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Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness for her welcome for the Statement. I am sorry that she felt that last week we went public too early. The whole tenor of the Government is to be as open and frank as possible with the public. We felt that as soon as the research became available it was right that it should be made known to the general public.

Regarding the risk to children, SEAC is firm about that. In its report, taking all the above into account, it concludes:


I do not believe there is anything I can add. SEAC's statement is clear.

The noble Baroness asked whether certain foodstuffs should be avoided. Again, SEAC has addressed the issues of milk and gelatine. It comes out with clear statements that there is no reason to avoid eating those products. The committee also concludes that it 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. I want to stress that at this time it does not feel that additional measures are justified.

The noble Baroness asked about advice to doctors. That is contained in the letter issued last week to all doctors by the Chief Medical Officer. Today he has issued an additional statement which picks up the information that SEAC has addressed concerning children and those groups which are thought to be vulnerable.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, asked why he had not received the Statement earlier. I apologise for that. I understand the frustration which was felt last week also. I shall take up the matter.

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I understand too the noble Lord's wish for a debate. I will convey that wish to the appropriate channels. He asked questions about research. I have said that the Government accept all the SEAC recommendations. That includes those regarding resources for research.

Finally, I should like to address one comment made by the noble Baroness. She felt that the Government were hiding behind research. I find that a very, very strange statement. I believe that it is up to governments to put forward the facts. In these sensitive situations it is not up to governments to hypothesise or put forward their views, which may be erroneous. We have to base all our information on research facts.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will go further than she did just now in response to the request of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for your Lordships' House to have an opportunity to debate this immensely important matter. For your Lordships' House not to debate it will almost sign off its being part of Parliament. To say that the request will go to the usual channels, does not necessarily convey very much. As many of us realise, the usual channels often become blocked.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I take into account what my noble and distinguished friend says. I am sure that the channels will listen, read Hansard, and take note of his view. Whatever aspirations I have, clearly I cannot put them into action. The matter has to go through the usual channels.

Lord Winston: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Statement. Perhaps I may point out that as a registered practitioner, I still have not received the letter which has been promised. Six days have elapsed. There is considerable anxiety: we are being approached continually by all sorts of people. We should be informed as a matter of urgency. I accept that my question may need an answer in writing. Can the Minister tell us what research has been funded in the past by the Medical Research Council or within agricultural research on prions, the protein particle which causes this and related disorders? It was basic research before; it is now applied research. I think the Minister can understand why we see the need for this type of basic research to continue.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I am surprised by what the noble Lord says about not receiving the letter because I met some consultants that evening and they had already received the Chief Medical Officer's letter through the EPINET system. I wonder whether the problem lies in the internal channels within his hospital. The noble Lord was free to request the information if he was so anxious to obtain it. With regard to the division of research moneys between the MRC and the agricultural research, I am afraid that I do not have that information. I shall gladly write to the noble Lord about it.

Lord Winston: My Lords, perhaps I may say that I telephoned my office to confirm that it had not received

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anything as recently as 15 minutes ago. I received this morning's post at home. There has been nothing in the post to date.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, the Minister referred to 10 cases. Can she identify how many cases there are on the Continent?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the prevalence rate in this country is about the same as that on the Continent. It is one in 1 million. However, we also know that on the Continent, although there are no instances of BSE, there are cases of CJD, which is interesting.

Lord Hamilton of Dalzell: My Lords, I too welcome my noble friend's Statement. I hope that it does something to restore confidence in the beef industry. I speak as a beef producer. Does her, or SEAC's, advice to doctors underline the importance of protein in the diet of children? The advice of the Government's advisers is that parents should have the choice of whether or not they feed beef to their children. Beef represents an extremely valuable and important source of protein. With people taking to living on lettuce and green vegetables, there are already signs of rickets reappearing in children. The danger of the panic is the bad effect it will have on children's health because they are not eating enough good meat.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I have to concur personally. I think a great deal of what my noble friend says is absolutely right. But the Government feel that it is not for them to tell people what to eat or to tell parents what to give their children to eat. We try to give the public information and firm facts; it is then for people to make their own decisions.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, for the sake of clarification, will the Minister confirm that she is saying that her department sees no objection to people of all ages in this country eating beef without exceptions?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we go back to the information and advice we have received from SEAC. It states at this moment that there is a very minimal risk. The words that it uses are "an extremely small risk". At the moment we know that the link is theoretical; it has not been proved. However, bearing in mind the 10 cases, SEAC felt that there could possibly be some kind of a link. At the moment it states that it is not in a position to confirm whether there is a causal link between BSE and the human disease and it suggests that eating beef carries a very, very small risk.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the criticism made of the Government and, by implication, of my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture is not at all well conceived? Does she agree that politically a Statement should have been made and was made when concern arose and that that was a courageous and correct decision and in no way open to political criticism?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his support. Reading one of the many editorials

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written about the matter, I was pleased to see that The Times described the Government in this instance as honourable.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the Minister will be aware of a school of thought which links organophosphates with BSE and other spongiform encephalopathies. I am aware of work carried out by the Medical Research Council on the effects of organophosphates directly on prime protein. However, as Burkitt's lymphoma relies on the mosquito before it erupts, will the Government ask the researchers to look at a possible catalystic connection between OPs and the spongiform encephalopathies because there could well be a connection in some way or another?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, as the noble Countess will be aware, research is initiated by protocols and by submissions from different researchers who believe that a matter needs probing and exploring. They must put forward their submissions. It would be totally wrong of me to pre-empt that process. It has held good for a very long time. I have no doubt that if a suitable protocol receives priority from the MRC or the body judging the different research submissions it will not be ruled out.

Lord Shepherd: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the funds of the MRC are very tight, if not limited, and that therefore flexibility to undertake a major form of research would prove nearly impossible unless new resources were made available? Will she consider perhaps with the MRC what funds would be necessary if such research were to be undertaken by it on behalf of her department?


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