Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Hayman: My Lords, many risks attach to the office of Minister. I am not sure that that is the greatest risk that can be taken. However, the report enjoins Ministers to reflect on whether it is appropriate, not to second-guess scientific advice, but to shelter behind it and not to recognise that, ultimately, policy responsibility goes wider than simply taking scientific advice. Certain areas of the report reflect on the need to recognise the realities of

26 Oct 2000 : Column 497

implementation and the need to formulate policy that is firmly based on scientific advice. While I agree that there is enormous risk--I have said as much at this Dispatch Box--in interposing one's lay judgment against the advice of scientific experts, the noble Lord has asked me for my personal opinion and I shall respond by saying that it is not something that I would counsel.

Equally, however, the report makes it clear that we shall all need to reflect on the need to incorporate the best scientific advice into policy making, but not to use scientific advisory committees as ciphers or alternatives to political responsibility.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, perhaps I may invite my noble friend to comment on the 50 per cent compensation scheme which, as she will recall, operated for some two years before the previous government then instituted the 100 per cent compensation scheme. Will she acknowledge that that scheme had the perverse effect of encouraging farmers to get rid of vulnerable animals by moving them off the farm and thus into the food trade--with all the attendant problems which went with that? Does my noble friend agree that the 50 per cent compensation scheme was short-sighted, risky and introduced a level of vulnerability for the consumer that has proved to be unacceptable to the British people?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, having said to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that I would not attempt to give the Government's response to individual points, I must be even-handed in dealing with my noble friend. However, he is right to say that the issue of compensation is dealt with in the report in terms that include a fair degree of criticism of the delay in introducing a full compulsory slaughter compensation scheme in 1988. I counsel my noble friend to read what the report states about what was a very contentious issue at the time, and which remains so.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, does the Minister agree that large numbers of farmers did their duty and accepted the loss, and turned their animals in for destruction at half price?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the evidence in the Phillips report--corroborated by the numbers of animals destroyed under the slaughter and compensation scheme--is that that happened.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, as a junior MAFF Minister, I had the honour to serve under two of the most honourable men I know--the right honourable John MacGregor and the right honourable John Selwyn Gummer. BSE was never part of my portfolio and I was not called to give evidence before the commission. However, I obviously was present at some of the discussions and I obviously answered questions from that Dispatch Box, as the Minister is doing now. As my noble friend said, politicians are not scientists; all they can do is to repeat

26 Oct 2000 : Column 498

the best information they can obtain from the best available sources. To my certain knowledge, that is what those Ministers did.

I greatly resent criticisms in the press and elsewhere that the two Ministers I have named could have done other than what they did when faced with a unique and totally unknown situation, the enormity of which only became obvious with the passage of time. With something as large and unknown as the BSE situation, is there not a difficulty for Ministers in deciding between scaremongering and dealing with the matter as sensibly as they can?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Baroness is always robust in her description of the public service values she experienced while she was in the ministry. She is of course right to point out that people were dealing with an extremely difficult and unclear situation. There is no accusation of dishonourable conduct.

The report states that the Government did not lie to the public about BSE. They believed that the risks posed by BSE to humans were remote. The Government were pre-occupied with preventing an over-alarmist reaction to BSE because they believed that the risk was remote. It is now clear that this campaign of reassurance was a mistake. Beyond the issue of acting honourably, we have to ask how the situation arose over all those years; we have to ask how all the failures in the response, which are catalogued in the report, happened without malevolence. The report states that there were no villains and no scapegoats. In some ways it would be easier if there were a simple, single villain. In the absence of that, a more difficult question for all of us is how such terrible and tragic mistakes could still be made.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, while there was a serious failure, there was a response--a sweeping, costly and serious response--to which some of our European partners paid remarkably little heed. Is my noble friend surprised that in recent times the incidence of BSE in some of our neighbouring countries seems remarkably small? Despite that, we had the farce in Paris a few days ago. Can my noble friend assure the House that the United Kingdom Government will pay particular attention to the way in which the rest of Europe responds to the problem? If it fails to respond properly, sweeping problems could arise elsewhere.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, as I said in the Statement, copies of the report are being sent to all member states and to the Commission. It is to be hoped that they will learn from it. The issue of the safety of imported beef is being addressed by the Food Standards Agency, which is looking at the matter in its current review of BSE controls. Earlier this year in Brussels, specified risk material removal rules were agreed and harmonised across the EU to ensure the safety of all EU beef. It is important that the report is understood across the Community and further afield, not only in relation to BSE and the safety of beef but

26 Oct 2000 : Column 499

equally in relation to other areas which might be analogous. We do not know what the next problem might be. There are disciplines to be learnt in regard to risk evaluation, risk management and risk communication which go wider than this single issue.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, the whole House will welcome a full debate on the report. The disease is very slow to yield up its secrets, and there are still many to be yielded up. Does the Minister agree that, despite the inaccurate and ungenerous hyperbole about BSE and the way the situation was handled, the officials in charge of the inquiry and making decisions were, in large part, acting in good faith and within the means and manpower that they had at their disposal? They were dealing with a new disease about which, at the time, we knew so little. There are still many lacunae to be filled before we fully understand a disease which has been utterly devastating to livestock production and to the families whose relatives have suffered from CJD.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I made clear in my quotations from the report's executive summary the conclusions that Lord Phillips had drawn about the way in which the majority of those involved had dealt with the issues that confronted them. There is praise for many people for the way in which they responded; and some of those who are criticised are also praised. The telling point he makes is that those who were the most active workers in this field were equally the most likely to make mistakes.

However, we cannot simply ignore the fact that the structures, the culture, the implementation of decisions, the use of scientific advice and the communication to the public could have been, and should have been, better, as indicated at various points throughout the report.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I join with others in welcoming the setting-up of the national care fund, the new package of care for patients with CJD and the proposals to set up a compensation scheme. Can the Minister confirm that eligibility for these schemes will be based purely on a medical diagnosis?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I should not like to deny the noble Lord's premise. I was trying to make clear earlier that, together with the families, we want to look at the most appropriate structure both for the care package and for the compensation. At the moment we are thinking in terms of a trust fund tailored to the circumstances of individual families. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me, but we think it is appropriate to leave it at that at the moment and to report back on the discussions which will take place with the families as the details of the package emerge.

Lord Hoyle : My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will excuse me for returning to the charges made for the disposal of affected cattle at the time of the BSE crisis. Many people believed that the government at that time

26 Oct 2000 : Column 500

were "ripped off" by the large slaughterers and renderers in terms of the prices they charged for disposal. Will my noble friend expand on what the Phillips report says about that?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the main concerns about charging for disposal arose in relation to the Over Thirty Months Scheme introduced in 1996 and were, therefore, outwith the terms of the Phillips inquiry and are not, I believe, referred to in the report. An NAO report on the costs of the crisis did deal with these issues and there is regular renegotiation of the terms of contracts in this area to ensure value for money.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page