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Scientific Advisory Committees

4. Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): What steps he has taken to promote openness and transparency in his Ministry's scientific advisory committees. [151387]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): As I said in last month's debate on Lord Phillips's report, I am fully committed to operating an open and transparent scientific advisory system. Even before the publication of the report, the Government demonstrated that commitment by setting up the Foods Standard Agency, which puts its advice to Ministers in the public domain.

I want to extend that openness to all the Ministry's scientific advisory committees, several of which already include consumer representatives. A new code of practice for the operation of all Government advisory committees is being developed, and we will consult on it shortly.

In the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the role of my scientific advisers, principally the chief veterinary officer, has been critical. It has been my policy that Jim Scudamore should make publicly available the professional advice that he gives me; I believe that that openness has been widely welcomed.

Mrs. Lawrence: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, which will be appreciated by Pembrokeshire farmers. Will he confirm--he has done so partly--that he will make available the scientific advice that he receives on the current foot and mouth outbreak? Will he also examine the current practice of feeding commercially produced swill to pigs, and consider whether it is commensurate with the Government's policy on safe, quality food?

Mr. Brown: I give my hon. Friend an unqualified "yes" to both questions. I intend the scientific advice that informs ministerial decisions to be placed in the public domain. As we take stock of the foot and mouth outbreak, I intend to make the Ministry's findings public, and to consult on them. Although it is not up to me to make the assessment, I expect that swill feed for pigs will form part of that consultation.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): When the Minister considers the advice of the scientific advisory body, will he bear in mind the fact that developments in the foot and mouth outbreak are happening incredibly quickly? Farmers look to the Minister to give answers that are more instant than he can sometimes provide. A farmer in my constituency contacted me yesterday. He had a problem with calving heifers that were three miles away from his farm. He needs to get them back to the farm, but he has been told that he cannot do that. There are animal welfare as well as scientific considerations in that case. Has the Minister any hope for him?

Mr. Brown: Yes, I have. The hon. Gentleman is right that developments in controlling foot and mouth disease

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are happening quickly. I have tried to get information to Members of Parliament and regional officials of the National Farmers Union daily. We inform individual hon. Members if a new outbreak occurs in their constituencies.

Consistent with the overriding need to control the disease, I hope that it will soon be possible to introduce secure, local arrangements to deal with the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman described, partly for the animal welfare reasons that he mentioned.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I welcome the use of officials such as the chief vet alongside Ministers in fielding inquiries from the media, because it helps for them to be part of the debate in the broadcast media. However, a great deal of concern was expressed when the BSE outbreak first started, because dissenting voices were coshed and not heard. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that dissenting voices today are being heard? It is important to reassure not only farmers but the public that a full range of voices is being listened to and that advice is being taken from them.

Mr. Brown: I strongly agree with both the points that my hon. Friend makes. The choice for Ministers is whether to keep information to ourselves and then explain it cautiously in the hope that we will not alarm the public, or to put all the information in the public domain, let the public make up their own mind and take the risk of starting scares when they are not justified by the evidence. I think that the second approach is the right one. We should trust the public, treat our fellow citizens in an adult way, put the information in the public domain and explain things candidly to them.

Lord Phillips made the point strongly in his report that, as my hon. Friend said, at the start of the BSE outbreak dissenting opinions were not listened to. He used an elegant phrase--something like "dispute replaced debate". I am determined that that will not happen in the foot and mouth outbreak, and when we reflect on what has happened I intend to invite critics of the Ministry to listen to the alternative points of view. That in no way disparages the mainstream point of view.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I fully understand the reason for having a slaughter policy in the United Kingdom in respect of foot and mouth disease--such policies have been extremely effective in the past--but the Minister has just said that he wants the public to be treated in an adult way and that he wants advice given to him by the scientists to be transparent and made available to the public. Is he aware that there is growing public concern over inoculating cattle, sheep and pigs against this disease?

What advice is the Minister receiving on a policy of inoculation and on not continuing with the slaughter policy? It would help the public and Members of Parliament to know what the balance is in the argument between slaughter and letting the disease take its course, allowing the animals to recover from it.

Mr. Brown: There is a lot of public interest in that question. The advice being given to me is very clear indeed. The whole industry and the whole veterinary profession are speaking with one voice. They advise against the use of vaccination and against letting the

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disease run its course. They firmly support the Government's approach of containing the movement of animals to prevent the disease from spreading, of waiting while the disease incubates and, as we discover what is already incubating, of quarantining it and extinguishing it. There are very sound reasons for that approach.

I have seen it stated that foot and mouth disease is like flu in animals. The strong professional veterinary advice given to me is that it is not. Indeed, the fatalities that it causes in lambs are substantial. In the recent Tunisian outbreak, about 80 per cent. of the lambs born died of foot and mouth disease. It is ruinous to the livestock sector and the correct policy is, therefore, to exterminate it and get back to the disease-free status that we had maintained in this country for so long.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): My right hon. Friend knows the farmers in the north-east of England well. He will know that they are even less prone to throw bouquets than those in Monmouth. However, all the messages that I have had from farmers and, formally, from the National Farmers Union state that they have been enormously pleased with the way in which the Ministry has acted. There has been firm, rapid action, sensitively taken and very well communicated. I particularly want to mention the speed with which the website was updated when it was drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention on Monday that it was slightly out of date. That was very speedy action indeed.

Mr. Brown: I thank my right hon. Friend for those remarks and, considering the importance of the sheep sector in particular to his constituents and to our region generally, they are praise indeed.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Is the Minister worried that the openness and transparency to which he refers is not practised by the German authorities, which reportedly did not respond in a timely manner to a Food Standards Agency request for information about the beef being exported from Germany to Britain?

Mr. Brown: That is a BSE-food safety issue rather than a foot and mouth control issue. I fully support the work that John Krebs has undertaken with the German authorities and the Commission and I can assure the House that, from my dealings with the new German federal Minister, I know that nobody is more angry at the shortcomings of German abattoirs than that Minister.

Mr. Yeo: If Germany continues to export illegal and possibly dangerous cuts of beef to Britain and declines to tell the Government's advisers in Britain what action it is taking to stop such exports, will the British Government protect British consumers by halting imports of German beef?

Mr. Brown: We protect British consumers by checking every consignment. The hon. Gentleman is right that this is a serious matter. If specified risk material is found, it is not allowed into the food chain. We have made our representations to the German federal Government, the Commission and, as I understand it, another European member state to point out that such material is a risk to European citizens. It does not matter whether they live here or in another part of Europe, the risk is the same. Specified

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risk material must be removed. The Commission is insisting on that and, indeed, my understanding is that it has said that abattoirs that have been found to be repeatedly at fault are to be closed, at least temporarily.


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