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Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there were attempts by senior civil servants to lean on scientists to suppress their data and interpret them in a manner that fitted in with the political picture at that time?
Mr. Brown: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but it is not founded in Lord Phillips's findings themselves. I want to confine my comments to Lord Phillips's findings. There is ample evidence of failings--institutional failings and political failings--in Lord Phillips's findings to give parliamentarians on both sides of the House tremendous cause for concern.
Lord Phillips's inquiry identified significant failures in enforcement of safety measures. Lord Phillips explicitly says that that was made worse by the prevailing political desire for a "culture of deregulation".
From as early as 24 February 1988--this relates to the points made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)--Ministers were aware of concerns among civil servants about a possible link between BSE and human health. Those concerns were not shared with the public. The Government failed to be completely open about BSE and did not trust the public to understand
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I have a letter from Mr. and Mrs. Lowther, of Cumbra Park hotel, in Carlisle. Their daughter Victoria was one of the very early tragic victims of variant CJD. They have asked me to ask various questions, which I shall do in writing to the Minister so that he is able to respond to them in detail. I should like, however, to deal with two points. First, Mr. and Mrs. Lowther have studied the Phillips inquiry very carefully, but have come to the conclusion that it poses more questions than it answers. Secondly, if what the Phillips inquiry says is correct, why is no one standing trial? Why are not ex-Ministers or senior civil servants standing trial for what some people believe is the manslaughter of at least 86 people to date, and probably many hundreds in the future?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before the Minister responses, may I appeal to the House for very short interventions? There is very limited time for today's debate and the many important points that I know that hon. Members are keen to make. Brevity would be appreciated by everyone.
Mr. Brown: Lord Phillips is very clear on the point of individual blame. However, although shortcomings and failings of individuals are identified and carefully listed in the report, Lord Phillips says something to the effect that those who come to our report looking to allocate blame to individuals will go away disappointed. He identifies institutional failings and political failings, but he does not put the blame for the tragedy that has occurred on any one individual.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): The Minister has just stated that, in 1988, certain civil servants felt that some of the information available then should have been shared with the public. Is he of that view?
Mr. Brown: I am being careful to respond to Lord Phillips's findings because that is my responsibility as a Minister. I published the interim response in advance so that we could all read it. The report contains 167 recommendations and we all have a right to consider the Government's interim response. I do not want to go further than what Lord Phillips has said and found, and I am being careful not to treat the House to my personal views. Having studied the matter with some care as part of my ministerial responsibility, I have of course formed personal views, but my responsibility to the country as a Minister has to come first.
Lord Phillips makes it clear that in giving public assurances about the safety of beef, it was a mistake for Ministers to go beyond the advice that they had received from officials. I have learned that lesson, and I do not intend to make that mistake. Ministers should have stressed the important role of public protection measures rather than giving the impression that BSE did not pose a risk to humans. The consequence was that when the link between BSE and vCJD was announced, the public felt betrayed--a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew).
Lord Phillips found that, for the human victims of variant CJD, there was significant variation in the standard of care provided by the national health service. Let me remind the House that variant CJD is a terrible disease. For some of the victims and their families, the tragic horror of the disease was made more difficult to bear by lack of appropriate treatment, assistance and support. Those were Lord Phillips's findings.
Although the inquiry looked primarily at how the previous Government responded to the challenges of BSE and vCJD, it raised issues that went much wider than BSE. Those issues affect the whole process of government, across all Departments.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): This is obviously a difficult issue, but given the lateness with which the link was recognised and acknowledged and the long interval that could still lead to a substantial number of cases, is the Minister satisfied that we have enough research and investment in place? If and when we find that this is a much bigger problem than 86 people--which could still happen--we should know how to deal with it. We should use the time lag to prepare.
Mr. Brown: The amount of research that the Government are undertaking into transmissible spongiform encephalopathies has been enhanced in my time as Minister. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are still things that we do not understand. It is important to keep the research programme fully funded and properly developing. As for the total number of human victims, I am satisfied that the public protection measures now in place protect the public, but I cannot give the House a forecast of how many victims of what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s there may be.
Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon): The right hon. Gentleman says that he is confident that the measures in place to protect the public are adequate. Will he say a word about the methods used to incinerate and dispose of infected carcases? Does he have every confidence in those methods and is he sure that there is no risk to public health from those processes?
Mr. Brown: I am satisfied that that is the case. I recently visited one of the disposal plants, in Widnes, with my Spanish counterpart, who is interested in how we organise these things here. I am satisfied that the arrangements in place now are satisfactory and secure. We do not know how much variant CJD is present in the population as a result of things that happened in the past. Until we do, it is difficult to give the House accurate forecasts of the future number of victims of the condition.
The whole affair has raised wider issues than BSE; it goes to the heart of how government works. A number of major cross-cutting topics run right through Lord Phillips's report and findings. I shall run through the principal ones. Lord Phillips identifies the need for effective management of scientific advisory committees and of how scientific advice is used in developing policy; the need for greater openness in government; and the need for a consistent and proportionate approach to the assessment, management and communication of risk and uncertainty. It is a notoriously difficult area.
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is putting two separate sets of advice together. One is the scientific advice on which Ministers base their policy decisions. It is the Government's view that that should be in the public domain. The other is policy advice to Ministers. Ministers are clearly entitled to consider a range of options before coming forward and defending what they have done. The hon. Gentleman takes me slightly outside my ministerial responsibilities.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I understand that the criticisms levelled at serving civil servants have been reviewed by Sheila Forbes and that the report is now complete. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would have been helpful for hon. Members to have seen the report ahead of the debate? Does he intend to publish it so that we know what it contains?
Mr. Brown: I have thought carefully about that. I have not read the report, although I can do so. I have deliberately not done so because I believe that disciplinary matters within the civil service must be for permanent secretaries and ultimately the Cabinet Secretary. We should think carefully before we, as parliamentarians, decide to make assessments about the capabilities of individual civil servants. We should also think about when we should intervene and when we should not. If the House wants me to read the Forbes report, I will, but it is my considered view that I should not, and that it should be left to the permanent secretaries.