

May I ask the Minister exactly what is the scientific evidence upon which this scientific advice is based? Who is providing the scientific advice upon which these statements are made? Poor old goats—with no specific genotypes and little information available, it seems easier to kill them all. What an odd approach. Was it dreamt up because scrapie is so much rarer in goats than sheep, so slaughter should eliminate the
 
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disease, or was it that, because it is so rare, the possibility that a whole herd would have to be despatched is remote? I would hope that it is the latter.

It has already been noted that the incidence of scrapie in the sheep flock is probably under-reported. I suspect that this is simply because it is accepted that sheep out on the moors and hills die from a number of causes. Their carcasses are often eaten by foxes and other scavengers before the shepherd finds them. It is the nature of modern shepherding that the flocks are not constantly watched over. Such is the relationship of most of the goat keepers that I know with their animals that a vet would be called to attend any really sick animal. Three reported cases in eight years is likely to be an accurate reflection of the incidence in the national goat herd. It would also appear to indicate that the goat to goat transmission rate is low. If this is the case, what on earth would be achieved by slaughtering the whole herd?

Although I recognise that the Minister will say that this amendment to the 2002 regulations is to provide,

it still seems extraordinary that all the plans and regulations relating to TSEs and particularly to scrapie are based upon an hypothesis that has become an assumption that it is a rogue isoform of PrP that causes TSEs.

Humans have lived with scrapie for at least 250 years and there has been no evidence that scrapie has ever been transmitted to humans, although I accept that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The conclusion that a single strain of the agent which causes BSE is more easily transmissible between species than previously known strains and may therefore be present in sheep still remains unsupported by critical scientific evidence.

I will repeat my concerns that, by requiring the slaughter of sheep of particular genotypes we will be depleting the gene pool in our sheep flock. We may well be laying the animals open to epidemics of TSEs other than those of which we have current knowledge, or, worse still, to some other highly infectious diseases to which the national flock is at present resistant. Why are not the sensible measures already in force sufficient? We are already required to minimise the routine spread of these not particularly infectious agents.

I note that the Explanatory Memorandum to this regulation frequently uses the terms "TSE resistant" and "resistant genotypes". Unless and until there is an adequately comprehensive list of the TSE strains tested and it can be shown that they can survive passage between animals, these terms are not appropriate. When the real molecular nature of the agent that causes TSEs is known, it may be possible to employ these terms.

Should we not be dealing with facts rather than the assumptions? I may be criticised for suggesting that we fly in the face of the precautionary principle in this instance, when I have fought long and hard for it to be exercised in the case of exposure of humans to toxic
 
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chemicals. I would respond by saying that there is a clear correlation between, for example, organophosphate exposure and ill health, while there is not one between naturally occurring BSE in sheep and goats and variant CJD in humans. I would argue that there is a place for proportionality.

The statement that TSEs are caused by a so-called "rogue protein"—a misshapen version of a host protein known as PrP—has never been proven. The infective PrP has never been synthesised de novo. There is, I understand, substantial evidence to show that this protein becomes misshapen by infection, rather than that it is the cause of the infection, with the causal molecule not proven. That means that the majority of the current laboratory work is uncertain in its direct relevance to the infective nature of TSEs.

There has been very little research to establish the reason why BSE was able to infect some humans across the species barrier from cattle. We need to know whether the pressure was exerted by the massive scale of the human exposure to infected beef products during the BSE epidemic or whether the cattle strain of BSE, dose for dose, is more easily transmitted to humans than current strains of scrapie or other TSEs. If the former is the case, the risk is well controlled. It is only if the latter is correct that the rigorous precautionary principles now being implemented are needed, as there is a much more serious risk when there is no species barrier, such as in human blood transfusion. May I ask the Minister whether it is the Government's intention that such research should be conducted? If she says no, then I would suggest that we should leave our sheep and goats to get on with their lives and save the taxpayer a small fortune.

I note that the Commission Regulation (EC) No. 1915/2003 requires thorough cleaning and disinfection of all animal housing on the premises following destocking and before restocking. In view of the fact that we know that total destruction of the infected material in a hospital setting is almost impossible, will the Minister please tell the House how effective disinfection of rambling farm buildings will be achieved? What about grazing land upon which infected animals may have defecated or left foetal remains? What advice has she received on these matters?

It really is time that we seriously questioned the quality of scientific advice that Ministers are receiving. I have said this from time to time over a great many years. We are repeatedly told that the scientific committees are independent. Experience has taught me that it might be true that they are independent of government but, I would suggest, they are not independent of Whitehall or some of the other organisations with whom the mandarins have close association. Too often, busy experts from fields unconnected with the subject under consideration have been expected to make recommendations which are outside their competence. It is not their fault; they do their best within their limitations. Unfortunately, I believe that this system has led to an intellectual corruption of science.
 
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TSE, and particularly BSE, research has been corrupted by the publicity that has been generated, first by those dreadful pictures of Daisy the cow, and then the discovery that humans could suffer from a similar awful disease. Instead of going to the centres of existing knowledge—to the people who had some understanding of the subject after working for years on scrapie—the MAFF and Defra career civil servants, through the funding agencies and the advisory committees, diverted research funding to organisations that subsequently proved their incompetence very publicly.

Progress has consistently been hindered by what I can only describe as wild goose chases. Government departments should not control basic scientific research, especially when it is in the vanguard of scientific progress. Perhaps it would be better if they were to admit that they did not know the answers and make a point of finding a scientist who does, or at least has the expertise to do so.

Will the Minister kindly tell the House what means are used to test the competence of the expert advice that Ministers receive? May I suggest, as it seems unlikely that anyone in government will take an executive decision to review the quality of scientific advice offered to all Ministers, that there should be a committee set up to discuss the matter? Defra is very good at setting up committees and discussing matters. It does not get anywhere but it does discuss them.

At the risk of being boringly repetitive the facts are that there is no historical evidence of BSE in sheep. There is no current evidence of BSE in sheep. If sheep ever were infected from eating feed contaminated by BSE-infected meat and bone meal taken out of the food chain before any current commercial sheep were born, the possibility of ever finding BSE in sheep must surely be diminishing rather than increasing. What are we doing implementing this regulation?


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