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BSE (Health)

3.54 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health in another place. Before doing so, I should like to declare an interest: my husband manages a dairy and beef-producing farm; there have been cases of BSE; we have no share in the farm's assets.

The Statement is as follows:

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    "The committee also considered the possibility of increased susceptibility among patients in hospital, pregnant women and people who are taking immunosuppressive drugs. Once again it concluded that

    'if human infection with a BSE agent occurs, none of these groups is likely to have any increased susceptibility to infection'.

    "The statement issued by the committee goes on:

    'Parents are naturally concerned about the risks to their own children. No human activity is without some risk; if the Government rigorously enforces the current and newly recommended controls we believe that this risk is likely to be extremely small; however the Committee recognises that parents will often chose to reduce risk to their children beyond that which they are prepared to accept for themselves.

    'It is important to be aware that many foods are associated with health risks and that changing from beef to non-beef products is not necessarily without risk'.

    "In the light of the scientific evidence, there is clearly no reason for the Government to advise local education authorities to withdraw beef from school menus. I understand however from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that it is customary for schools to provide a choice of menu to accommodate different dietary and cultural preferences. The Government believe this choice should continue. Local education authorities will be sent copies of the advisory committee's statement so that they can be aware of the precise terms of its findings.

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    "The committee reconfirmed the recommendations which were published last Wednesday concerning the deboning of cattle carcasses aged over 30 months, and has made a number of other relatively minor recommendations concerning the treatment of specified bovine offal. My right honourable and learned friend the Minister of Agriculture will deal with these questions in his Statement.

    "The committee also made two recommendations concerning research. First, it recommended the reinforcement of the CJD Surveillance Unit at Edinburgh University, and, secondly, it recommended the commitment of substantial additional resources to long-term basic and applied research to improve our understanding of these diseases. The Government accept these recommendations. We already have plans in hand to strengthen the CJD Surveillance Unit. In addition I have today instructed Professor John Swales, the NHS Director of Research and Development, to prepare a directed programme of research in this field involving the Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

    "Against the background of these findings the Advisory Committee reports two central conclusions. First, it reasserts that, provided the restrictions which it recommends are fully implemented and sustained, any BSE-related risk from eating beef or beef products is likely to be extremely small. Secondly, the committee's statement concludes with the words,

    'the Committee does not believe that additional measures are justified at this stage but the situation needs to be kept under careful review so that additional significant information can be taken into account as soon as it becomes available'.

    "Throughout their consideration of these questions the Government have made it clear that it is their policy to base their decisions on an up-to-date assessment of the scientific evidence. We have also made clear our commitment to making that evidence public. That remains the position. In that connection I am authorised by my right honourable friend the Lord President to inform the House that it is the Government's intention to arrange for a debate on these matters on a Motion for the Adjournment on Thursday 28th March at 7 p.m.

    "The statement of the advisory committee which I am publishing this afternoon makes clear recommendations both to the Government and to the public. The Chief Medical Officer is taking steps today to communicate this new advice to all doctors. The Government accept the recommendations and will act upon them."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.3 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, these Benches welcome the Statement from the Department of Health. It is a step forward from the somewhat inconclusive views offered in last Wednesday's

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Statements. Perhaps it would have been better for everyone--parents, school authorities, farmers and the meat trade--if this position had been reached and this guidance had been available before the Government decided to go public on the advice that it had last week. In spite of Ministers' assurances last week that all would be well--the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, said in reply to my noble friend Lord Carter that there was a large and healthy degree of optimism in the Statement--there has been obvious and destructive turmoil in the past few days. However, these Benches welcome what is now said, even though we and, I suspect, the general public are bound to treat some of the pronouncements on this issue with a degree of scepticism. We welcome the CMO's statement and the publication of the report from SEAC. We are particularly pleased that these have been available at the same time as the Statement has been made.

It is important that children, pregnant women, patients and those who are immuno-compromised are judged not to have increased susceptibility to this infection. In the case of children, the issue may not simply be the setting of an absolute average age to measure vulnerability or to establish absolute risk. Surely, increased or decreased sensitivity to infections at a certain age is not the point when one is talking about children. It is the long-term incubation that perhaps makes children more vulnerable. As the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, put it so gracefully last week, for many elderly people there might be little threat, because with a 10 or 15-year incubation period for CJD the elderly perhaps would be unlikely to survive to suffer the effects. But for children it is totally different. I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on that issue in her response. As the Minister has said and the SEAC statement recognises, parents will often choose to reduce the risk to their children beyond that which they are themselves prepared to accept.

I should like to return to some of the questions that remain relevant which were raised by me and other noble Lords last week. The Minister did not answer them then, and they are not answered by this new Statement. First, are there any specific foodstuffs, particularly those that contain beef products rather than pure beef, which families with children should now avoid? Are there particular methods of preparation that make those products more or less risky? For example, it has been suggested by the media over the weekend that the preparation of some products in microwave ovens may increase vulnerability. Very importantly, noble Lords in all parts of the House last week during the Statement asked whether it was clear what the relative risks were of eating offal products and products derived from offal products. I understand that these can extend to such products as gelatine and jelly babies. Is that risk quantifiable? What is the relative risk of eating such products as against eating what may be described as obvious beef cuts? In addition, what specific guidance is given by the Department of Health to general practitioners and family doctors, who will be inundated with requests for guidance from anxious families, about the early signs of CJD and how they should be dealt with?

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My noble friend Lord Winston last week raised a very precise question about the pattern of disease in the relevant suspect 10 cases and how it had been established. What is it about these cases that makes them of particular concern to the scientific body? What is the evidence to suggest that they, and they alone, may have a link with BSE? I understand that that may be published in the learned journals, but it will be useful to have some guidance now.

As we gradually learn more about the situation it becomes apparent that mistakes have been made by people in authority. Though it is not primarily a matter for the Department of Health--I know that my noble friend Lord Carter will wish to return to it--there is particular concern about the inadequate compensation offered to farmers for infected cattle during the crucial period between the time when BSE was diagnosed and when the abattoir regulations came in. There is also concern about the food safety regulations and the separate MAFF regulations. It is always easy to be wise with hindsight. However, if, as the Labour Party had suggested, a separate food standards organisation entirely independent of MAFF had been established some of these problems might never have arisen. There is also a question about whether all of these issues should be seen in the context of the dogmatic drive towards deregulation in every aspect of our lives which has been conducted by the Government.

In the past few days we have heard repeatedly that the Government rely on the expert advisory committee and the scientists to tell them what to do next. Surely, this is a failure of political leadership. I am glad that the Secretary of State has said that science is not a substitute for personal or political choice, but if there has been a failure surely the failure to distinguish between scientific evidence and political judgment is culpable. If in the past Ministers had made the political judgment that public health was of paramount importance the story might have been different. It would then have been possible to deal with the recognition of the threat of BSE without loss of public confidence and the potential agricultural disaster that we all face today, which I believe the Statement will do little to alleviate.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness for having repeated the Statement. I received a copy of the Statement after her right honourable friend rose to his feet in the House of Commons. She will be aware that there are long-standing arrangements for making Statements available to representatives of the Opposition. That did not happen in this case. I hope that complaints of this kind will not have to be repeated in future, particularly on a matter as important as this. We are faced with an almost complete collapse of public confidence in British-produced beef.

I should like to put the following question, to which I know the noble Baroness will reply that it is a matter for the usual channels. First, if there is a debate on this matter in the House of Commons on Thursday of this week, I ask that there should be a similar opportunity for an early debate in this House to discuss these

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questions of great public importance. I believe that the House will welcome the opportunity to have such a debate.

Secondly, is the Minister aware that SEAC's statement makes two points of considerable importance? One is the assertion of the need for medium and long-term research which will require substantial additional resources. The Minister indicated that there will be such improvement in financial allocations to those concerned. The committee adds that there should be no delay due to difficulty in obtaining resources. Can the House assume therefore that adequate resources will be made available and that SEAC itself will pronounce judgment as to whether the additional resources made available are adequate?

Is the Minister aware that SEAC's recommendation is that it is necessary to ensure that all the restrictions proposed on 20th March and those in this document are implemented fully and are sustained? Is she aware that there is some public concern that a number of the recommendations have not yet been implemented? The concern is widespread. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us when those recommendations will be implemented fully.

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