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Lord Carter: My Lords, I am grateful to the Opposition Chief Whip. He is misinformed about the lateness of State Opening. In 1921 State Opening was on 14th December. I am tempted to observe that some of your Lordships may well remember it! The Opposition have not filibustered and, through the usual channels, there has been the customary co-operation. The noble Lord said that originally 10 days had been allocated to the Committee stage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. The Opposition asked for 10 days; I offered five days, and it took six.
The number of Bills this Session has not been exceptional compared with others. I agree that a large number of amendments have been tabled, but we are a listening government and respond to sensible requests for improvements to Bills. This is not unusual. I recall that when I sat on the Benches opposite at Report stage of an education Bill 400 amendments were tabled in this House, which is a
Lord Renton: My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that it would be to the advantage of the Government, Parliament and the people if legislation contained clear statements of principle and was encumbered with much less detail? Will the noble Lord seek to persuade the departments and Parliamentary Counsel to legislate in the way that I suggest?
Lord Carter: My Lords, that view is not shared by all those involved in the preparation of legislation. It is believed that purpose statements, which were quite common in the 19th century, lead to considerable legal problems in the interpretation of Acts. But I agree that there is a debate to be had on the balance between what appears in primary legislation and what appears in secondary legislation.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, with the permission of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:
"I should like to express the Government's thanks to Lord Phillips, Mrs June Bridgeman and Professor Malcolm Ferguson Smith for their very thorough inquiry which has occupied them for the best part of the past three years.
"As the Government recognised when setting up the inquiry, BSE is a national tragedy. To date, 85 definite or probable cases of variant CJD have been reported in the UK. Of those 85, 80 people have died. There is an unknown number of cases yet to come. It is not possible to give precise forecasts because of the many uncertainties about the disease. I know that the whole House will join me in expressing deepest sympathy to those who have fallen victim to variant CJD, and to their families.
"The inquiry was set up by my right honourable friends the Member for Copeland, the Member for Holborn and St Pancras and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Its remit was to establish and review the history of the emergence and identification of BSE and new variant CJD and to reach conclusions on the adequacy of the response, taking into account the state of knowledge at the time.
"The inquiry report comprises 16 volumes and some 4,000 pages. Volume 1 sets out the key findings and conclusions. Quoting directly from the report's executive summary, the key conclusions are as follows:
BSE developed into an epidemic as a consequence of an intensive farming practice: the recycling of animal protein in ruminant feed. This practice, unchallenged over decades, proved a recipe for disaster.
"The report contains many lessons for public administration. Areas where we will be focusing our response include the implementation of policy decisions; the process of contingency planning; co-ordination across government departments and other agencies; the assessment, management and communication of risk; the role of scientific advisory committees; and government's assessment and use of scienitfic advice.
"Even now, there are some questions about BSE which are unresolved. We do not know with certainty how the disease entered the cattle herd; nor why it has been so predominantly a disease affecting this country. Lord Phillips's conclusion is that the origin of BSE is likely to have been a new prion mutation in cattle, or possibly sheep, in the early 1970s. In the light of this conclusion, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and I will be commissioning an independent assessment of current scientific understanding, including emerging findings, on the origins of the BSE epidemic. This study will then be considered by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and published.
"While it was beyond the remit of the inquiry to examine current public protection measures, the House will want to know that the chairman of the Food Standards Agency advises that the inquiry report gives rise to no immediate need for new food safety measures. He intends to discuss this aspect of the report at the next public meeting of the agency's ongoing BSE controls review.
"Both the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and the Food Standards Agency board propose to review relevant elements of the report. We will take account of any conclusions or advice they wish to offer in the Government's response to the report. The same applies to the Select Committees of this House.
"The Government will announce their substantive response to the report in the coming months. Following this announcement the House will have an early opportunity to debate in government time both the report and the Government's response.
"However, there is one element in the inquiry's report which the Government are singling out for attention now. That is the care of patients suffering from variant CJD and support for the families caring for them.
"The needs of variant CJD victims were frequently insufficiently addressed, especially in the early days of the disease. The rapidly degenerative nature of variant CJD requires timely and accurate diagnosis and a swift response from the local health and social services. Patient care has been variable in the past and not always responsive enough to the rapidly changing needs of patients.
"I can tell the House that given the special circumstances of these patients, my right honourable friend will now establish a new national fund for the care of victims of variant CJD. The fund will ensure a speedy response to diagnosis and improvements in the quality of care for patients. This package will be co-ordinated through the national CJD surveillance unit in Edinburgh.
"The new national care fund will be used to purchase care and equipment appropriate to the individual needs of variant CJD patients. The fund will be held by the CJDSU care co-ordinator, supported by a new national network of experts available to support local clinicians and local social services caring for patients wherever they live.
"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health met families of variant CJD victims and representatives of the Human BSE Foundation yesterday to discuss this new package of care. Over the next few weeks his department will be working with the families affected to refine the package to ensure it is effective and properly meets the needs of patients.
"This dreadful disease has a devastating effect on victims and their families. The families have campaigned for improved diagnosis and care for those who may yet be affected by this national tragedy. I am sure the House will want to acknowledge the dignified and constructive way in which they have done so.
"In addition to the enhanced care package, we are determined to provide appropriate support for those who are suffering from variant CJD, for those who care for them and for the families of those who have already died.
'any who have come to our Report hoping to find villains or scapegoats, should go away disappointed',
'if those criticised were misguided, they were nonetheless acting in accordance with what they conceived to be the proper performance of their duties'.
"Members will also wish to know that I am today sending copies of the report to the European Commission, the European Parliament and to the governments of each EU member state. In addition, I have arranged for the report to be placed on the Internet, accessible via the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's website.
"On taking office in 1997 the Government put consumers at the heart of decision-making on food safety issues. We have established the independent Food Standards Agency. We have opened up our scientific advisory committees, including the appointment of consumer representatives. We have put scientific advice to government in the public domain, encouraging a culture of openness, trusting the public and stimulating informed public debate. The 'deregulation culture' that called for a 'bonfire of regulations' has been replaced by a proportionate approach that strives for better regulation with the protection of the public at its heart. We have put in place working arrangements to encourage the sharing of ideas and information between government departments and agencies.
"The inquiry has made a very thorough assessment of the history of BSE and of the response of the government of the day. It has added greatly to our understanding of this detailed and complex area. Work is already under way across the whole of government to follow up on the inquiry's findings. Most importantly today, we are setting in hand improved packages of care and arrangements for financial support for victims of variant CJD and their families. I commend the inquiry's report to the House."
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier by her right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown. We welcome the BSE report and concur with the expressions of gratitude for the work of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, and his team. On behalf of these Benches, I want to emphasise how deeply I regret the suffering and loss of life of the CJD victims. We are very sorry for the suffering and bereavement experienced by those families. For all their sakes, we must work hard to prevent another such tragedy occurring in the future.
I warmly welcome the Government's acceptance of the need for compensation for the families. We look forward to hearing in due course the details of the Government's proposals. The Minister has said today that the Government will be establishing a new national fund for the care of victims of variant CJD. The fund will ensure a speedy response to diagnosis and improvements in the quality of care for patients. That is truly to be welcomed. We are glad to hear that discussions have already taken place with families. What we need to see is a swift response to their dilemma.
The Phillips report has been almost three years in preparation. It runs to 16 volumes and some 4,000 pages. I am grateful to the Minister and to the Government for allowing us the opportunity to see a copy of the report earlier today. Obviously, we have had time only to study it briefly. The Government are entirely right in not rushing to make a substantive response to the report. I am sure the House understands that at this stage I cannot try to comment on the many details and recommendations in the report. We will wait until we have all had the opportunity to read the report and the Government's response to the report before a full debate is arranged.
The Minister and the inquiry have already recognised that we are considering this whole issue with the enormous benefit of hindsight. The Minister referred to that. Before rushing into judgment on the actions of civil servants, many of whom are not in a position to answer for themselves in public, other advisers and Ministers, we must bear in mind the state of knowledge about BSE at the time the decisions now being scrutinised were made. Therefore, I welcome the Minister's announcement in that regard.
In the light of the Statement, perhaps I may ask five questions. First, does the Minister agree that all decisions must be based on the best available scientific advice? Does she consider that such advice was available at the time of the events considered in the report? Secondly, does the noble Baroness agree with the report that communications within and between departments and the various advisory groups were inadequate and led to misunderstandings and delay? Thirdly, does she agree with the report that the origin of the disease is still not absolutely certain and perhaps never will be certain? Fourthly, does she agree with the report that it was not MAFF's policy to lean in favour of agricultural producers to the detriment of consumers? Lastly, while our thoughts are first and foremost with the families afflicted by this great tragedy, does the Minister accept that it has had a huge impact on our farming community and that the whole industry has also been devastated?
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and welcome the package of measures for the victims and their families. I thank her for making clear that the timescale for dealing with the issues raised by the report is the foremost priority. I hope that the House will have a chance to debate at the earliest opportunity all the extremely important issues raised in the report. Members of this House will particularly wish to examine the way in which the report highlights a culture of inappropriate structures and a climate of secrecy and of not trusting the public. Those factors lay very much at the base of the lack of advice given. Although the Minister said that the government did not lie to the public--we accept that--they ran a campaign of reassurance that beef was safe to eat. Therefore, the blame rests not so much on individuals as on a climate of secrecy. We must ensure that that climate of secrecy is not allowed to continue.
Given the conclusion of the report that advice should normally be made public, can the Minister say how the public will know if advice is not made public? That is at the heart of the worry of many noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches about the Freedom of Information Bill. If advice is not made public, we simply will not know.
Does the Minister agree that scientific research and knowledge should be shared? Perhaps one of the strongest statements in the report is that an advisory committee should not water down its formulated assessment of risk out of anxiety not to cause public alarm. How will the Government deal with that issue? As dealing with hazard is such a politically hot potato, do they accept that there needs to be a structured method of risk assessment, risk management and risk communication?
The other striking issue that comes over from the report is the length of time that passed before action was taken. In 1988 there were reports of transmission to other species, particularly mice, and mechanically
We welcome a full debate on the Phillips report. We look forward to hearing more detail about the amount of funding that will be made available for research in areas that cause the public great concern--organophosphates, GM foodstuffs, and so on. The public should be given as much government information as possible.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Baronesses for expressing their welcome for the Statement and in particular their welcome for the compensation and care package to be made to the families concerned, in recognition that they have paid the highest price for this tragedy. As I said earlier, we shall examine and refine the detail of the compensation and care package with the families.
Perhaps I may respond first to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. Everyone would agree that we need to have the best scientific advice available. If difficulties arise from that--it is a point that noble Lords in this House have mentioned on other occasions--we must bear in mind that there is no such thing as "the science"; namely, a scientific decision that is unchanging and unmoving. For myself, one of the lessons to be learnt from this is that it is necessary to be willing to expose uncertainties and to air balances of evidence and the consequent judgments that are made. Certain parts of the report make it clear that the campaign of reassurance, as it was described, has been criticised. That criticism has been levelled not because the campaign was launched with any malevolent intention, but rather because it was inappropriate to withhold from others the fact that dissenting views were expressed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about making scientific advice available to the public. I believe that we have moved a great deal on that front. Many committees, such as the Veterinary Products Committee and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, publish their findings. SEAC makes public its agendas and minutes and holds press conferences. Perhaps it will reassure the noble Baroness as regards the point she made on freedom of information if I mention that the Food Standards Agency has a right enshrined in statute to make available its own advice to Ministers, regardless of whether Ministers want that
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked whether I could agree with her on certain conclusions of the report. I hope that I have made it clear that today the Government do not believe that it is right to publish their response to the conclusions of the report or to the recommendations, which have taken the form of lessons to be learnt. Those run to something in the order of 200. To pick and choose specific examples on this occasion would not be appropriate. The noble Baroness will forgive me if I do not respond to individual questions as regards whether the Government agree with individual conclusions.
Furthermore, the noble Baroness is right to counsel the House not to rush in its judgment or to assume too much in terms of criticism. On the other hand, I was glad to hear that in another place Mr Tim Yeo accepted certain criticisms and publicly voiced his recognition that the last government had made mistakes. The report makes sobering reading for anyone in government. Any individual who holds the responsibilities of political office will need to read the report very carefully and then look to his or her own actions, culture and ability to work with colleagues. But of course--and inevitably--the report will make the most sobering reading for those who were involved in the tragic events now under consideration.
Lord Jopling: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. As one who, when in office, was never informed of the existence of BSE, but left the department within a few days of Ministers being told of it, perhaps I may say that the words in the Statement declaring that it was not MAFF's policy to lean in favour of the agricultural producers to the detriment of the consumer will be received by many who have held office in that department--from both parties--with some degree of satisfaction. I believe that that was the way in which we all tried to run the department.
Furthermore, in the light of her own experience as a Minister, does the noble Baroness agree that a Minister is at maximum risk of making a total fool of himself if he rejects or overrides advice from either scientists or lawyers when he is neither a scientist nor a lawyer? Quite understandably, most Ministers are very reluctant indeed to override such advice.
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