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Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): On food safety, will the Minister confirm—this should reassure the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks)—that the removal of specified material in all sheep more than one year old will continue? Sheep farmers will be dismayed by this hugely embarrassing delay, because they have been implementing this procedure at great expense. Cull ewes are worthless. Given the Government's refusal to help the sheep industry with that problem, and given that there will be more years of research, will the right hon. Lady consider much more

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sympathetically the financial support that the Government give to sheep producers in Wales, on the North Yorkshire moors and in the uplands? They are making very little money, and most of them are on the verge of bankruptcy and ruin. They are dismayed by what has happened, because the uncertainty means more delay in getting back to the day when they know that all their sheep are BSE free.

Margaret Beckett: I have great sympathy with the concerns of the farming community. I believe that it is necessary for the removal of specified material to continue. No one regrets more than I do the fact that we have not been able to reduce some of the present uncertainty. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that I referred to the separate work on contemporary sheep brains being carried out at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. We hope that that research will make a contribution. If the tests that the VLA is developing can be validated, peer reviewed and properly accepted as being of use, it will immensely speed up the completion of this work, and we very much want to see that.

Clive Efford (Eltham): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on her prompt action in publishing this information. Such information should not enter the public domain by being leaked.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees with me that, as a result of these issues, there is widespread public concern about animal produce from this country. Does she also agree that one of the best ways of restoring confidence is the routine testing of all livestock that enter the human food chain, including cattle of under 36 months?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is right that all these issues should be examined carefully and thoroughly and kept under review. The general discussion about where the future of the farming community and the wider rural community lies includes consideration of how we can produce consistent and high-quality food. I have little doubt—this is certainly a matter of discussion—that it requires more individual identification and, ultimately, more individual testing. My hon. Friend will be aware that that will involve substantial costs.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Regrettably, before the Secretary of State made this announcement last week the agriculture industry had little confidence in her Department, and her announcement will have further dented its reputation. She could go some way towards restoring that reputation by agreeing to a full public inquiry into the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Will she now consider that at least?

Margaret Beckett: I have already said many times from the Dispatch Box that we have commissioned inquiries of this nature because they can take place more speedily and can disaggregate the science and the long-term implications of a range of animal disease outbreaks. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we have had a range of outbreaks in recent years. The inquiry into precisely what happened during the foot and mouth outbreak and the separate inquiries to consider where the future of the farming community and the rural economy should take us will investigate how we handle those

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diseases, how we use epidemiology and what lessons we can learn for good or ill. We believe that that will be more effective and speedier than a lengthy public inquiry that tries to undertake all those tasks.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the Secretary of State return to the critical question of why DNA testing was not included in the original design for the research programme when it was commissioned in 1997 by the Conservative Government? Could it be that there was an attempt to do the job on the cheap? It is an extraordinary fact that the fate of 40 million sheep was to hang on a research programme costing less than £1,000 a week. Does the right hon. Lady believe that, when originally set up, the programme was properly funded?

Why, in particular, did the professor at the IAH ask, as I understand he did some months ago, about the integrity of the sample that his team was investigating? What motivated him to ask that question?

Margaret Beckett: I cannot say that I have the full details of exactly what happened at every stage of the four-year experiment. I know the institute claims that it undertook some investigation of the sample originally. Information comes in and changes from time to time, but I understand that what has led those at the institute to say that they are not convinced that what was tested at the laboratory of the Government chemist is the material on which they carried out the experiment is the fact that right at the beginning—I think before the experiment commenced—they conducted some tests that they believed identified the material as sheep material.

I am not sure of the precise nature of the tests; I am not sure whether they were DNA tests or not. I understand, however, that those who carried them out were said to have identified a protein found only in sheep, and therefore felt confident that it was sheep material. I also understand—I am not sure from what interview, but it is my impression that it has happened three or four times over the years—that further checks were sought. Somewhere along the route, flaws emerged. I do not know whether the checks were not carried out in the right way or whether the difficulties arose towards the end of the experiment, and I know the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that I do not intend to speculate. That is what the independent scientific audit will try to establish, and whatever it finds—clear or otherwise—will be put in the public domain.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The right hon. Lady did not answer the question asked by my hon. Friend

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the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who wanted to know why the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), had appeared to experience a kneejerk reaction in saying that all the national stock would be slaughtered. Can she restore the confidence of our sheep producers by saying that that was a regrettable remark, and that such action will now not be necessary?

The right hon. Lady will be aware that important new evidence has come to light suggesting that variant CJD may not be caused by BSE. Will she commission her Department to try to find conclusive evidence that that is so?

Margaret Beckett: This is the philosopher's stone. No one would like to know anything more than this: what causes BSE, and what we can do about it.

The hon. Lady mentioned remarks made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. That is, of course, one of the options identified in the national contingency plan; it is the extreme option. I will write to the hon. Lady if I am mistaken, but I believe that the Phillips report recommended that it should be considered if BSE was found in sheep. It has therefore always been one of the options in the contingency plan to deal with the day when BSE in sheep might be identified, but I repeat that up to now the experiments conducted on the current flock have not identified it in them.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the Institute for Animal Health is accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service? Does she agree that this whole sorry saga is an indictment of the Government's action in submerging agriculture in a much bigger Department? Does she also agree that it is a disgrace that the Minister with dedicated responsibility for agriculture is in the House of Lords rather than here? What signal does that send to the farming community?

Margaret Beckett: That is a very silly remark. The Minister responsible for agriculture is standing at this Dispatch Box, and, indeed, I am the Minister who attends the Agriculture Council. I am not at all sure what makes that an indictment.

I do not know whether the IAH is accredited by the body cited by the hon. Gentleman, but it has certainly always been widely regarded as a much-respected organisation. No doubt that is why the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported commissioned research from it.

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Speaker's Statement

4.35 pm

Mr. Speaker: I am now able to respond to the points raised by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) last Thursday at column 1324 of Hansard. First, he pointed out that answering a written question orally at the end of questions could mean that Opposition Front Benchers did not get the normal notice of the Minister's statement. I make it clear that this is an exceptional procedure, which requires my permission. When deciding whether to exercise my discretion in that way in future, I will certainly bear in mind the need to give adequate notice.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said that the mechanism could be triggered only by a Government Back Bencher and a planted question. That is not the case. When the procedure was used on 8 March, for example, the written question was in the name of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). It is always open to any Member to seek to bring a Minister to the Dispatch Box by way of a private notice question. I hope that helps the hon. Member for North Cornwall.

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