§ The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)
I begin by apologising most sincerely to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and his team. I know that he can barely have had the statement for more than a few moments, and I can tell him now that he will find it shorter than the text that he has in his hand, but he has been given some acquaintance with what I propose to say, through a letter that I sent to him at the end of last week. None the less, I sincerely apologise and assure him that on future occasions I would hope to give him much more notice of any statement that I need to make.
I am grateful for the opportunity to put hon. Members in the picture about research into scrapie and the theoretical possibility that it might mask BSE in sheep. The work is being undertaken through a variety of different research projects at different institutes of excellence. I want also to address the significance of the experiment undertaken at the Institute for Animal Health on the so-called 1990 scrapie brain pool, which was due to be reported to the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee last Friday.
The United Kingdom and, indeed, my Department are at the forefront of European research into understanding the incidence of scrapie in the national sheep flock and whether the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep is a real one. The IAH research is merely one of a number of projects. There are many who consider that those on more recent brains are more important, and so far BSE has not been found, but more work needs to be done, and that is why, a couple of weeks ago, we took steps to ensure that more brains are offered for testing. It is important, however, to keep the issue in its proper perspective.
We have known since the experiments began that there were some doubts about whether the brains, which were collected a long time ago for a completely different experiment, were cross-contaminated with bovine BSE material. As results began to emerge from the experiments, it became critical that we resolve the issue of cross-contamination with as much clarity as possible.
That is why my Department, in consultation with SEAC and others, commissioned the DNA testing work at the laboratory of the Government chemist. The results were presented to DEFRA by the LGC last Wednesday afternoon, 17 October. The finding that there was no sheep material in the sample sent to the DNA lab was a totally unforeseen development.
The Government's responsibility in these circumstances is twofold: first, we must establish the facts as quickly as possible; and secondly, we must share those emerging findings with the public. The most obvious question that sprang to mind was whether the material analysed by the LGC was actually the same as that used in the experiments: to put it rather brutally, would the sample that should have been sent to the LGC be discovered at the back of the fridge in some dark corner of the Institute for Animal Health? We needed to establish the facts.
I immediately asked for an independent risk assessment company to perform a detailed audit of the IAH experiment, including an examination of how the 20 homogenised samples were stored and handled. As the company is already familiar with the IAH project, it aims to report its findings within a week or so, and I hope that it will be able to do so.
We have also asked the UK Accreditation Service—UKAS—to undertake to a longer time scale a vigorous assessment of the chain of custody arrangements for the IAH experiment. Only at around 6 pm on Wednesday did we receive information suggesting that the sample sent to the DNA lab was indeed thought to be representative of the brain pool—but we still do not know this for certain. We will not know the full facts until the audit team has reported.
Let me emphasise that at that stage the only question was not whether we should make this public, but how and when. It was already clear that the SEAC meeting—[Laughter.] This is a serious issue, of grave concern for public health—[Interruption.] I am talking about the underlying disease; how the issue has been used is another matter.
It was already clear that the SEAC meeting planned for Friday could not now take place, as this was the only item on the agenda, and the chairman took the decision to cancel it.
I took the decision, against the advice of my press office, that rather than wait to have a properly staged press briefing the following morning, we should make a statement as soon as possible about what we knew for certain. I will tell the House bluntly that I was convinced the information would leak, and I did not want the slightest hint of any cover-up. In fact, I looked unsuccessfully for the Chair of the Select Committee that evening, in order to update him and correct information I had given him, in good faith, earlier that day.
A press notice was duly sent to the Press Association after we had observed the ordinary courtesies of consulting those involved and those who might be asked to comment on it, including SEAC and the Food Standards Agency. In other words, a statement was made the same day and within a few hours of Ministers being told what was thought to have occurred.
Let me say one other thing about the suggestion that we were seeking to suppress the information. We are all mature politicians, and I invite the House to consider what I was supposed to need to suppress. The research was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; it was not carried out by that Department. The cross-check that revealed the problems was also commissioned by my Department, as a "belt and braces" measure. Of course there was embarrassment and dismay among those involved with this work, but there was no embarrassment or dismay for the Government, only a very real concern as to where we would go from here, and a real anxiety to treat carefully and seriously an issue of enormous sensitivity.
I understand that the phraseology of one part of the press release—which, by the way, I wrote—is thought to have been obscure. At the time it was drafted, we knew the results of the cross-contamination check, and had been told it was thought that it came from the same material as that used in the experiment, but I could not feel confident about what weight I should give to this piece of advice, given the very short time for checks to be made.
This entire issue rests on the handling of samples and the keeping of records. In consequence it seemed to me right to say, as we did, simply that the validity of the 21 sample had been called into question. There was, and is, absolutely no intention to conceal or mislead. A press pack, which gave all the information to any of the media that were interested, was issued at a separate press conference held the following day.
What is more important is what this experiment could mean or could have meant. It will not give us a definitive answer as to whether BSE is in sheep today. Indeed, there are scientists who are not yet convinced that it would even have told us whether BSE was present in sheep in the early 1990s. All that the work could have done was reduce some of the uncertainties and add to the little that we currently know.
On scrapie generally, my Department is working closely with the FSA to introduce, early next year, an abattoir survey to test for scrapie approximately 20,000 sheep aged over 18 months annually. This will cost the UK about £5 million and be part of an EU-wide programme designed to give information on the incidence of scrapie in the European Union. This week the Agriculture Council in Brussels will review that programme, which, for both cattle and sheep testing, will cost the UK more than £50 million next year.
Although we hope that the sheep abattoir survey will be useful, I must warn the House that its results may not prove conclusive. A similar survey commissioned by the Government two to three years ago on nearly 3,000 abattoir sheep brains identified no scrapie cases at all. I would certainly be prepared to examine carefully the case for doing an even larger survey.
Around 500 to 600 scrapie cases are reported annually in Great Britain each year. My Department is funding a great deal of work to look for BSE in those cases, but it is difficult work at the forefront of science, and scientists do not always agree on particular aspects or methods. In about 180 cases, using the same techniques used at the Institute for Animal Health but on brains from the current flock, the experiments have reached the first point at which, if any of those scrapie cases were BSE, that might have become evident. It has not done so. However, it is too soon to draw firm conclusions from those on-going experiments that can last several years.
I must emphasise again that all that work is at the very forefront of science, conducted at the leading edge of scientific experimentation. We are not talking about research that can give us simple yes and no answers. I have asked for the most thorough review of the range of scientific studies presently being undertaken into that complex and difficult area, and once it is available I will make it available to the House.
The national scrapie plan is a long-term, voluntary programme to breed genetic resistance to scrapie and to BSE into the national sheep flock. Over the summer, my Department has prepared a Bill which, among other things, would allow the Government to take powers to ensure that we can remove from the flock the genotypes of sheep susceptible to scrapie. Of course the House will wish to give the Bill, including that section, proper scrutiny and I hope that it will have an opportunity to do so in the near future.
Throughout—I speak of the period before I had responsibility for the Department as well as now—we have been open and transparent on all our research into BSE, which is overseen by the independent Food Standards Agency and our advisory committee, SEAC. 22 I stress that the FSA's advice remains unchanged. That advice, from the independent body responsible for food safety, is that there is no reason why consumers should not eat sheepmeat. We will continue actively to promote research to reduce risk, theoretical or not, and to put all our research in the public domain.
§ Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)
The Secretary of State will know that I wrote to her yesterday requesting an urgent statement on the failure of the tests. I am grateful to her for coming to the House this afternoon, even though it is clear that she should have made a statement last week and that all we have been treated to is a staggering display of complacency. There was not a word of regret, never a "sorry" from the Secretary of State, whose handling of the issue has been appalling. The day that this Government express embarrassment or dismay for any of their incompetencies or their ruthless approach to news management will be a red letter day indeed.
No responsible person will believe that the decision to announce the failure of the test by means of a press release at 10.30 at night on a website, the failure to inform specialist journalists and the failure to hold to a press conference were anything other than a concerted attempt to—in Jo Moore's shameful phrase—"bury" another embarrassing story from a Department that is becoming famous for its gaffes and incompetence. Last week I called for the individual responsible for the decision about the press release to be sacked. It now transpires that that person was none other than the Secretary of State herself. I doubt that she will sack herself—unfortunately—but perhaps she will answer a few questions.
At the weekend, the Secretary of State appeared to admit that her decision to slip out the press release at the dead of night was wrong. Why then did she not take the opportunity to put things right on Thursday when she had the chance? Why, instead and at very short notice, did she make a statement on Lord Haskins's disappointing report on foot and mouth? What does that tell us about the Government's priorities?
On Thursday, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, in the now time-honoured mantra:In all matters relating to BSE and animal health, the Government have been open and transparent."—[Official Report, 8 October 2001; Vol. 372. c. 1293]The Secretary of State repeated the same nonsense just now—for open read "opaque" and for transparent read "evasive".
The Phillips report on BSE maintains that the possibility that it might have been transmitted to sheep isperhaps the most important unanswered question about the BSE epidemic.Does the Secretary of State agree with that, and if so why has she given this issue so little priority? How is it possible that for four years Government scientists have been trying to establish whether BSE was present in sheep in the 1990s by investigating cows' brains? It beggars belief. Why did the late-night press release not come clean about what had happened? It simply said that cross-checking hadraised doubts about the validity of the original sample.Why did it not state the case—that the whole experiment had been a fiasco? How much money has been wasted on this experiment over the years?
23 Will the right hon. Lady confirm that Professor Bostock contacted the Veterinary Laboratories Agency nearly a year ago to express his concerns about the samples? Were Ministers advised about those concerns at the time? If so, when were they advised? If they did not know, why not? Will the right hon. Lady confirm that scientists told her Department early last summer that the material they were testing for BSE appeared to contain traces of bovine remains? If that is so, why did it take her two further months before she ordered DNA checks to be made? If Ministers were unsure of the validity of the experiments—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is wittering on, but I am coming on to his role in this affair. If Ministers were unsure of the validity of the experience, why did the Under-Secretary announce on 28 September that all Britain's 40 million sheep might have to be culled? Was that a responsible thing to say at a time when Britain's farmers were already facing a meltdown over foot and mouth?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that Professor Collinge, a member of SEAC, has been calling since 1997 for the use of a new testing system which, instead of taking years to identify BSE, takes just two days? Will she now insist on the use of this technology?
I note what the Secretary of State said about the safety of lamb products. However, is she aware that when the chairman of the FSA was recently asked about the safety of lamb in baby food, he replied that he was assured by manufacturers that they only used lamb from New Zealand? Will she confirm that British babies will be perfectly safe eating British lamb?
This whole episode is a humiliating embarrassment for the right hon. Lady's Department. We are quite used to those—they hardly matter any more. More important, however, it raises major questions about the Government's handling of bad news and, more important still, represents a massive setback to the credibility of Government scientific agencies and to the vital job of restoring confidence in our food. Who does the Minister hold responsible for this fiasco? What action will she take to ensure that those who are found to be responsible are never allowed near food safety and public health again?
§ Margaret Beckett
The hon. Gentleman has made it quite clear by that rant that whoever is a responsible person in this matter, he is not one. I have seldom heard anything so dangerously irresponsible as his remarks.
First, the hon. Gentleman referred to the notice appearing at 10.30 pm on the website. He knows perfectly well that the notice was issued through the PA a great deal earlier in the evening because I wrote to him and gave him the details days ago. Secondly, he asked about the failure to inform the press and to hold a press conference. I have already made it plain that we issued a press notice that evening and that we held a separate press conference on the Haskins report on which, as he rightly said, I reported to the House. At that press conference, information packs were made available and I understand that this issue and the contents of the packs were drawn to the attention of the specialist journalists who might have had a particular interest in this case, so information was made available to the press.
24 The hon. Gentleman talked about my appearing to say that we had handled this wrongly. I actually said that with the benefit of hindsight, if there was an error it might perhaps have been in deciding to issue the press release straight away. I will be quite honest and say that I do not believe that that was an error. I also believe that if we had not put out a press release that evening, as soon as we had cleared what we could then find out of the facts and put them into the public domain, the hon. Gentleman would be screaming even more loudly that we had never intended to make a press statement at all.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Collinge testing system. Yes, there has been considerable discussion about that. He will be aware that it is not a test that other people have found easy to replicate, but a great deal of other work is going on. Indeed, at present the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, which comprises Government scientists, has been conducting some tests using a similar technique. That work has not yet been formally reported, however; nor—this is more important—has it been peer reviewed. Work is going on to try to identify better and faster methods of getting some of these results—there we are on common ground—and it will of course be reported fully to the House in the proper way.
I do not have up-to-date figures, but from memory, a sum in the order of £200,000 was spent on the research in question. What comes through most clearly in the hon. Gentleman's approach to this matter today, and indeed in some of the press publicity over the weekend, is that although the hon. Gentleman asks me what the matter tells us of the Government's priorities, what it tells us of the Opposition's priorities is clear. The hon. Gentleman was at pains to try to make the case that the Government themselves are in some way at fault, even to the extent of talking about Government scientists. The Institute for Animal Health is not a body of Government scientists; it is an independent body, from which my Department commissioned the research.
What happened during the course of the past few days is clear to me. On Wednesday afternoon, we were told very disturbing news which cast grave doubts on the validity of that research. We put that into the public domain as early as we could—within hours that same evening—and followed it up by issuing a press pack to those whom we thought might be particularly interested. We were perfectly happy to answer questions from anyone who asked them. We were not altogether surprised that there was not much follow-up because inconclusive experiments are not usually very interesting to the press.
What then happened—about two days later—was that the Opposition decided to pretend that this was in some way an attempt to conceal the facts. It was the Opposition who blew this up out of all proportion, as a supposed Government cover-up—[Interruption.] It is the Opposition who have since sought to exploit the matter to make it as big a story as possible and to cast doubt in the public's mind about the safety of eating sheepmeat, the safety of experiments and the confidence the public can place in any of the scientific work on BSE. That is why I call what the hon. Gentleman said dangerously irresponsible.
None of these experiments will give us clear and conclusive answers: all we are ever going to have are experimental results that narrow down the range of uncertainty bit by bit. The hon. Gentleman has done 25 neither sheep farmers nor the British public any service whatever by his disgraceful attempt to pretend that this is anything other than—yes—a series of grave errors that cause grave concern, but I see nothing—[Interruption.] To speak to the hon. Gentleman directly, as he is heckling me: what is it for which I am supposed to apologise?
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
May I ask a very obvious question? Although hindsight is a marvellous thing to have, why on earth was not normal laboratory practice followed and identification of the material confirmed when it came to the laboratory, especially as it had been taken out of some fridge of doubtful provenance? Why was not normal laboratory practice followed?
§ Margaret Beckett
My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is a very pertinent question. Further tests have been conducted. Tests were conducted when this experiment began, and from time to time down the years further tests have been conducted. It is far from clear why the results of the tests that were conducted then and the results of the tests conducted at the laboratory of the Government chemist the other day are so disparate. That is precisely the issue that the independent scientific audit will have to address. I know that my hon. Friend will understand precisely why I said that there is a great deal of confusion in the information presently available to the Government.
§ Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
Is the Secretary of State aware that when I was in Brussels last Wednesday, officials from both the Commission and the European Parliament told me that they expected research to be published in the next 24 hours which would confirm that BSE was present in the British sheep flock? Surely, the issue that she needs to address is how we got so close to an announcement that would have had disastrous consequences for our industry, why the error was not discovered earlier and why, indeed, it was possible, over a period of months, for doubts to have been expressed but not, apparently, addressed?
The Secretary of State said, correctly, that the IAH is not the Department but a client of the Department. However, can she say whether the Department was in any way involved in supplying the relevant material or what it did to supervise that? How can she ensure that when the Department commissions research in future, it can satisfy itself that the people carrying it out can be trusted to do so properly, professionally and competently? Does she not acknowledge that there is a great deal of concern that, as MAFF's successor, her Department still suffers from low morale and motivation as well as, in many cases, a poor calibre of decision making and management? If that is the case, does she not recognise that she has a responsibility to put things right so that we can have confidence that the Department is capable of commissioning research that will deliver results? We must recognise and welcome the fact that there is no such evidence in the British sheep flock, but what will she do to ensure that any research now conducted does not raise any further doubts?
§ Margaret Beckett
The hon. Gentleman is right in that we have been in touch with the European Commission which, like us, was expecting the results of the work on Friday. However, he is wrong about what those results 26 might have shown: even if they had been clearer and more conclusive, they would have told us, at maximum, what scientists believe is the risk of there having been BSE in the sheep flock in the 1990s. Brains from the current flock were not being tested.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the supervision of the collection of the sample and so on. At the moment, I do not know who supervised the collection of material but, as I said in my statement, it was collected for a completely different purpose. Cow brain was collected in the 1990s under the supervision of the Conservative Government to test the effect of rendering on BSE prions; sheep brain was collected to test the effect of rendering on the clinical signs of scrapie. All the material was kept at the IAH and, as far as I am aware, was not in the custody of my Department; I am not aware of any role that we had in supervising its custody. It was thought that there would be merit in conducting experiments on brain material collected in the 1990s, but clearly a limited amount of such material was still available, which is why it was decided to take the risk of using material collected under different circumstances and for a different purpose.
The hon. Gentleman asked about doubts that had been expressed. There were questions and doubts down the years because there must always be some scientific dubiety when material is collected under different circumstances and for a different reason. Moreover, I understand that when people became concerned about cross-contamination, it was felt that the material might have been worked on on benches on which cow brain had also been worked on. We were therefore talking about the possibility of contamination occurring during experimental work and research rather than a mixing of the material itself. I must tell the hon. Gentleman and the House in all seriousness that there are important issues to be addressed, so it is essential that we have the independent scientific audit and do not speculate about what happened.
§ Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that she is right not to be deflected by the incoherent ramblings of the party that caused all those problems in the first place and left the nation with that appalling legacy? Will she confirm that the independent and, I hope, rigorous audit of the work will go wide enough to include an audit of all similar or related work in that area being carried out for the Department and the Government? If it is the case that there was a failure to provide the proper tissues for research, we need to know that similar failures have not occurred in other research carried out in the IAH or other institutions. So will my right hon. Friend ensure that all the work that is going on in this important, sensitive and difficult area is properly and independently—[Interruption.]—rigorously assessed before any further decisions are taken?
§ Margaret Beckett
My right hon. Friend is entirely right, and I share his views. He will know that I have already demanded an independent audit. I have also demanded a thorough review of all the work that is being undertaken, and I am asking for people to consider whether there is yet further research that we ought to undertake. It is important that all that is done. I noticed that Opposition Members were emphasising the need for independent scrutiny. That is a view which I share. I again remind them that the reason that we know about the 27 problems with the experiment is that my Department commissioned an independent check to find out whether there was, in fact, a problem.
§ Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)
But we have had an extremely close call. It is just possible that we could have been here today listening to a statement about measures taken to protect the public from eating lamb. As the Secretary of State knows, the farming community has an apocalyptic view that that could extend to the slaughter of the entire flock. It would be helpful if we had the parameters of a response if that were discovered. If the work is being done at more than one institute—the experiment was only part of the work—is it possible that we still may be able to find out whether BSE was present, masked by scrapie, in the sheep flock in the 1990s? Is there other work, as the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said, which may have led to policy announcements, although we now doubt the veracity of the research on which it was based? As public money is involved, can the Government have recourse to the institutes to recover it, given that it was spent in a futile cause in the exercise in question?
§ Margaret Beckett
No doubt that issue will have to be considered in the fulness of time. Of course I am aware of the grave anxieties in the farming community. That is why I regret that the episode has been hijacked for an entirely different political purpose. It is a matter of great concern. As far as I am aware—I will write to the right hon. Gentleman if I am wrong—there may not be much other work going on that will tell us about what happened in sheep brain in the 1990s because, by definition, only a limited amount of material is available. I am not aware that there is other work of that period. Most of the other work that is being undertaken is in many ways more pertinent to the anxieties of the public and of the farming community, as it is being undertaken on sheep that are in the food chain now.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is well aware that up to the present time, which is all that we can say as we are dealing with uncertainties, none of that work has yet detected the presence of BSE in the national flock. We must hope that that continues to be the case, but that does not absolve any of us from our responsibility to do everything we can to make sure that we get further information and have it properly and rigorously assessed, and to do everything possible to try to eradicate scrapie and, with it, the risk of BSE.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
When exactly in 1997 was the flawed research commissioned? Would my right hon. Friend welcome a full investigation of the matter by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
§ Margaret Beckett
My hon. Friend asks a very pertinent question. The research was commissioned in January 1997 under the Conservative Government.
§ Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)
Did the Secretary of State at any point discuss the handling of the release of the information with her special adviser?
§ Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the EU Veterinary Standing Committee will soon be considering lifting the export ban on lamb and sheepmeat. What impact, if any, does she think that today's statement will have on its decision?
§ Margaret Beckett
All these issues must be taken carefully into account. I hope that there will be greater understanding by those who are considering these matters in the relative calm in which they make their decisions on the experiments and on what the questioning of them means.
§ Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)
Farmers in my constituency now have no faith in the Department. If specialists have been examining cows' brains for the past four years, farmers would like to know why they did not find BSE.
§ Margaret Beckett
I do not want to prejudge what is said to be the outcome of the experiment that has been called into question. I believe that those who conducted it felt that there was some evidence that BSE might have been in the material that they were testing in the 1990s. I do not want to go further than that. The issue of the validity of the experiment, what it means and what it might mean is under question. In addition, these are matters that will have to be considered by SEAC. I am not sure whether farmers in the hon. Gentleman's constituency will be grateful to him for raising even more doubts.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
This is obviously a grave announcement. To what extent does my right hon. Friend think that the Phillips report, rather than helping us understand the cause and transmission of BSE, has made the case for understanding these matters that much more difficult? Will she take due account of that in future and ensure that investigations are reported more quickly, and perhaps pull together some of the scientific evidence in a more opportune manner?
§ Margaret Beckett
I take my hon. Friend's point. One of the concerns about the work of the Phillips committee, without any discredit to the distinguished individuals who carried it out, was that it took so long. It was not easy for the members of it to draw together the scientific evidence in a way that made it clear. That is one of the reasons why the Government have chosen a different route for the inquiries that we have announced into foot and mouth disease.
§ Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)
In March, the right hon. Lady's Department received memorandums from the Select Committee on work on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Dr. Dickson, formerly of the neuropathological unit in Edinburgh, contributed to it. He said:It was a cause for amazement … when I heard that MAFF was funding attempts to search for particular strains in the UK sheep population by pooling the brains of sheep in batches.He added:They will need considerable good luck with any such approach.With that critical comment, I ask the right hon. Lady when her Department first became aware of doubts about the scientific validity of this work. Who provided the source 29 of the doubts? Is it true that the Department knew about them in September? If so, why is it that we have heard about it only now?
§ Margaret Beckett
With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman—I regard him as usually a serious contributor to these issues—I do not think that he has listened to what has been said. The material was already pooled. Nobody drew together a brain pool to conduct the experiments. The material was in that form. As it was one of the small amounts of material available from the 1990s, it was decided to take the risk of using it for the experiment. It seems from what I know that from the beginning there has been something of a question mark over whether the research would show us much of great value. That is something that has always been in dispute. I do not have any names. My impression is that there are a number of scientist who have some reservations about the issue and the experiment. The right hon. Gentleman will know that it is ever thus: scientists do differ about the work of different experiments.
§ Margaret Beckett
The experiment was commissioned by the Conservative Government in January 1997. From the beginning there have been those who have had doubts about its validity.
§ Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)
My right hon. Friend was quite right to make the information public as soon as it became available. It is no sin not to spin; that differs from the Conservative party's attitude to BSE.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the genuine public anxiety about the safety of feeding lamb to young children? Without resorting to feeding her grandchildren a lamb burger, unlike a former Conservative Minister, what can she say to parents about the safety of feeding British lamb to their children?
§ Margaret Beckett
Quite rightly and properly, food safety is in the hands of the independent Food Standards Agency, not least because of our experiences under the Conservative Government. No FSA advice states that baby food manufacturers should not use United Kingdom lamb or that lamb should not be consumed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier remarks and simply observe what should be evident to anybody: although it may be inconvenient, life does not always correspond to media deadlines.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
We are considering a grave matter. In what form was the tissue in the 1990 scrapie brain pool kept: complete organs or histological specimens? Given the high economic and scientific stakes that were being played for in the experiment, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) pointed out, would not any contamination of samples with bovine tissue render the entire experiment pointless? What checks were built into the experimental protocols when the experiment was designed to ensure that the tissues were not contaminated and that the results were consequently valid?
§ Margaret Beckett
The hon. Gentleman asks, first, about the form of the material. I understand that it was 30 pooled brains in the form of a paste. He also asked about checks and said that any trace of bovine material would invalidate the experiment. Several checks were made—I am not sure of the number, but I believe that it was three or four—over the lifetime of the four-year experiment.
Although some people will undoubtedly share the hon. Gentleman's view that any trace of bovine material would call the results into question, those who conducted the experiment would not accept that. They believe that any minor contamination—one would have to consider their definition of minor—would not necessarily invalidate the results. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee was set up to discuss and evaluate exactly such an issue. It would undoubtedly have held such a discussion on Friday if my Department had not commissioned the cross-check.
§ Mr. David Cameron (Witney)
Why cannot the right hon. Lady be clear about the issue and simply apologise? Is it not clear that scientists working for her Department have been experimenting on the brains of cows, not those of sheep, for the past four years? She says that she was trying to be transparent. If so, why does not the word "cow" appear in the press release? She could hardly bear to use it today; instead, she talked about "non-sheep material". Was not the press release opaque, unclear and thoroughly discreditable, and put out by an increasingly discredited Government?
§ Margaret Beckett
The hon. Gentleman asks why we cannot be clearer and simply apologise. I repeat that the Government are not conducting the research; the previous Conservative Government, whom the hon. Gentleman supported, commissioned it, and it continues under the present Government. He says that it is clear that the scientists have been working all the time on bovine material.
§ Margaret Beckett
Cows, sheep—it is not clear that they have been working on material from cattle all the time. What has happened is not clear; the purpose of the independent scientific audit is to find out.
The hon. Gentleman claims that "cow" does not appear in the press release, but "cattle" does. The press release states that the "cross-checking research" wasto guard against the possibility of material being contaminated by cattle brains"—[Interruption.]
§ Margaret Beckett
The press release continues:This cross-checking has raised doubts about the validity of the original sample.As I pointed out in my statement, that is because I am not confident that we can be sure that the material that was checked at the laboratory of the Government chemist was the same as that used in the experiments. Although the institute initially suggested on Wednesday afternoon that the material was the same, it has subsequently said that perhaps it was not.
§ Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)
Having, in recent months, seen a young woman gradually die from 31 CJD, may I say that I found the knockabout, pantomime performance of the Opposition spokesman deeply distasteful? We should not allow this sad fiasco to distract us from our primary responsibility, which is to try to minimise CJD infection. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that we shall try to ensure that rapid and reliable research will be carried out into the risk of BSE in our sheep flocks?
§ Margaret Beckett
My hon. Friend is entirely right about the gravity of this matter, which is why I very much regret the way in which it has been used. I have said that I will place in the Vote Office or the Library a list of what research is being undertaken, but obviously we shall need to reassess that. I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that this is what really matters.
One of the things that I found most distressing about the events of the past few days was a report from the mother of a young vCJD victim, who talked about her daughter having still been alive in 1997, and who appeared to have been given the impression that the work that has been called into question would in some way have prevented her daughter's death, or in some way answered questions or solved these problems. That is why I went to such lengths to explain that, even if the experiment had been successful, it would tell us only a limited amount, and that there is a great deal that we still do not know. These are very grave issues indeed, and it is incumbent on us all to treat them with the seriousness that they deserve.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
The real issue is whether the results of other experiments have been compromised in the same way. It seems to me, a lay person, absolutely inexplicable that professional people should have mistaken cows' brains for sheep's brains. Will the Minister tell the House visually what the difference is between a cow's brain and a sheep's brain?
§ Margaret Beckett
I would certainly be cautious about doing so. I stress to my hon. Friend that the material on which this research was conducted was a paste. So far as I am aware—I hope that this will emerge in the information that I shall place before the House—all the experiments that are being conducted on sheep from the current flock, so to speak, are using individual brains. Therefore, the same kind of issues do not arise, although it is obviously still right for us to look at these questions and to try to answer them if we can.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
Does not the Secretary of State understand the immense damage that this has done to the scientific reputation of her Department and the advice that may emanate from it?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley)
It was not her Department.
§ Mr. Paice
The Minister says that it was not their Department. He and the Secretary of State are responsible for the advice that comes from that Department, so any accusation that those who wish to criticise the Secretary of State or her Department are in some way exploiting the tragedy of CJD is, frankly, contemptible. The reality is 32 that the Department's scientific advice is listened to out in the country, and it is very worrying for millions of people, consumers and farmers, when they hear that an experiment has gone on for four years and that it was only at the last minute—beyond the eleventh hour—that the challenges that the Secretary of State rightly says have existed for four years were held perhaps to be right, suggesting that the trials might not be valid. Will the Secretary of State not even now say that she is sorry that this has happened and, rather than criticise the Opposition, accept that her Department's status and prestige in scientific matters now stand on a knife edge?
§ Margaret Beckett
No, I do not accept that, although the Opposition are doing their best to make that the case. I am not sure what makes them think that that will serve the public interest.
The hon. Gentleman wondered why this conclusion had emerged only at the end of the experiment. Perhaps he has not taken on board the fact that it is the nature of this kind of experiment that the results to be assessed come only towards the end. Secondly, he spoke of the immense damage done to the reputation of my Department. May I repeat that this research was not conducted by my Department? It was commissioned by the previous Department under his Government, not under ours. I do not hold the Conservative party to blame—it was perfectly legitimate and correct to commission the research from an independent institute—but I am blowed if I see why we should take the blame for yet another of its errors.
The hon. Gentleman says that the reputation of my Department has been damaged because the experiment went wrong, but I remind him that my Department also commissioned the experiment—the cross-checking—that showed the error. He says that this is a contemptible episode. I am sorry that he chooses to use that language, but, in that case, I tell him bluntly that what is utterly contemptible is the Opposition's attempt to hijack a serious issue to try to fabricate evidence of some supposed cover-up and spinning when information was put in the public domain hours after Ministers knew it. Call that spinning? It is ridiculous.
§ Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)
My concern is also for the reputation of the scientists and laboratories involved in the incident. All those in the House with a detailed knowledge of science, including my right hon. Friend, know that the storage labelling and the integrity of scientific samples, especially during transport from one laboratory to another, are of prima facie importance in science. In the light of that, does she agree that, in order to reverse the damage that may have been done, getting a full technical explanation in the public domain as soon as possible is of the utmost urgency?
§ Margaret Beckett
My hon. Friend is entirely right. I say to him quite honestly that I feel extremely sorry for the scientists involved, although I am probably the only person who does. They must be questioning all their work, and they must be deeply concerned about what has happened. I can assure him that the independent audit that we have commissioned will indeed be made public and that we shall do everything we can to provide as much information as we can as accurately as possible.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)
It is a disgrace that we have had not a single sign of contrition from the 33 Government. Does not the Secretary of State realise that we were within 36 hours of wiping out the sheep farming industry in Wales? The headlines on Saturday following SEAC's meeting on Friday would have been "BSE found in sheep", which would have finished off sheepmeat sales in England and Wales.
Will the right hon. Lady confirm one thing—that an official of the National Assembly for Wales who was on the working party overseeing the tests and who assisted on the DNA tests, not her Department or an official in it, insisted on the DNA testing? That is why the testing was done at the very last minute. Is it not clear that her Department cannot be responsible for animal health in Wales? It is time that she devolved animal health and other agriculture responsibilities to the National Assembly.
§ Margaret Beckett
I did not think that anyone could vie with the Conservatives in a ridiculous rant, but clearly the hon. Gentleman is trying hard. I am not aware of the point that he makes about who gave particular advice, but I simply say to him that it remains the case that my Department commissioned the further information.
As a Secretary of State I am normally reluctant to decline to apologise, but I say honestly and genuinely to the House that I do not see for what the Department that previously supervised the research, or indeed my Department, is supposed to feel guilty and apologise. The research was not carried out by Government scientists. It was commissioned by a Government—but not by our Government. The cross-check was commissioned by the Government. As soon as we knew that there were problems, we immediately put the information in the public domain. That is the proper way to behave, and that is what I stand for.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)
My right hon. Friend emerges from this latest incident with great credit and she should take no criticisms from the Conservative party. When it was in government, I remember Minister after Minister coming to the Dispatch Box to say that, on expert opinion, there was no chance of BSE getting in the food chain, and the appalling scene of Ministers force feeding their children hamburgers. The object lesson of all this is to be wary of experts in her Department and, indeed, from MAFF. Their philosophy seems to be, "If it moves, slaughter it", which probably extends to Ministers. The final lesson surely must be that the sooner people follow my example and become vegetarians, the happier and healthier they will be.
§ Margaret Beckett
I understand my hon. Friend's point of view. I was not aware that he had become a vegetarian. Although I have deep sympathy with his views, I would merely utter to him the word "pesticides."
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
On food safety, will the Minister confirm—this should reassure the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks)—that the removal of specified material in all sheep more than one year old will continue? Sheep farmers will be dismayed by this hugely embarrassing delay, because they have been implementing this procedure at great expense. Cull ewes are worthless. Given the Government's refusal to help the sheep industry with that problem, and given that there will be more years of research, will the right hon. Lady consider much more 34 sympathetically the financial support that the Government give to sheep producers in Wales, on the North Yorkshire moors and in the uplands? They are making very little money, and most of them are on the verge of bankruptcy and ruin. They are dismayed by what has happened, because the uncertainty means more delay in getting back to the day when they know that all their sheep are BSE free.
§ Margaret Beckett
I have great sympathy with the concerns of the farming community. I believe that it is necessary for the removal of specified material to continue. No one regrets more than I do the fact that we have not been able to reduce some of the present uncertainty. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that I referred to the separate work on contemporary sheep brains being carried out at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. We hope that that research will make a contribution. If the tests that the VLA is developing can be validated, peer reviewed and properly accepted as being of use, it will immensely speed up the completion of this work, and we very much want to see that.
§ Clive Efford (Eltham)
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on her prompt action in publishing this information. Such information should not enter the public domain by being leaked.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees with me that, as a result of these issues, there is widespread public concern about animal produce from this country. Does she also agree that one of the best ways of restoring confidence is the routine testing of all livestock that enter the human food chain, including cattle of under 36 months?
§ Margaret Beckett
My hon. Friend is right that all these issues should be examined carefully and thoroughly and kept under review. The general discussion about where the future of the farming community and the wider rural community lies includes consideration of how we can produce consistent and high-quality food. I have little doubt—this is certainly a matter of discussion—that it requires more individual identification and, ultimately, more individual testing. My hon. Friend will be aware that that will involve substantial costs.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
Regrettably, before the Secretary of State made this announcement last week the agriculture industry had little confidence in her Department, and her announcement will have further dented its reputation. She could go some way towards restoring that reputation by agreeing to a full public inquiry into the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Will she now consider that at least?
§ Margaret Beckett
I have already said many times from the Dispatch Box that we have commissioned inquiries of this nature because they can take place more speedily and can disaggregate the science and the long-term implications of a range of animal disease outbreaks. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we have had a range of outbreaks in recent years. The inquiry into precisely what happened during the foot and mouth outbreak and the separate inquiries to consider where the future of the farming community and the rural economy should take us will investigate how we handle those 35 diseases, how we use epidemiology and what lessons we can learn for good or ill. We believe that that will be more effective and speedier than a lengthy public inquiry that tries to undertake all those tasks.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
Will the Secretary of State return to the critical question of why DNA testing was not included in the original design for the research programme when it was commissioned in 1997 by the Conservative Government? Could it be that there was an attempt to do the job on the cheap? It is an extraordinary fact that the fate of 40 million sheep was to hang on a research programme costing less than £1,000 a week. Does the right hon. Lady believe that, when originally set up, the programme was properly funded?
Why, in particular, did the professor at the IAH ask, as I understand he did some months ago, about the integrity of the sample that his team was investigating? What motivated him to ask that question?
§ Margaret Beckett
I cannot say that I have the full details of exactly what happened at every stage of the four-year experiment. I know the institute claims that it undertook some investigation of the sample originally. Information comes in and changes from time to time, but I understand that what has led those at the institute to say that they are not convinced that what was tested at the laboratory of the Government chemist is the material on which they carried out the experiment is the fact that right at the beginning—I think before the experiment commenced—they conducted some tests that they believed identified the material as sheep material.
I am not sure of the precise nature of the tests; I am not sure whether they were DNA tests or not. I understand, however, that those who carried them out were said to have identified a protein found only in sheep, and therefore felt confident that it was sheep material. I also understand—I am not sure from what interview, but it is my impression that it has happened three or four times over the years—that further checks were sought. Somewhere along the route, flaws emerged. I do not know whether the checks were not carried out in the right way or whether the difficulties arose towards the end of the experiment, and I know the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that I do not intend to speculate. That is what the independent scientific audit will try to establish, and whatever it finds—clear or otherwise—will be put in the public domain.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
The right hon. Lady did not answer the question asked by my hon. Friend 36 the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who wanted to know why the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), had appeared to experience a kneejerk reaction in saying that all the national stock would be slaughtered. Can she restore the confidence of our sheep producers by saying that that was a regrettable remark, and that such action will now not be necessary?
The right hon. Lady will be aware that important new evidence has come to light suggesting that variant CJD may not be caused by BSE. Will she commission her Department to try to find conclusive evidence that that is so?
§ Margaret Beckett
This is the philosopher's stone. No one would like to know anything more than this: what causes BSE, and what we can do about it.
The hon. Lady mentioned remarks made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. That is, of course, one of the options identified in the national contingency plan; it is the extreme option. I will write to the hon. Lady if I am mistaken, but I believe that the Phillips report recommended that it should be considered if BSE was found in sheep. It has therefore always been one of the options in the contingency plan to deal with the day when BSE in sheep might be identified, but I repeat that up to now the experiments conducted on the current flock have not identified it in them.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)
Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the Institute for Animal Health is accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service? Does she agree that this whole sorry saga is an indictment of the Government's action in submerging agriculture in a much bigger Department? Does she also agree that it is a disgrace that the Minister with dedicated responsibility for agriculture is in the House of Lords rather than here? What signal does that send to the farming community?
§ Margaret Beckett
That is a very silly remark. The Minister responsible for agriculture is standing at this Dispatch Box, and, indeed, I am the Minister who attends the Agriculture Council. I am not at all sure what makes that an indictment.
I do not know whether the IAH is accredited by the body cited by the hon. Gentleman, but it has certainly always been widely regarded as a much-respected organisation. No doubt that is why the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported commissioned research from it.