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6.33 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): The last few Labour Members who have spoken have given extremely moving accounts of what has happened to their constituents. My position is similar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) because one of my first surgery cases was brought to me by Shirley Warne, who has been in the Gallery today. She came to my surgery on the way to visit her son, Chris, who was in hospital dying of CJD. I subsequently visited and spoke to Shirley and her husband, Terry, many times. Terry is currently in the same neurological ward at Derby royal infirmary, where Chris died, and I send him my best wishes.

Shirley and Terry wanted me to argue for a public inquiry. As a very new MP, I was hesitant about doing so because I did not want to raise their hopes when I did not know whether we would get such an inquiry. I think it unlikely that we would have had an inquiry if we had not had a Labour Government. When I went to see the then Minister of Agriculture, my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), he told me that his son had been at university with someone who had died of CJD, so he was well aware of the tragedy of the disease and felt strongly about it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was determined that we had to get to the bottom of the matter because we did not know how big a tragedy it would turn out to be and the victims' families wanted answers.

The families are angry, as I am, because there have not been sufficient individual apologies for what has happened. I do not say that in terms of ascribing individual blame, but mistakes were made, as outlined in the Phillips report. Irrespective of whether they were made by individuals or as a result of the system that determines how the Government and Departments work, it is necessary for whoever runs an organisation to take responsibility and say sorry. People want a handsome apology.

I congratulate the Government on their response. Shirley told me last night that she had been talking to two other families who had spoken about the excellent care and assistance that they were receiving at home from nurses and the case worker who discussed their needs with them. She did not think that one hospital gave them that level of support when Chris was dying, although she greatly praised the staff at Derby royal infirmary for the care that they provided.

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Mistakes were made and responsibility must be taken for them. We may not be able to prevent health and food scares from occurring, but we can take on board the well-written findings, which are summarised in the interim response. They state:

We understand that the findings and recommendations embark us on a difficult agenda, but the previous Government failed to accept that there was uncertainty. They were determined to deny that it existed.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) said that he had been criticised for not being sufficiently open about the health scares, and outlined his response to that. When I considered that criticism and examined the evidence in the various volumes of the report, I was struck by the fact that Ron Davies, the then Opposition spokesman on agriculture, raised a huge number of issues on the SBO ban. He was extremely tenacious. As my right hon. Friends who were shadow spokesmen at the time have made clear, the then Opposition pursued many issues with considerable persistence. I understand that it is difficult for Ministers to take such difficult issues on board, but the lessons should be learned. The least that we can do for the families who have suffered such tragedies is to acknowledge that openly and fully.

Although we cannot necessarily prevent food and health scares from occurring, we can say that the lessons will be learned. Never again will we have a culture of secrecy; never again will regulation be thought of as merely bureaucratic, especially when it is in place to protect people. We need to examine the systems so that there is openness; to take the precautionary principle to heart; to trust people; and to acknowledge that it is difficult to talk about risks and hard for the public to assess them. Instead of hiding facts, we must be open.

I was in the Gallery before the debate began and spoke to the parents--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. It is not acceptable to refer to the Gallery.

Judy Mallaber: I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The solicitor, David Body, told me that his clients are pleased with the compensation package and the response, but want the lessons to be learned and put into effect. A Conservative Member said that this is the start of the process. We must commit ourselves to ensuring that the lessons are fully followed up. We need to do that for all those people who have suffered and to ensure that others do not suffer in the future.

6.39 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I endorse the views just expressed by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). This is the start of the process and we accept many of the points that she made.

I also share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and pay tribute to the Minister for his measured and responsible approach to the debate. He is to be commended on setting the tone for the debate. It follows from his recent comments on the "On the Record" programme, when he said that it would be a

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mistake to turn this issue into a fight along party political lines. That view was reiterated by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who said that it is primarily an issue about how government works, whichever political party happens to be in power. The Minister deserves credit for ensuring a balanced and purposeful debate.

The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) asked whether an incoming Conservative Government would implement, as the current Government intend to do, the recommendations of the Phillips report in full. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) gave that assurance at the start of the debate, and I take this opportunity to repeat the commitment.

The House has, quite rightly, dealt with the human dimension in this debate. Let us remember that much of the Phillips report dealt with the problem of vCJD as much as with that of BSE. I wish to take this opportunity to reiterate the sympathy that Conservative Members have for the families of those who lost loved ones to the disease and to those who are struggling with the problems of a family member who has contracted it. We welcome the Government's response to the needs of those families--what they have done already and what they propose to do. We shall listen carefully to what the Minister for Public Health says about further moves in that regard.

One can understand the anger and the frustration of the families involved and their need to find someone to be accountable. Their views were sympathetically put in the debate by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and by the hon. Members for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge). However, chapter 1 of the executive summary of the Phillips report concludes:

Later it adds that, in the years covered by the report,

However, the report alludes to a number of shortcomings in the way that things were done. They were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk in his opening remarks and I reiterate our acceptance of the shortcomings and our regret that they happened.

Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who were involved directly in these matters have put their case in the debate and it will have been clear to the House that they did so without equivocation. Nowhere in Phillips is their integrity impugned. To give the Minister credit, when he was interviewed on "On the Record" in February this year, he said:

Tony Wright: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss: No, I have not got much time and I want to give the Minister time to respond.

The Phillips report is a thorough investigation and appraisal of the BSE issues, and offers a fair and balanced view of events. It makes three main recommendations to the Government: first, the effectiveness of communication within government and between Departments needs to be

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considered and improved dramatically; secondly, the response time to implement decisions taken at ministerial level needs to be addressed; and, thirdly, we must consider the degree of openness with the public on health-risk issues.

On communications between Departments, we welcome the formation of the National Zoonoses Group, chaired by the chief medical officer, to address the risk to human health posed by zoonoses and to consider new and emerging diseases. To access the best scientific advice, we welcome "Guidelines 2000" from the Office of Science and Technology. It is mentioned in the Phillips report that the Meat and Livestock Commission, up to March 1996, appears not to have been covering all its statutory objectives, and that it will be putting proposals to the Government soon to achieve a better balance between its responsibilities to both stakeholders and consumers. That is a sensible move, and we trust that the Government will respond positively.

The issue of openness has been raised by many right hon. and hon. Members. The Government's main response is to point to the establishment of the Food Standards Agency. Although it is now generally welcomed, it is somewhat disingenuous to claim that had the FSA been in force earlier, a less damaging evolution of BSE and related variant CJD would have been the result. As the report concludes in chapter 1 of the executive summary,

As many of my right hon. Friends who were involved directly in government at the time have confirmed, decisions in relation to human health implications were taken in good faith.

Many issues relating to scientific advice come within the scope of greater openness. The Government are right to respond in the positive way that they have to recommendations about how, in future, scientific information will be made available to the general public. Although we were not able to have a blanket reassurance on the matter during the debate, we welcome the Minister's assurance that he will publish the scientific advice that is put to him within the Ministry.

A critical area of science is that of testing and the need to leave no research avenue uninvestigated. That point was raised by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). In their response to the Phillips report, the Government agree with the finding that tissues in an animal incubating a TSE may be infectious before the animal has developed clinical signs of the disease. That has serious implications for food safety in meat under 30 months, despite the application of the precautionary principle.

Furthermore, the Government accept in their response that the most effective way of reducing the risk would be to have a diagnostic test sensitive enough to detect infected animals in the pre-clinical stages, which could therefore be used in widespread screening programmes.

We welcome the Government's initiative in asking Professor Horn to lead a team of scientists to review our understanding of the origin of BSE. We hope and expect that in this they will review the issue of testing. Perhaps

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that is the most important issue to come out of the Phillips report. The hon. Member for Eastwood spoke about the families' desperate need to get to the bottom of the BSE-CJD problem. We share that view.

The question has been raised of the efficacy and accuracy of the testing for BSE in cattle older than 30 months. It is now part of the European Commission's raft of measures to counter the problem. However, we have not yet had a clear and unequivocal statement from the Government on their view of the test. A spokesman for the commissioner, David Byrne, said that a negative test result on its own did not mean that beef from cattle older than 30 months was safe to eat. He said:

that is the test--

Although that admission could be welcomed as a sign of greater openness, it nevertheless invites questions of the Government and the FSA.

The history of BSE since the mid-1980s is as tragic an event as we have ever experienced in this country. Great distress and anger have been caused not only to the families of variant CJD victims but to the livestock farming community. We should not lose sight of the fact that livelihoods have been ruined and businesses destroyed in the agriculture sector as well. The Opposition accept that mistakes were made, but we join the Government in responding positively to all the recommendations set out in Lord Phillips' report. The families affected need to know how BSE originated and how it happened. We share those views and pledge our support for the Government in their endeavour to find the answers.

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