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6.20 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): We all owe a debt of gratitude to Lord Phillips for producing an extremely sane and balanced report. Naturally, at the beginning there were fears that he had been appointed to chair a hanging jury. However, he was completely faithful to the promise that he would not bring retrospective judgments to bear but would judge actions in the light of the science and information that was available at the time. In doing so, he has done a service to everybody. He has enabled us to illuminate the dilemmas that Ministers have to face.

I also pay tribute to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. His response has been equally measured and sensible. As he is in office, he knows that the dilemmas highlighted by the Phillips report are the daily provender of Ministers in sensitive Departments. Dilemmas such as those have appeared in the past and will continue to do so for Ministers in the present.

In the light of the Government's response to the Phillips report, I want to look forward and issue some slightly cautionary notes, in case anyone believes that the document is a new testament that will infallibly light our way. Two especially important issues are covered by chapters 4 and 6--the handling of scientific advice and coping with risk. Of course, the comments in those chapters are sensible, but they do not remove the need for Ministers to make judgments, which, at the end of the day, will be political--because they are made by Ministers. In many circumstances, the last step may always be taken if not in the dark, at least in the murk.

In applying the science, we faced--in the case of BSE--a new disease for which there was no history and little expertise. Scientific expertise was limited so there was no peer group which could review the conclusions reached by the most eminent scientists who had been brought in to advise the Government. The advice offered was, perforce, quasi-monopolistic. Of course, there were, and are, iconoclasts, or mavericks--according to one's side of the argument. How are they to be coped with? Should they be absorbed into the committee and their views brought within the framework of the advice? The danger then would be that the advice itself becomes an uneasy stand-off between opposing viewpoints. Should the Minister place trust in the established scientists--the best-known collection of advice--knowing that the maverick will always command the attention of the media and that, occasionally, the maverick may be right? All Ministers face that dilemma.

Mr. Ainger: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Curry: No, I am sorry but I cannot give way because of the time constraints.

Chapter 4 of the report notes that Departments must have the expertise to commission, understand, evaluate and then draw conclusions from scientific advice. With respect, that is self-evident, but extremely difficult. Science is more complex than it has ever been. The micro-branches of science are not understood by other

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micro-branches of science. The generalist, who, because tasks range across a broad spectrum, is almost inevitably the person employed, may not be competent in particular spheres of expertise. One falls back on the hope that there is a peer group of other scientists so that there is a dialectic and argument can take place. However, that means that there are choices, and thus, at the end of the day, that Ministers have to make a judgment. Nothing done by the scientist removes the need for Ministers' ultimate judgments.

Chapter 6 refers to risk. The problem is that, increasingly, we face demands from the public for an absolute guarantee. As our scientific ability to test materials improves and we can detect parts per billion, products that seemed to be pure in the past may suddenly be found to contain an infinitely small element of a contaminant. Of course, the word "contamination" immediately springs to mind, and that absolute guarantee is undeliverable.

Chapter 6.6 of the Government's response states:

That is the nub of the issue. Once again, we are back to evaluations and judgment, and all the Minister, or the Government, can do is to place in front of the public the various factors that led him to draw his conclusions and, frankly, hope that people believe that, on balance, it is the right thing to do, knowing that someone will always say that a slightly more extreme or radical solution should have been taken. That leads us straight to the precautionary approach.

Paragraph 6.14 on the precautionary approach states:

However, let us consider the language used there. The use of words "proportionate" and "serious harm" involves judgment. The wonderful word "appropriate" is the most important adjective in any Government's lexicon, but determining what is appropriate also involves judgment. So that paragraph lets no one off the hook; it is simply stating, in relatively elegant terms, the eternal dilemma involved in making judgments. There is no mathematical scale that can trigger action.

At the end of day, there must a certain intuitive response, and successful Ministers are often those who have a strongly intuitive sense of what is right and of which direction people demand they should take. The difficulty with the precautionary approach, which seems obviously sensible, is where to draw the line in the sand. Where should the perimeter be set around which the Minister mans those defences that are defensible? If a certain measure of precaution is taken, why not take a little further precaution? Before we know where we are, we should have moved a long way from what can be defended on strictly scientific grounds.

There has been much condemnation of the so-called culture of reassurance, but before we condemn one culture, we need to look at the alternatives. Is hesitation the alternative? Is it a culture of panic, or one in which

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we say that we simply do not know? There is much enthusiasm for openness, and of course we say amen to that, but we must be cautious because, as my right hon. Friends have said, a populist and campaigning press may not translate an issue's complexities through to the public.

I wish to cite three contemporary cases that illustrate the dilemmas that Ministers face. I am glad that the Minister for Public Health is here, because I wish to refer to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. All the players are on scene. We have a vast majority of established scientific opinion in favour of the multiple vaccine. We have a handful of iconoclasts who say that it is causing serious disease in infants. We have Ministers bringing to bear the canon of established Government scientific advice and we have the press seizing on the minority view, with stories that are unashamedly emotional. If Ministers believe their scientific advice, and they have no reason not to, they are condemned to be reassuring in the words that they utter to the public; they have no alternative.

Let us consider another issue--GM foods, which several of my colleagues have mentioned. Openness does prevail; the trial sites are advertised and the map grid references are given, but that leads to direct action and a massively irresponsible and emotional campaign in some newspapers about Frankenstein foods, which makes it even more difficult for the Government to take sensible action. The result has been incoherence, division and confusion at the heart of Government. The Minister need not agree with that, but I simply state that that is the case.

The third case is TB in cattle, which will kill 10 or 20 times more cattle than BSE will in the coming year. In a purely agricultural sense, TB is a far greater problem than BSE. The trials that are taking place are heavily contested and may not produce a conclusive result. In fact, there is a 50:50 chance that they will not produce a result that will enable the Minister to say that science has incontrovertibly demonstrated a clear way forward. Farmers are saying, "We do not want to wait for the scientific tests to be completed, because the problem is so serious that we must make a pre-emptive strike against badgers." The badger group is saying, "You cannot prove that the badgers are responsible, and the whole trial is badly founded." That contemporary case demonstrates that Ministers' intuition has to play a role. The practical steps that must be taken are those that were taken by all my right hon. Friends when they were in Government, facing a similar dilemma and a similar outcome.

I applaud the Food Standards Agency, and Sir John Krebs has done a very good job in establishing its credibility. He has shown canny political sense, and I do not mean that in a party sense. Sir John has made remarks about organic food and about the possibility of BSE-type diseases in sheep. Immediately, red lights began to flash, signalling that his remarks would be contested.

Within Government and its agencies, the lesson to be learned from the BSE episode is the importance of co-ordinating scientific effort, so that scientists know what other scientists are doing. I am referring not to the centralisation of science, but to the need for awareness of what research is being undertaken. There must be a communication channel between scientists and officials, and it is important that scientists' claims be evaluated by officials. Officials should approach Ministers when the

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matter becomes one that, politically, they need to know about. Finally, there is a need to enforce the actions that have been decreed. That takes us straight to the old issues of resources, money and staff, which are the subject of everyday arguments between Departments.

We must be careful that we do not expect scientists to substitute for politicians. Scientists make politicians' dilemmas more difficult, not easier. They provide explanations and options; they do not provide answers to the sort of questions that the public ask and politicians need to answer. At the end of the day, the decisions will be political and they will be based on the balance of advice, which will rarely point to a definitive outcome. On every ministerial desk should be printed the legend, "There but for the grace of God . . . ", and I cannot help but feel that the Minister's sane, balanced response to this issue demonstrates that perhaps, in his mind, he has that legend on his own desk.

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