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House of Commons

Thursday 15 November 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What representations she has received from Professor Alan Ebringer of King's college London on BSE and related issues. [13062]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I received a report on the research work conducted by Professor Ebringer in August 2001.

Mr. Dalyell: In view of Professor Ebringer's report that BSE is probably an auto-immune disease caused by a soil bacterium, which therefore cannot be passed on by meat consumption, does the Department propose to support further research on developing an ante-mortem test to avoid unnecessary cattle culling and thereby save large sums of taxpayers' money? May we hope that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has no vested interests of the mind in this controversy? The consequences are enormous if Professor Ebringer is right. May we have the assurance that the Department will consider carefully any work from the university of Chicago, a distinguished peer group that may pass judgment on Professor Ebringer's report?

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend knows very well, Professor Ebringer's theory is not universally supported, although it is very interesting. My Department does indeed keep an open mind on new theories on BSE. Where Professor Ebringer's work includes development of a diagnostic test, we are providing funding for him to test his theories more rigorously. My hon. Friend asked about SEAC having a vested interest. I am not aware of any such interest, but he may like to know that the SEAC chairman has, I believe, written to Professor Ebringer inviting him to attend a meeting of the committee.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Does the right hon. Lady agree that it would be a great pity if Professor Ebringer's team has to be dissolved because the grant that runs out in December is not renewed? As the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) rightly said, that extremely important but controversial work should be

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considered. Is she aware that there is grave concern that any research with which DEFRA is not automatically happy is quietly shunted into a siding? Does she agree that that work is important and should continue to be funded?

Margaret Beckett: Of course I accept that it is important, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, my Department is funding it. I do not think it fair to say that there is no interest in it. If there were no interest in alternative theories, we would not be funding work now. He will also know that Professor Horn's team, for example, which earlier this year investigated the origin of BSE, was unable to agree with Professor Ebringer's theory. We shall keep the funding issue under review. Although I have no current plans to extend that funding, there is no question of the research being in any way suppressed; it is supported.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I at least welcome the fact that the Department is funding further rigorous research into Professor Ebringer's theory, but will the right hon. Lady address in particular the connection between Professor Ebringer's work and the conclusion of the Phillips inquiry that there may well be a connection between the spread of BSE—not the origin of the disease—and the use of organophosphate warble fly dressings in the 1980s? As there seems to be a direct connection, is further research being done to establish whether the Phillips inquiry was correct in that conclusion?

Margaret Beckett: As the hon. Gentleman knows, a great deal of research is being conducted. Although there is almost a plethora of theories, up to now there has been no clear and simple explanation that everyone has accepted, other than that which is familiar to all hon. Members about the possibility of animal feed being the cause. My Department, and SEAC advising it, keep all those different ideas under review and continue to support a range of research into such issues.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is it the Government's and the Department's policy to pay out grants to everyone who has a controversial idea? I can think of a thousand and one controversial ideas. Where does the policy begin and where does it end? If this fellow gets a grant for doing controversial work, should that not apply to a lot of others who would like to take part in the exercise? It sounds like a DEFRA new deal.

Margaret Beckett: I do not think that it is quite that. If I may remind the House, any research funding that my Department undertakes is provided on the basis of thorough scientific evaluation and advice, but I take my hon. Friend's point—many people are investigating different theories. When there is a possibility of scientific validity, we try to avoid squeezing out theories that are initially controversial and new, which is what my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mrs Dalyell) expressed concern about. We try to ensure that we investigate the right range of potential answers. I am nevertheless grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for pointing out that we cannot do absolutely everything.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): The right hon. Lady might have told the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)

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that Professor Ebringer heads up a world-class laboratory that deserves support and his findings deserve to be taken very seriously indeed. Do not those findings in relation to BSE underline yet again the disturbing confusion in the scientific world over those vital matters of food safety and health?

I sympathise with the right hon. Lady. It is extremely difficult to base far-reaching Government policy on science when science appears to shift like sand, but does she accept that Professor Ebringer's evidence only emphasises the need to take account of scientific opinion beyond her own advisers at SEAC, particularly bearing in mind the fact that scientists show a natural reluctance to alter their opinions once they have reached a decision and published it?

Margaret Beckett: We all understand that, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his understanding, but perhaps he is being a little unfair in saying that there is disturbing confusion in the scientific world. As he is well aware, we are talking about people who operate at the cutting edge of science.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right about Professor Ebringer, but many of those engaged in this range of work, some of whom have different ideas, also work in world-class research institutes, as one would expect of people who are trying to establish a greater scientific consensus on an issue that is so very difficult and that is at the cutting edge of science. We very much take and heed the advice of SEAC, but we also try to keep an open mind, as SEAC itself does, and try not to stifle an interesting new theory, wherever it may come from.

Kyoto Protocol

2. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): What role her Department played in the international round of climate change negotiations in Marrakech (COP7); and when she expects the UK Government to ratify the Kyoto protocol. [13064]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): UK Ministers and officials and experts played a leading role in the negotiations in Marrakech. We believe that the agreement reached should pave the way for ratification and entry into force of the Kyoto protocol. The UK intends to ratify, along with our EU partners, in time to allow entry into force before the world summit on sustainable development next September.

Tom Brake: I thank the Secretary of State for her response and I welcome the role that the UK has played so far, although it is worth remembering that the figure for reduction is 5.2 per cent. on average, or 2 per cent. according to some environmental groups. That is some way off the 60 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide emissions required in the longer term.

The Secretary of State knows that the UK and the US are standing shoulder to shoulder in respect of Afghanistan. What progress are the Government making to ensure that the UK and the US stand shoulder to shoulder on this issue, which is also of international importance?

Margaret Beckett: First, the figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes are based on an approach of "business

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as usual plus about 15", so the contribution to tackling the issue is more substantial than is sometimes acknowledged. However, I fully accept, as does everyone engaged in the talks in Bonn and Marrakech, that this is very much a first step on the road. Not only is it a substantial step in itself, but for the very first time we have an international environmental agreement with detailed rules and mechanisms allowing not just implementation but monitoring of that implementation.

On the position of the United States, I had discussions with the US Minister in Marrakech and I understand that substantial work is continuing in the United States. The US Government recognise the importance of climate change and the need to address that issue. My impression is that the United States will work on and hopefully produce proposals as to how it may act domestically. Obviously we do not yet have a time scale for that, but it is clear that substantial work is being undertaken, and that in itself is welcome.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress that has been made. Does she agree that, to meet the much higher targets that the United Kingdom Government have set themselves, it is necessary to move more quickly towards the use of maximum energy efficiency and renewables? In that context, will she commit to using the powers under the Utilities Act 2000 to introduce an obligation on suppliers in respect of combined heat and power similar to that for renewables?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks and for the great interest that she takes in the matter. The issue that she raises is under consideration, and we recognise the great importance of the contribution of CHP. It is intended to issue a consultation paper, perhaps towards the turn of the year, because the Government recognise and want to strengthen the position of CHP.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): In relation to the international negotiations on Kyoto, does the Deputy Prime Minister still have responsibilities, as appeared to be envisaged when the Secretary of State's responsibilities were originally set out, or is she alone taking the lead?

Margaret Beckett: In this Government we work together in pursuing our objectives. I was the lead negotiator in Marrakech and in Bonn, and we were fortunate to secure agreement. However, I was delighted to be able to engage my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in making the international contacts outside the specific arena of Marrakech that helped us to reach that agreement.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Given the recent significant fall in the price of crude oil and given that the transport sector contributes more than 20 per cent. to total greenhouse gas emissions in the United Kingdom, has my right hon. Friend considered the fact that our attempts to achieve our targets might be undermined by increased petrol consumption and increased greenhouse gas

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emissions from the transport sector? Has she considered any corrective mechanisms that may be necessary to prevent that?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We keep all those issues under review and a lot of interesting work is being conducted on the contributions made by different sectors. It is important to do as much as we reasonably and proportionately can, acting on all those different levers, but a great deal of work is being undertaken to find out what has the greatest impact. Some recent work suggests that energy efficiency represents one of the most effective initiatives that we could take in the United Kingdom to reduce our contribution to global warming.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): The right hon. Lady is keen to take credit for the extremely welcome progress made on achieving international agreement on climate change. No doubt the Deputy Prime Minister will be delighted to hear what she said about his role in the matter, but we all know that the Minister for the Environment really deserves any accolades that are on offer.

Will the Secretary of State move to ratify the Kyoto agreement as soon as possible? Will she give us a date by which she envisages that happening? On the United Kingdom's efforts to combat climate change, does she agree that the so-called climate change levy is set to hit manufacturing industry with a £200 million bill that it can ill afford? In any case, will she confirm that 70 per cent. of carbon dioxide emissions do not come from industry and that the levy is nothing more than another stealth tax that will damage competitiveness while contributing virtually nothing to saving the planet?

Margaret Beckett: I can honestly say that it has never been my practice throughout my political life to try to take credit for something in which I have not played a role. While I am happy to echo the hon. Gentleman's tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, the hon. Gentleman has overlooked one matter, because it has not yet been reported in the House. My right hon. Friend, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, made a considerable contribution to reaching an excellent agreement in Doha recently.

This Government are working extremely well together and, although I would not say so if the hon. Gentleman had not been slightly less than charitable, we have been substantially more successful in those international negotiations than were the Government whom he supported. As for moving to ratification, I cannot give him more of a time scale than that we intend to ratify before the Johannesburg summit.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the House are also aware that the Russian delegation made positive noises and indications and that the Japanese Government have announced that they will put ratification procedures to the Diet and hope to ratify Kyoto by June. They think that a reasonable parliamentary timetable. It appears that we are making substantial progress towards ratification and entry into force, and that is excellent.

On the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the climate change levy, I am mindful that it is not popular with British business and that areas of manufacturing have

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expressed concern at its effect. I remind him that it is a mechanism for funding the work of the Carbon Trust. I do not know how much opportunity he has had to examine its work, as he has held his responsibilities for only a short time, but it is interesting and encouraging, and funded directly by the climate change levy.

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