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9.13 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I offer my support to the noble Countess and my noble friend and what they have said this evening, and I hope that the Minister will take it seriously. I look back at my time in MAFF, which I enjoyed greatly, and at the great quality of the civil servants there, and of our scientific advisers. I do not wish them to think that what I say is any criticism of them.

I look back and think that we set up those committees and used them in a way which led to many of the problems that we faced towards the end of our term in office, and which led to the breakdown in trust between the people of this country and MAFF and what it said.

Looking back, I can understand how we came to set up and use committees in that way. It is clear that MAFF does not have within it, and politicians do not have within their ranks, the expertise necessary to provide answers to difficult scientific questions. From the point of view of public trust, they need to set up committees which have a measure of independence. From the point of view of making decisions, they need to obtain from those committees a single, clear recommendation.

It then became the practice that the Government relied on and enacted the recommendations of these committees. Indeed, they took them as gospel, not to be quarrelled with. It therefore became necessary that the people on the committees should display a great deal of level-headedness and that they should not represent extremes of opinion; that they should be able to agree together and not produce dissenting opinions. Those committees seemed to be selected by a process of networking, as the noble Countess suggested. Clearly, the politicians did not know who the right people were. I suspect that in many cases the civil servants did not know who the right people were. They were discovered by talking to other people and generally finding out through the scientific community who were the best people for the job.

At the time, that seemed to me to be a very reasonable way of going about things. But, now that I look back at all the difficulties we had, I can see perhaps more clearly the imperfections that were present in the system. As the noble Countess said, scientists are human beings; they are subject to bias, like the rest of us. In science, there always has been a strong pattern of consensus. If you were a believer in the Phlogiston theory, when that was right, you would fight viciously people who proposed that it was wrong. That has always been the way that science has evolved. A consensus has been fought against by a few outsiders until it has been overturned and the rebels become the consensus in their turn. We have been using a system to choose people for these committees which is strongly biased towards consensus, principally because we have demanded that at the end of the day the committees produce a consensus themselves.

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Scientists are subject to natural biases in that they wish to continue to have careers and they wish their research to be paid for. The two principal sources for that are either the Government and the committees that they set up, which will tend towards consensus and the consensus view of what research should be done, or industry, which will tend towards research which does not undermine its own business.

That process has also led to committees which tend to exclude people from participation. They exclude the industry from open participation, they exclude users and they exclude consumers. Those groups must then make their impact on decisions covertly. Obviously, industry has ways of doing that, but others must develop their own ways of influencing the committees, as it were, in secret.

That leads to a whole process of dissatisfaction, a feeling of cover up and a lack of trust. That bedeviled us in so many aspects of what we were doing in MAFF. Looking back, we believed that we were doing the right thing. We all believed that we were doing the honest thing, that we were taking the right decisions and that we were treating matters fairly and honestly. But the structures that we were using, the structures we had set up, did not allow the public to believe that too.

I believe that other models could be pursued by the Government which would achieve the same effects without the down side. I suggest that the Government might consider the example of the Court of Appeal, with tribunals and, indeed, this House itself, and in the way in which they operate. If the House of Lords sends down a judicial decision by three votes to two that is accepted as a reasonable decision. No one argues with the decision. It is understood that there may not be an absolute, right answer, that there might be two sides of opinion, but it has been decided. Why cannot we have committees in which that level of dissent can be experienced and expressed, but nonetheless we accept their decisions when they come down--or at least we accept them as being the decisions of the committees?

In court, the experts appear as witnesses and not as arbiters. They can be questioned and other points of view can be brought to bear. Access can be had by interest groups and others who are affected by the decisions. The whole thing can be weighed in public before a decision is reached. If at the end of the day the committee arrives at what may be seen as the wrong decision politicians will feel able to intervene, as they would with the court. We in this House have had some long debates about the Government overruling the House of Lords in a decision that it has reached. Why should we feel differently about a scientific committee on a technical aspect of organophosphates, BSE or whatever? Politicians have a role to play. They have recently shown that most strongly in the case of firearms control, where a serious and well set up committee produced recommendations with which we disagreed and we wanted to act more strongly. The Government wish to go further than that. Politicians have a role. They should not feel cowed and unable to play their role

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because they have set up committees which are so totally expert that the Government cannot claim to have a role in the process.

I believe that this is a matter which should attract the Government's serious consideration. If they wish to avoid the kind of problems which we let ourselves in for during the past five years, I hope particularly that they will bear that in mind when constructing the new food safety agency. We do not know a great deal about it so far, but what has been posited makes it sound like a sort of super committee, which will be so inward turned and so bound up with its own way of doing things that it will, perhaps, need another regulator over it to ensure that the public voice can be heard and influence what the committee chooses to do.

It is enormously important that we should take this opportunity of a new government and of their determination to have open government and freedom of information--all of which I agree with--to reform the structures within MAFF which have so held us back from being seen to do what we have always believed to be right and what I believe officials and scientists in the expert committees have always tried to do; namely, do the best for the people in this country as a whole and to make honest and correct decisions.

9.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, I want to thank the noble Countess for placing this Question before us and the others who have spoken in the debate. I believe that the quality of the speeches has fully compensated for the fact that they have been few in number.

When, somewhat to my surprise, I took this ministerial position I rapidly realised that it was bound to involve an early encounter with the noble Countess. Given her track record, that was bound to be a daunting prospect. However, I should say that it was also a pleasing prospect. I am grateful to the noble Countess for forcing me to look early on into this important issue. I hope that I and my fellow Ministers will bring a fresh mind to it and that I can encourage the department, as I am sure I can, to take a fresh look at the matter. Some of us have been too long in government, even if it was a long time ago, to assume that fresh looks always mean fresh conclusions, but I can certainly promise a fresh look.

We fully recognise the concerns of the noble Countess about the effects of exposure to organophosphorus products. MAFF Ministers have repeatedly said that there is no scientifically recognised and widely accepted clinical syndrome associated with low level exposure to organophosphate sheep dips. That remains the case so far as concerns our scientific advice. Yet, while this statement so far as it goes may be technically accurate, it does not, I fear, recognise the concerns of the large group of

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people who clearly believe that they are suffering from the effects of exposure to organophosphorus products.

Therefore, from the beginning, I want to assure the House that we have every sympathy with those individuals. There can be little doubt that the suffering of this group of people is quite genuine and the cause of it must be fully investigated. We are totally determined to look closely into the issue. We shall take whatever steps are necessary, including the relevant scientific and clinical research, to satisfy ourselves that effective consideration is given to those concerns.

Of course the regulatory systems must be based on sound science. But in practice many of the decisions which regulators take are a matter of balance. The advisory committees and the regulatory agencies face the challenge of weighing benefits against safety concerns guided only by the certainty that their knowledge is incomplete. We therefore intend to examine carefully whether the balance of decision making--much of what the noble Countess was saying was about that balance--lies where we and the public believe it should lie.

Our recent proposal to broaden the membership of the advisory committees to include lay members-- I am not sure everyone interested in this area has taken that on board--is one step towards this goal. We shall also be meeting the chairmen of the committees to seek to understand, among other things, how they determine what is an acceptable risk and whether the resulting balance reflects the public's concerns. We want to look again at ways to improve the system. We are ready to consider proposals to achieve this and we aim to get the balance right, or more right. I have never achieved perfection in anything in my life and therefore I have to qualify that.

I am sure noble Lords are aware that members of the advisory committees are appointed by agriculture Ministers with the agreement of health Ministers and, in the case of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, the Secretary of State for the Environment. Members are selected for their scientific expertise relevant to the advice offered to Ministers. The noble Baroness rightly argues that such scientific expertise should be particularly relevant to the health dangers associated with a specific product. That is pertinent and I shall pursue it. I shall also wish to be reassured that sufficient relevant medical expertise is present.

There is full public consultation to seek nominations for membership. Over 80 organisations are consulted and there will shortly be consultation on the replacement and reappointment of members whose term of office expires at the end of 1997. As regards members of the Veterinary Products Committee, recommendations for appointment are subject to the consultation of the Medicines Commission. There is a statutory duty under the Medicines Act to recommend to Ministers persons considered to be well qualified to serve on the Veterinary Products Committee and the other Section 4 committees.

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Current membership of the Veterinary Products Committee includes expertise in human as well as veterinary medicine. The committee has a medical and scientific panel set up specifically to look into reports of long-term health effects from the use of organophosphorus sheep dips and advise on research. The chairman of the panel, Dr. Bateman, is also a member of the Veterinary Products Committee. Seven out of the 14 present members of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, including the chairman, have expertise in the medical field, including human toxicology and occupational medicine.

As a result of the medical and scientific panel's recommendations, the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh is to conduct a half a million pound study of long-term, low level exposure to OP sheep dips. The report is expected in 1999. We trust that this will help us further to understand this complex issue. I fully understand the concerns of the noble Countess about the balance of expert advice. My right honourable friend the Minister has already said, as I mentioned, that he is looking at the appointment of consumer or lay representatives on advisory committees in the area of food safety. That will also include committees such as the Veterinary Products Committee.

The noble Countess mentioned women members. I am pleased to inform the House that there are two women, Dr. Gaskell and Miss Gibson, on the VPC and Dr. Carter on the APC. Whether that is enough--whether there are ever enough--to satisfy noble Baronesses in this House remains to be seen. However, I can assure the noble Countess that we are reviewing the system of appointments. Her mention of a panel will be helpful to us when we consider appointing extra people to the committees.

The Veterinary Products Committee discussed Professor James's report on the Food Standards Agency and is submitting comments. The committee had no objection to lay membership or to greater openness and transparency. The Government need to look at the confidentiality provisions of the Medicines Act in order to achieve the maximum openness compatible with the restraints of that Act.

On the difficult question of impartiality, we naturally wish to ensure that the Government receive the best advice from those best qualified to give it. It is inevitable that the expertise of members is valuable to industry too, which will often be looking to the same people. We have to assume that we receive impartial advice. However, if anyone has further considered suggestions--and I include the remarks of the noble Countess and the noble Baroness, Lady Park--on how we can further guarantee impartiality perhaps they will write to me and I shall consider those specific proposals sympathetically.

The noble Countess mentioned financial conflicts. Strict controls exist. For the Veterinary Products Committee, members make an annual declaration of interests. Those are published in the annual report which is part of a composite publication covering the Medicines Commission and other Section 4

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committees. The publication also includes the code of practice governing the declaration of interests. As well as that annual declaration, members are required to declare interests at meetings. If interests are declared, the chairman excludes members from discussion or limits their participation, as appropriate.

For the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, there is a statutory requirement that members are appointed only on signature of a declaration to the effect that they have,

    "no financial or commercial interest as would be likely to prejudice the proper discharge of their functions".
The appointment of members with some minor connections with industry is not ruled out. Each case is judged against the test of "likely to prejudice".

In addition to the statutory rules, all members are also required to make an annual declaration of all industry interests, however minor, covering both personal interests and those of their employer. This declaration is published in the committee's annual report. So I think I can say to the noble Countess that I am reasonably convinced that financial conflicts of interest concerning members' direct incomes are not of real, practical concern. Whether the financing of research at universities and institutions connected to members is an issue I am not so sure and will investigate further.

I sympathise with the noble Countess's question as to why independent research is not done into the safety of the veterinary and pesticide products that the Government approve. I have asked my officials the very same question. Typically, it takes 10 years to develop and test a product, but the precise formulation will not be settled until the last year or so of development. If government conducted safety tests, these could not begin until very late in the day, delaying availability. It would also mean that work would be duplicated. In an international market different countries could be carrying out the same experiments and achieving the same results. There would be unnecessary experiments on animals and unnecessary suffering.

That said, I am, however, prepared to examine the matter further to see whether there is any sensible and selective way of involving government or some extra independent dimension. Here I think of the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park; namely, to double check those cases where there is particular reason for concern. It would probably involve public expense, and I cannot make a commitment to that. However, public health is one of our top priorities.

The approach used by the regulators is to demand all the information generated; and for veterinary medicines there is a legal requirement, including adverse results. Even early experiments on the active compound can be considered by the advisory committees. That gives a broader understanding of the product's properties and is more reliable than simply a limited range of tests carried out by government.

If significant gaps in the safety data emerge during evaluation, then the product is not authorised or approved. In addition, the data have to be produced

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to recognised standards, including OECD guidelines, and good laboratory practice controlled by the Department of Health.

Having described all these magnificent protections, there may still be ways in which the system can be improved. There may be circumstances, for instance, in which an early dialogue between manufacturers and regulators could result in a wider range of experimental data becoming available on which a scientific judgment can be made. I have asked my officials to look at all the suggestions and arguments advanced by the noble Countess, the noble Lord and the noble Baroness and to consider any practical improvements that could be made on current practice.

Finally, perhaps I may turn to one or two specific points that arose. To the noble Countess, I say that I am also aware that expert committees may balance in one direction or another, even with the best of intentions. I sense that that is possible to smell; it is difficult to assess, and extremely difficult to correct. Nevertheless, I promise her that we will try.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Park, suggested that the precautionary concept should be given greater priority. I have great sympathy with that approach and have already asked officials to look into how that might be secured. The House should be aware that the present criteria are safety, quality and efficacy. We will consider whether it is possible to qualify that with the precautionary element. MAFF is closely in touch with the Ministry of Defence, but we will certainly pursue the noble Baroness's suggestion of an independent co-ordinator.

I found the reflection of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on his time as spokesman helpful and commendably honest. He aptly described the dilemma of Ministers assessing scientific advice. He described it with painful accuracy and I can assure him that nothing that happened on 1st May has altered that dilemma. He is probably right that the present system is not transparent and open enough. He made helpful suggestions about a better model; we shall look at them in our present review. The one thing that I can promise him is that we are not cowed.

        House adjourned at twenty minutes before ten o'clock.

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