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2.40 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I welcome this opportunity to debate Lord Phillips's report, and I pay tribute to Lord Phillips, his team and their advisers for the work which they undertook. This is a most important subject, and I welcome much of what the Minister has said about the report and the steps that have been taken to deal with the problem since the report was published and during the past five years by Governments of both parties.

The Phillips report makes it clear that our knowledge of the issue is still far from perfect. Large gaps remain to be filled, one of which, no doubt, will be addressed by the group to which the Minister has referred. As I said in my initial response on the day that the report was published, I accept its main conclusions, and now that I have had a chance to study it in more detail, I confirm my first impression that it is a comprehensive and broadly fair document.

I have never worked at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in any capacity, so I am not able to judge with certainty the accuracy or wisdom of the Phillips report in every detail. My right hon. Friends who are present--some of whom may seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker--all have direct or first-hand experience of many of the matters examined by Lord Phillips, so I look forward to their comments on some of the report's details. However, on behalf of the Conservative party, I should like to make it clear that we recognise that mistakes were made. I profoundly regret the consequences of those mistakes, and we are truly sorry for the tragic outcomes and terrible suffering of victims of variant CJD and their families.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: In a moment.

Our first concern and care must be for the victims and their families, and I fully support the action taken by the Government, some of which was set out in the interim response, published last week. I welcome yesterday's announcement on the interim payments to the families.

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Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says about apologising to the victims, but the mother of one of them, Anthony Smith--a neighbour of mine--has written to me, saying:

It is a very moving letter, and Irene Smith concludes:

When will the individuals who were criticised apologise publicly?

Mr. Yeo: I naturally sympathise very deeply with the hon. Lady's constituent. The report is extremely circumspect in the criticisms that it makes of individuals. I hope that she has studied the relevant section, because it is clear from Lord Phillips's balanced conclusions that he is rightly reluctant to go too far in blaming any individual.

I would have said this later, but I shall do so now: some of the individuals involved are civil servants who do not have an opportunity to answer for themselves in any case, so pursuing individual criticisms is not a particularly constructive way to address the issue. I am interested in the judgment of the official who explored the possibility of disciplinary action against civil servants. I entirely agree with the Minister that it would be inappropriate for him to become involved in that process in any way, and in his position I certainly would not wish to read the report--

Judy Mallaber rose--

Dr. Gibson rose--

Mr. Yeo: I shall give way in a moment.

Nevertheless, the fact that disciplinary action against officials has not been considered necessary reflects the balanced way in which Lord Phillips has addressed individual responsibility.

Judy Mallaber: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: In a moment.

I return to the question of the families. Finding the right help for people with variant CJD is a challenge, and innovative solutions are needed. Time is of the essence, and the Conservative party pledges its full support for the measures that are needed. I believe that we owe it to the victims and their families to ensure, first, that every possible care and assistance is given to them and, secondly, to ensure that the lessons of this episode are thoroughly learned and applied right across government, not only in Britain but in other countries where BSE may now be an increasing problem. Our experience in Britain--an experience which we would all rather not have had--may have given us knowledge and expertise that will be applicable and valuable elsewhere.

Judy Mallaber: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: No, it is more important to deal with the issues.

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Other countries may want to learn from us, and I am sure that the Minister will facilitate that, where possible. History would rightly condemn us as having failed in our duty if the messages that ring loud and clear from the Phillips report were to be ignored. Lord Phillips did recognise, however, that where mistakes were made, the individuals concerned--ranging from civil servants and scientific advisers to Ministers--acted in good faith, and I welcome that recognition.

Anyone who has served in Government will be acutely aware of the danger and possible unfairness of passing judgment with the benefit of hindsight. Neither Ministers nor civil servants enjoy the luxury of spending days, weeks or even months studying the background to decisions that are taken every day of their lives. Those decisions may subsequently come under close scrutiny, but they are often made when other issues appear to be more important or more urgent, not only to Ministers and their advisers but to the outside world. The Phillips report recognises that fact in relation to several points--for example, in paragraph 1292 of volume 1, it does so specifically in respect of the important issue of the communication of risk.

It is also significant that, even with all the resources at the inquiry's disposal and having studied the subject for three years, the inquiry team concluded that the origin of BSE may never be known. Happily, the report was at least able to dispose of some of the theories on the origin of BSE that had been put about--for example, that it resulted from changes in rendering methods.

Let me move on to three of the key messages in the report.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I respect his tone, but I represent one of the families that was devastated. Ministers were mentioned--for example, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is not in his place. I do not know whether he has given any indication of why he is absent. Families in my constituency, finding that at one stage his evidence was simply not accepted, feel that he owes them and the House an explanation.

Mr. Yeo: The right hon. Gentleman has put his concern on record, and I am sure that it will be noted by my right hon. and learned Friend.

The first key message is the need for better communication within Whitehall and the ranks of government. That will not come as a great surprise to anyone with inside knowledge of the workings of government. The second key message is the importance of responding in a timely manner to information that becomes available and to unfolding events; and the third is the overriding requirement for openness and transparency. The Minister referred to the collapse of public confidence in the safety of the food chain, and that cannot be fully restored without such openness. That collapse has exacted a heavy toll on consumers, producers and taxpayers. Special care has to be exercised when assurances about food safety are offered to the public.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): As well as trying to give confidence, the Government must get regulation right.

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Many of us would argue that we do not need more regulation; we need good regulation. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we need to find the necessary resources for that? Will he commit his party to finding those resources to ensure that not only BSE but TSEs are properly monitored and evaluated to ensure that such a disaster never happens again?

Mr. Yeo: I certainly agree that we need better rather than more regulation. Like the Minister, I must take care to make commitments only in respect of matters on which I speak. I said recently in the House that the Conservative party is committed to maintaining the budget that the Minister has managed to secure for his Department. That is the nearest that I can get to answering the hon. Gentleman's question.

The report gave a number of examples of the need for better communication in government. The Minister referred to an example that occurred early in the period studied by the report, when officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recognised that BSE might have implications for human health, but that recognition was not immediately conveyed to the Department of Health. Clearly, vigilance is always needed to ensure that poor communication does not produce bad outcomes and that decisions are not made on the basis of inadequate data. That need is not confined to the relationship between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Health; it extends, as the Government's interim response acknowledges, to relationships with specialist units, other agencies, advisory committees and, indeed, industry.

Communication must now take account of a new factor--devolution. The interim report, if one reads between the lines, shows that devolution has complicated matters. The existence of four Administrations in different parts of the United Kingdom increases the risk that information available to one may not always be passed to another as quickly as it should be, even though that other Administration may need the information. We had an example of that last year, on a matter concerning an environmental health risk rather than a human health risk, when information available to the Ministry of Agriculture in London about the importation of a GM-contaminated crop was not passed to the Scottish Executive in as timely as a manner as the Executive thought necessary.

The Government have set much store by the establishment of the Food Standards Agency. We fully support the agency and I warmly welcome its efforts to establish itself as an independent, authoritative source of advice for consumers on food safety matters. If the agency succeeds in that role, consumers, producers and taxpayers stand to benefit.

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