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Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I well remember my right hon. Friend's excellent work in those years. In the debates, he, I and many other hon. Members raised the possibility that BSE was transmissible to humans. That was dismissed out of hand by the then Government and we were accused of scaremongering whenever we mentioned it. Does he recall those days? Does he think that the Government's response was appropriate?
Dr. Clark: I remember those days clearly. Right from the word go, the Southwood report said that, although it was only a remote possibility, there was nevertheless a possibility that BSE could be transmissible to human beings. I accept that it was a remote possibility, but Ministers robustly defended the status quo and said that there was little threat to human beings. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and I exchanged words on that matter in several debates.
Crucially, the public were given the impression that it was safe to eat beef. Tragically, we now know that the Southwood report was slightly wrong. The possibility may have been remote in statistical terms, but for those families who have suffered the consequences of BSE, it is a real experience. We all regret every death, and if a death is unnecessary, we must ask why it happened.
Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): My right hon. Friend makes a powerful analysis of the culture of previous Conservative Governments. Deregulation was a strong aspect of that culture, and it made it extremely difficult for public protection measures to be appropriately enforced. Does he share my dismay that Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen are still talking about having a bonfire of public health regulations and enforcement measures?
Dr. Clark: At that time, there was a culture of deregulation. However, when it comes to public health, we should be aiming for better regulations and not necessarily deregulation. We must also bear in mind the fact that, in that period, many public services were being reduced. If my memory serves me right, the state veterinary service was reduced by 43 per cent. in those years. That meant that we did not have the resources in the veterinary or public health services of central Government--closure after closure of veterinary laboratories had taken place--to tackle the problem.
Delays were another issue. The Phillips report makes the point that the then Government hushed up for six months the fact that a case of BSE had been confirmed in 1986. That is in the report for everyone to see.
The Southwood report was published in June--Conservatives Members are shaking their heads, but these are the facts--but we had to wait eight months before the report was actually published. Professor Southwood suggests that vital research may have been held up in that period.
Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk): I would prefer to concentrate my remarks in my speech, but I must correct the right hon. Gentleman's final point. The interim Southwood report was published in June and we acted on it immediately. The full Southwood report was given to Ministers in February 1989 and we published that, along with our reactions and the Government response, within three weeks.
Dr. Clark: There was delay after delay after delay. That is one of the points that I want to make. For example, it took 18 months after a case of BSE was confirmed before the Government made it a notifiable disease. It took 20 months to introduce a compulsory slaughter and compensation scheme and, even then, it was only at 50 per cent. We know--or at least we have our suspicions because I talked to farmers at that time--that farmers who were hard pressed and who were in doubt would take their beast to the market and into the abattoir because they could not afford to lose a £350 animal. The then Government eventually accepted our point of view, but there had been a delay. It took them two and a half years to announce the ban on cattle offal for human consumption, and it took them a further 20 months after making BSE a notifiable disease to pay farmers 100 per cent. compensation. That should have been done earlier.
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): I remember the right hon. Gentleman making many of these points in the House. The offal ban was first introduced in 1991, but it took another five years for a complete ban to come into force, during which time massive amounts of specified bovine offal and meat and bonemeal were exported. That fact is now coming home to roost, because there are now cases of BSE in countries overseas.
Dr. Clark: I remember that very well and, over the past two or three days I have been able to read the debates that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The hon. Gentleman made such points then. I hope that I have made my general point that the previous Government were guilty of many delays. We do not know what the cost of them has been.
We issued warnings to the previous Government. In May 1990, we called for a ban on the feeding of cattle offal to pigs and chickens, but that call was not taken up until very much later. We called for the cull of the offspring of BSE-infected cattle but, again, that was not implemented until years later. We tried to stop the use of cattle and sheep offal in pet food but, again, it was years later before any action was implemented. In 1990, we called for the institution of a tagging system for cattle, but we had to wait until this Government established a plant
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House which measures recommended by advisers the then Government declined to implement? I played no part at that time, but even if previous Ministers did not get everything right, was it not the case that they systematically took steps to implement in full the advice that they received and, in certain cases, embellished and added to the proposals?
Dr. Clark: The hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in the subject and is very knowledgeable, and I do not want to disappoint him. However, I shall provide him with an example after I have made my next point. We also called for the widening of the scientific evidence made available to the Government.
Judy Mallaber: From his experience, will my right hon. Friend confirm that, even after the link between BSE and variant CJD was confirmed, many Tory Back Benchers refused to acknowledge and accept that link? Does he agree that the pressure from some of those ill-informed Conservative Members made it more difficult for Conservative Ministers to accept the link and the risk to human health?
Dr. Clark: There was certainly a strong feeling and culture among Conservative Members that they had to do everything to protect the farming industry. I understand that, but I suggested at the time--and I suggest it again now--that they were not serving their farming friends very well. Indeed, their short-term approach to the problem made life in the long term more difficult for farmers.
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I should disclose that I was a cattle farmer and breeder in the period to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. I hope that he and other Members will acknowledge that, had there been proper labelling of animal feed products and had farmers had real knowledge of the possible dangers, virtually no farmer would ever have fed meat and bonemeal to cattle.
I want to stress a further important point, which relates to the way in which the Government of the day restricted their scientific advice. Any scientist who was not seen as part of the scientific establishment was excluded. I want to highlight in particular the poignant case of Dr. Harash Narang, the expert in the northern region. He was employed by the Government as the chief scientist for the Public Health Laboratory Service dealing with CJD, the human equivalent of BSE. Dr. Narang had developed a system, through electronic microscopy, to identify CJD in human beings--I concede that it was a post-mortem test--and he believed that he could use the same technique with cattle. At the time, it was taking eight or nine weeks to get the results of any tests, which meant delay with what was done with the animal meanwhile, and the animal was taken out of the human food chain.
I was staggered to find that Dr. Narang, having started to work on these matters in his own time, was sacked by the Conservative Government. To this day I find that incomprehensible. I do not know whether Dr. Narang was a fine scientist--I cannot judge; it was for his peers to judge--but I know that he had collaborated with a Nobel peace prize winner, Dr. Carleton Gajdusek, and had published papers with him. That was his standing. However, he was precluded from helping us to solve the problem. Fortunately, a private benefactor in the form of Ken Bell, a former butcher, came along and allowed the doctor to continue his work.
I am not saying whether Dr. Narang was right or wrong; it is not for me to judge. However, it is possible that his sacking cost lives, because he was permanently excluded from work in this area. At the time, it seemed that there was only a "remote possibility" of a link of transmissible disease from animals to humans. However, Dr. Narang was right and the Government's scientific advisers were wrong. I hope that we have learned--this does not stem from the Phillips report--that when dealing with science of this nature, which is at the bounds of knowledge, members of the scientific establishment do not have the sole solution.
Perhaps I have detained the House for too long, but I feel strongly about the issue. It flavoured my political thinking and I was glad to put right some of the wrongs, as I saw them, in government. I tried to ensure that, if we ever faced such a challenge again, we would have a better equipped group of scientific advisers, a better equipped bureaucratic framework, and Ministers able to think more strategically and more long term. Not enough long-term thinking was done by the previous Government when they were trying to cope with BSE.