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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 15-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches from 4.30 pm until 6.30 pm?

4.24 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): I think that the debate has been extremely helpful. I want to thank the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) for his reply to me, and I will of course study his response.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food showed again today superb competence and great sensitivity in dealing with what is an extremely serious subject. It is one of the most serious matters that I have been involved with since I came to the House. The House will know that my interest in the matter in my constituency of Coatbridge and Chryston arose as a result of the very tragic case of Donna Maria McGivern. She was a teenager who died after an illness of two and half years, in circumstances that we can only imagine.

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My aim today--I hope that I say this with a sense of humility--is to encourage the House to think about how families coped with the sadness that they felt as they met the hour-by-hour challenges that arose in a situation that none of them could have predicted. The families have been helped very considerably by the Irwin Mitchell firm of solicitors, and in particular by Mr. David Body. It is gratifying to note that many of the families' criticisms and proposals have been taken on board in the Phillips report and in the Government's interim response to it.

At the close of the families' evidence in phase 1 of the inquiry, Lord Phillips told them:

The House is seeking to respond to that approach today.

The questions for us are, "What really did happen? Can we really get to the root of these dreadful problems? In the light of the clear evidence of incompetence, what do we do to respond to the needs of those who have been so deeply affected?" My constituents seek the truth: they want neither a witch hunt nor a whitewash. They will have been helped by our consideration of the Phillips report today.

I initially raised some of the issues under discussion today in a debate in December 1999. I subsequently led a delegation to meet my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health, and I thank her for the interest that she showed even at that early stage in the development of the Government's response.

I want also to put on record my thanks to the Government for their speedy response when it came to compensation. They also acted speedily to consider a strategy for a care package when similar sad events arise, and to ensure the co-ordination that they clearly regard as necessary, both within and between Government Departments, and with the various outside agencies involved. Those bodies include the surveillance units, and it is the unit in Edinburgh that is charged with the responsibility of dealing with these matters in my area. I welcome the fact that dialogue is on-going, and that consultation with families continues, especially on the issue of compensation.

I turn now to the tone of the report. I want to look at the parts played by MAFF, the Department of Health and by those at every level of Government who had responsibilities in this matter. Bearing in mind what the families involved are seeking to find out, I invite hon. Members to consider how well those responsibilities were discharged.

Inevitably, the question arises whether BSE might be transmissible to human beings. At what stage did that emerge as a clear possibility, and was the response to it adequate? The inquiry made some very severe criticisms. It concluded that, in the first half of 1987, there was a policy that one senior veterinary investigation officer described as

We have heard today about the events of 1988, to which my right hon. Friend the Minister addressed some of his remarks. Even after March 1987, it was demonstrated that there was a strategy of restricting the dissemination of information about BSE. Clearly that was, to say the least, somewhat unhelpful, both then and now.

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The inquiry concluded that the principal reason for this was concern about the possible effect on exports, and the political implications should news get out that a possible TSE in cattle had been discovered in Britain.

Many more people should have been involved in taking that decision, if it was the right decision to take. I do not believe that that was the case. The problem, on all the evidence, jumped from species to species--from cattle to feline consumption, and then to the human chain. That must have taken a lot of time. The response, in the view of the families concerned, was not one that they would have regarded to be as urgent and imperative as the facts then known invited it to be.

That leads me to question the role of Ministers as the evidence has unfolded; the role of civil servants, although I take on board the views of my right hon. Friend the Minister; and even whether the Food Standards Agency--whose establishment I welcome--is as all-embracing as it might be, given what I believe could be its input in resolving some of the difficulties.

We cannot ignore the evidence that was before the committee, to which I shall refer as briefly as possible. It is important to have on the record some of the conclusions, and without wearying the House I will do that:

Those are serious indictments. Although my right hon. Friend the Minister rightly advised us to consider the report as a whole, it is important that we address ourselves to those criticisms.

Earlier I expressed surprise at the absence of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I am disappointed that he is not here to deal with some of the criticisms that were made of him, by contrast with the right hon. Member for South Norfolk. The Phillips report was particularly critical of the failure of the Government to review and evaluate the Southwood report, saying that there was at MAFF, as at the Department of Health, a team failure to subject the Southwood report to a proper review in order to evaluate whether the unexplained differences in approach to the food risk posed by BSE had explanations that appeared to be sound.

Some families recall the evidence that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe gave during phase 2. He was critical of the inquiry generally, and commented that the committee had become lost in papers and failed to understand how Government worked. He was particularly robust in asserting that the Southwood report had been subjected to a vigorous review in his Department. The Committee expressly rejected his evidence.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman told the committee that in his Department there had been copious review, correspondence and discussion about the report, which would have included the questions raised--

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He also referred to an "amazing quantity of exchanges" between his Department and that of the right hon. Member for South Norfolk. The Committee said:

and went on to say:

The committee went on to say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should have ensured that his Department reviewed the report and provided an answer if there was one. He did not.

I regret very much having to repeat those criticisms, but I would have thought that the families and the House expected the right hon. and learned Gentleman to be here to reply to these serious comments. Whatever further debate we have, we will not necessarily get all the replies that people would expect from Ministers involved over a lengthy period. We look forward to some responses which hitherto have been missing.

My right hon. Friend the Minister correctly referred to the role of the civil service and told us about the inquiry by Sheila Forbes. I take on board my right hon. Friend's sensitivity, but many of the families have conveyed the view that, given that there is no suggestion of disciplinary action, there may be a danger that what is perceived as the ethos of the civil service--that much goes on behind closed doors without people hearing much about it--is being endorsed by that approach.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk gave his explanation of some events. He will forgive me for concluding that, frankly, even in that situation, perhaps some of the civil servants were protecting their own backs rather than Ministers'. That might be regarded as extreme, but families do take that view and we have to find a way of reassuring them about the role of civil servants and the need for openness and transparency in these matters.

I must now refer to the role of the FSA. It was a first-class decision to establish such an agency, which is long overdue. I welcomed it at the time and I think that it is a great credit to the Government that the decision was taken. However, I must express some of the reservations that some of the families have, although those are expressed in generally supportive comments about the work that the FSA is seeking to do. The families believe that their contribution will be acknowledged by Sir John Krebs and his staff.

Nevertheless, the families also believe it is symptomatic of attitudes that are prevalent in the civil service that while numbers of groups were invited by the FSA to be stakeholders in the BSE controls review--for example, the National Farmers Union, the Meat and Livestock Commission, the Small Abattoirs Federation, the Department of Health and MAFF--no invitation was extended to the Human BSE Foundation. Those involved had to speak from the floor if they chanced to be at a meeting. Nobody wanted that approach, probably not even the organisation itself. I believe that it can be corrected.

I thank the House for giving me a hearing and I hope that I have not inadequately expressed the view, the concerns and--dare I say it?--the anger of my constituents. If, in the light of the report, the Government's response and my right hon. Friend the Minister's excellent handling of the

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situation, we get to a stage where lessons are learned and we can prevent such trauma from reoccurring, the deaths of my constituent Donna Maria McGivern and many others will not have been in vain.

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