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Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Having, in recent months, seen a young woman gradually die from

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CJD, may I say that I found the knockabout, pantomime performance of the Opposition spokesman deeply distasteful? We should not allow this sad fiasco to distract us from our primary responsibility, which is to try to minimise CJD infection. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that we shall try to ensure that rapid and reliable research will be carried out into the risk of BSE in our sheep flocks?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right about the gravity of this matter, which is why I very much regret the way in which it has been used. I have said that I will place in the Vote Office or the Library a list of what research is being undertaken, but obviously we shall need to reassess that. I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that this is what really matters.

One of the things that I found most distressing about the events of the past few days was a report from the mother of a young vCJD victim, who talked about her daughter having still been alive in 1997, and who appeared to have been given the impression that the work that has been called into question would in some way have prevented her daughter's death, or in some way answered questions or solved these problems. That is why I went to such lengths to explain that, even if the experiment had been successful, it would tell us only a limited amount, and that there is a great deal that we still do not know. These are very grave issues indeed, and it is incumbent on us all to treat them with the seriousness that they deserve.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The real issue is whether the results of other experiments have been compromised in the same way. It seems to me, a lay person, absolutely inexplicable that professional people should have mistaken cows' brains for sheep's brains. Will the Minister tell the House visually what the difference is between a cow's brain and a sheep's brain?

Margaret Beckett: I would certainly be cautious about doing so. I stress to my hon. Friend that the material on which this research was conducted was a paste. So far as I am aware—I hope that this will emerge in the information that I shall place before the House—all the experiments that are being conducted on sheep from the current flock, so to speak, are using individual brains. Therefore, the same kind of issues do not arise, although it is obviously still right for us to look at these questions and to try to answer them if we can.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Does not the Secretary of State understand the immense damage that this has done to the scientific reputation of her Department and the advice that may emanate from it?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): It was not her Department.

Mr. Paice: The Minister says that it was not their Department. He and the Secretary of State are responsible for the advice that comes from that Department, so any accusation that those who wish to criticise the Secretary of State or her Department are in some way exploiting the tragedy of CJD is, frankly, contemptible. The reality is

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that the Department's scientific advice is listened to out in the country, and it is very worrying for millions of people, consumers and farmers, when they hear that an experiment has gone on for four years and that it was only at the last minute—beyond the eleventh hour—that the challenges that the Secretary of State rightly says have existed for four years were held perhaps to be right, suggesting that the trials might not be valid. Will the Secretary of State not even now say that she is sorry that this has happened and, rather than criticise the Opposition, accept that her Department's status and prestige in scientific matters now stand on a knife edge?

Margaret Beckett: No, I do not accept that, although the Opposition are doing their best to make that the case. I am not sure what makes them think that that will serve the public interest.

The hon. Gentleman wondered why this conclusion had emerged only at the end of the experiment. Perhaps he has not taken on board the fact that it is the nature of this kind of experiment that the results to be assessed come only towards the end. Secondly, he spoke of the immense damage done to the reputation of my Department. May I repeat that this research was not conducted by my Department? It was commissioned by the previous Department under his Government, not under ours. I do not hold the Conservative party to blame—it was perfectly legitimate and correct to commission the research from an independent institute—but I am blowed if I see why we should take the blame for yet another of its errors.

The hon. Gentleman says that the reputation of my Department has been damaged because the experiment went wrong, but I remind him that my Department also commissioned the experiment—the cross-checking—that showed the error. He says that this is a contemptible episode. I am sorry that he chooses to use that language, but, in that case, I tell him bluntly that what is utterly contemptible is the Opposition's attempt to hijack a serious issue to try to fabricate evidence of some supposed cover-up and spinning when information was put in the public domain hours after Ministers knew it. Call that spinning? It is ridiculous.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): My concern is also for the reputation of the scientists and laboratories involved in the incident. All those in the House with a detailed knowledge of science, including my right hon. Friend, know that the storage labelling and the integrity of scientific samples, especially during transport from one laboratory to another, are of prima facie importance in science. In the light of that, does she agree that, in order to reverse the damage that may have been done, getting a full technical explanation in the public domain as soon as possible is of the utmost urgency?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I say to him quite honestly that I feel extremely sorry for the scientists involved, although I am probably the only person who does. They must be questioning all their work, and they must be deeply concerned about what has happened. I can assure him that the independent audit that we have commissioned will indeed be made public and that we shall do everything we can to provide as much information as we can as accurately as possible.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): It is a disgrace that we have had not a single sign of contrition from the

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Government. Does not the Secretary of State realise that we were within 36 hours of wiping out the sheep farming industry in Wales? The headlines on Saturday following SEAC's meeting on Friday would have been "BSE found in sheep", which would have finished off sheepmeat sales in England and Wales.

Will the right hon. Lady confirm one thing—that an official of the National Assembly for Wales who was on the working party overseeing the tests and who assisted on the DNA tests, not her Department or an official in it, insisted on the DNA testing? That is why the testing was done at the very last minute. Is it not clear that her Department cannot be responsible for animal health in Wales? It is time that she devolved animal health and other agriculture responsibilities to the National Assembly.

Margaret Beckett: I did not think that anyone could vie with the Conservatives in a ridiculous rant, but clearly the hon. Gentleman is trying hard. I am not aware of the point that he makes about who gave particular advice, but I simply say to him that it remains the case that my Department commissioned the further information.

As a Secretary of State I am normally reluctant to decline to apologise, but I say honestly and genuinely to the House that I do not see for what the Department that previously supervised the research, or indeed my Department, is supposed to feel guilty and apologise. The research was not carried out by Government scientists. It was commissioned by a Government—but not by our Government. The cross-check was commissioned by the Government. As soon as we knew that there were problems, we immediately put the information in the public domain. That is the proper way to behave, and that is what I stand for.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): My right hon. Friend emerges from this latest incident with great credit and she should take no criticisms from the Conservative party. When it was in government, I remember Minister after Minister coming to the Dispatch Box to say that, on expert opinion, there was no chance of BSE getting in the food chain, and the appalling scene of Ministers force feeding their children hamburgers. The object lesson of all this is to be wary of experts in her Department and, indeed, from MAFF. Their philosophy seems to be, "If it moves, slaughter it", which probably extends to Ministers. The final lesson surely must be that the sooner people follow my example and become vegetarians, the happier and healthier they will be.

Margaret Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend's point of view. I was not aware that he had become a vegetarian. Although I have deep sympathy with his views, I would merely utter to him the word "pesticides."

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