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House of Lords

Wednesday, 3rd May 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Message from the Queen

The Earl of Airlie: My Lords, I have the honour to inform you that Her Majesty the Queen has appointed 12 o'clock on Friday 5th May in Westminster Hall to be the time and place at which Her Majesty will be attended by this House to receive their Address on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Organophosphorus Sheep Dips: Research

2.37 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Who was responsible for formulating the specifications in the original advertisement for proposals for epidemiological research into OP sheep dips.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe): My Lords, on 1st December 1993 the Government announced the setting up of a panel of independent medical and scientific experts to look into reports of long-term health effects claimed to arise from OP sheep dip exposure. It is part of the panel's terms of reference to advise on any additional work needed to elucidate potential long-term effects on humans of OP dips.

The panel considered a draft specification for epidemiological research. The final specification for research proposals was issued by the Health and Safety Executive, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Department of Health, and incorporated the advice of the panel.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. Is it correct that the panel received 13 tenders for the epidemiological study, including tenders from two members of the special scientific and medical panel, MAFF's own laboratories, and the Institute of Occupational Health, Birmingham University? Will the noble Earl explain why all the applications were rejected? Despite those people knowing what was required, they were not asked to brush up their tenders so that the epidemiological study could be brought in before the next dipping season. With the delay until July, we have lost another dipping season.

Earl Howe: My Lords, let me say, first, that the Government share the concern and disappointment of the noble Countess that none of the 13 proposals for the study was considered to meet the specification. It is highly regrettable. The noble Countess should be in absolutely no doubt of the Government's commitment to see this important study under way. However, it is equally

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important to ensure that the research which is commissioned is scientifically sound and will fully address the points of concern.

We looked very carefully at possible alternative ways of proceeding, but all were ruled out under the principles for open competitive tendering by which the Government are properly bound when awarding research contracts. Those principles are in place to ensure fairness and even-handedness to all those who submit bids. There was, therefore, no choice but to proceed to a second advertisement seeking new or revised proposals. That is what we have now done; and proposals are required by 19th June.

Lord Carter: My Lords, it seems extraordinary that the Ministry was unable to find one organisation out of the 13 which responded. One begins to wonder whether the Ministry was concerned about the outcome of the research.

If the contract is let by the end of July, when will the work be finished and will the outcome be published?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the Government want to get to the bottom of this Question as much as does the noble Countess, or the noble Lord.

A second advertisement was published. As I said, fresh tenders are invited by 19th June. To try to ensure that the research fully addresses the issues of concern, detailed briefing is being arranged for those wishing to tender. It is anticipated that the fresh tenders will be considered by the panel in July. It should be possible to award a contract shortly afterwards.

We expect any study to take two to three years to complete. The results of the studies will be published so that they can be considered by all who have an interest.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, the Minister gave a detailed Answer indicating the Government's strict code of conduct when asking for tenders. Can the noble Earl tell us why the same code of conduct for government tenders does not apply to some of the quangos which appear to accept tenders based on their own criteria, not those stated by the Government? The quangos' criteria leave a lot to be desired; some are not open tenders.

Earl Howe: My Lords, if the noble Lord cares to give me examples of unfair tendering practices, I should be happy to look into them. I am concerned to know what he has in mind.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, the Minister expects replies from the same sources from which he previously received tenders. If he was not satisfied with the tenders, why could he not negotiate with the most likely one and get the important work under way? Why delay asking for fresh tenders? Does the Minister hope for new sources of research to apply? Why is there this new procedure?

Earl Howe: My Lords, we received 13 bids and there were different problems associated with each bid. The problems were all significant; there was no question of a quick revision of minor points. The key objective is to have a proposal which stands the best possible chance of giving an unequivocal answer to the question of whether

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the use of OP sheep dip leads to clearly defined patterns of chronic ill health. None of the proposals satisfied the specification.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, in an earlier reply my noble friend mentioned detailed briefing. With the wisdom of hindsight, is he satisfied that there was sufficiently detailed briefing and, if I may use the lay term, specification in the original tendering?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I have seen the original specification and the revised version. The material content of the specification has not changed at all; the specification is still designed to elicit proposals for properly constructed epidemiological studies.

As regards the questions posed, in substance they were exactly the same as before. I can only say that it is regrettable, to put it mildly, that no single bidder was able to meet the specification in full.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, is the detailed briefing available for interested parties to scrutinise or is it only available to those wishing to tender?

Earl Howe: My Lords, it is available to all those wishing to tender. I shall write to the noble Baroness to let her know whether it is an open meeting.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that I and a great many other people who are interested in the subject are still not convinced that the Government are not using delaying tactics? That, combined with the action of the Health and Safety Executive in not publishing the Birmingham research until Thursday and embargoing it until midnight on Friday—which seems absolutely barmy—is, it seems, all part of the scheme to hide what might be very bad news for the Government. Can the Minister tell me in what ways the new tender is different from the old one? How do the Government expect to obtain different bids from the teams that have applied so far? If the situation is not satisfactory, will the Government consider using multi-disciplinary schemes: for example, joining the Glasgow University and Newcastle University bids together so that a really good study may be obtained?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Countess is wholly and completely wrong that the Government wish to hide anything associated with this matter. Quite the reverse is the case and I very much regret that she should have implied that there was some conspiracy or cover up to conceal the true position.

As regards the study performed by the Institute of Occupational Health, the intellectual property rights of the study rest with the IOH. There is therefore no question of the Government being able to pre-empt publication of the report. I have, however, arranged for a copy of it to be sent to the noble Countess as soon as it is available. I understand that that will be early next week.

What we have done with the revised specification is to simplify, expand or add emphasis to the original specification, which was, I repeat, to my eyes at least, both complete and explicit. I very much hope that the result will be successful this time round.

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NHS Medical Staff: Expression of Views

2.47 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the new code of practice will permit the medical staff on NHS trusts to express their views freely.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, all National Health Service staff have a right and, indeed, a duty to raise with their employer any concern they may have about health care issues. The new code of practice on openness in the NHS aims to improve public access to information about health services. It does not alter the duty of medical staff to express views to their employers, nor does it change nationally agreed terms and conditions of employment which give them freedom to speak and write.

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