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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health in another place. Before doing so, I should like to declare an interest: my husband manages a dairy and beef-producing farm; there have been cases of BSE; we have no share in the farm's assets.
"I begin by reminding the House briefly of the background. The advisory committee brings together leading experts in neurology, epidemiology and microbiology to provide scientifically based advice on the implications for animal and human health of different forms of spongiform encephalopathy. As I have repeatedly stressed, its members are not government scientists; they are leading practitioners in their field, and it is the function of the advisory committee to allow them to pool their expertise to assess the latest scientific evidence that is available.
"Both the Opposition health spokesman and the Leader of the Opposition stressed last week the importance of reaching decisions on the basis of the scientific evidence. I agree with them. I also agree that it is important that both the evidence on which the committee reaches its recommendations and the recommendations themselves should be made public as soon as practicable. That is why I published the committee's recommendations last Wednesday and it is why I have today put copies of its latest recommendations, accompanied by a statement from the Chief Medical Officer, in the Vote Office. I can confirm to the House that arrangements are in hand
"Last Wednesday I informed the House of the advisory committee's conclusions about 10 new cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The statement which the committee approved at its weekend meeting emphasises that there are only 10 cases of this previously unrecognised variant of CJD that have yet been identified, and that the committee is not in a position to confirm whether or not there is a causal link between BSE and the human disease. The committee did however repeat its view that the most likely explanation at present of this new form of CJD is that these cases are linked to exposure to BSE before the introduction of the specified offals ban in 1989.
"Following receipt of its advice last week, I asked the committee to consider as a matter of urgency the implications of its findings for children. In considering this question the committee was joined by three leading experts in the field of paediatrics, gastroenterology, and immunology. The committee considered carefully its knowledge of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies and considered the evidence available from the 10 identified cases. Taking all that into account, the committee concluded,
'if human infection with the BSE agent occurs, infants and children are not likely to be more susceptible to that infection than are adults'.
'if human infection with a BSE agent occurs, none of these groups is likely to have any increased susceptibility to infection'.
'Parents are naturally concerned about the risks to their own children. No human activity is without some risk; if the Government rigorously enforces the current and newly recommended controls we believe that this risk is likely to be extremely small; however the Committee recognises that parents will often chose to reduce risk to their children beyond that which they are prepared to accept for themselves.
"The committee reconfirmed the recommendations which were published last Wednesday concerning the deboning of cattle carcasses aged over 30 months, and has made a number of other relatively minor recommendations concerning the treatment of specified bovine offal. My right honourable and learned friend the Minister of Agriculture will deal with these questions in his Statement.
"The committee also made two recommendations concerning research. First, it recommended the reinforcement of the CJD Surveillance Unit at Edinburgh University, and, secondly, it recommended the commitment of substantial additional resources to long-term basic and applied research to improve our understanding of these diseases. The Government accept these recommendations. We already have plans in hand to strengthen the CJD Surveillance Unit. In addition I have today instructed Professor John Swales, the NHS Director of Research and Development, to prepare a directed programme of research in this field involving the Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
"Against the background of these findings the Advisory Committee reports two central conclusions. First, it reasserts that, provided the restrictions which it recommends are fully implemented and sustained, any BSE-related risk from eating beef or beef products is likely to be extremely small. Secondly, the committee's statement concludes with the words,
'the Committee does not believe that additional measures are justified at this stage but the situation needs to be kept under careful review so that additional significant information can be taken into account as soon as it becomes available'.
"The statement of the advisory committee which I am publishing this afternoon makes clear recommendations both to the Government and to the public. The Chief Medical Officer is taking steps today to communicate this new advice to all doctors. The Government accept the recommendations and will act upon them."
It is important that children, pregnant women, patients and those who are immuno-compromised are judged not to have increased susceptibility to this infection. In the case of children, the issue may not simply be the setting of an absolute average age to measure vulnerability or to establish absolute risk. Surely, increased or decreased sensitivity to infections at a certain age is not the point when one is talking about children. It is the long-term incubation that perhaps makes children more vulnerable. As the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, put it so gracefully last week, for many elderly people there might be little threat, because with a 10 or 15-year incubation period for CJD the elderly perhaps would be unlikely to survive to suffer the effects. But for children it is totally different. I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on that issue in her response. As the Minister has said and the SEAC statement recognises, parents will often choose to reduce the risk to their children beyond that which they are themselves prepared to accept.
I should like to return to some of the questions that remain relevant which were raised by me and other noble Lords last week. The Minister did not answer them then, and they are not answered by this new Statement. First, are there any specific foodstuffs, particularly those that contain beef products rather than pure beef, which families with children should now avoid? Are there particular methods of preparation that make those products more or less risky? For example, it has been suggested by the media over the weekend that the preparation of some products in microwave ovens may increase vulnerability. Very importantly, noble Lords in all parts of the House last week during the Statement asked whether it was clear what the relative risks were of eating offal products and products derived from offal products. I understand that these can extend to such products as gelatine and jelly babies. Is that risk quantifiable? What is the relative risk of eating such products as against eating what may be described as obvious beef cuts? In addition, what specific guidance is given by the Department of Health to general practitioners and family doctors, who will be inundated with requests for guidance from anxious families, about the early signs of CJD and how they should be dealt with?
My noble friend Lord Winston last week raised a very precise question about the pattern of disease in the relevant suspect 10 cases and how it had been established. What is it about these cases that makes them of particular concern to the scientific body? What is the evidence to suggest that they, and they alone, may have a link with BSE? I understand that that may be published in the learned journals, but it will be useful to have some guidance now.
As we gradually learn more about the situation it becomes apparent that mistakes have been made by people in authority. Though it is not primarily a matter for the Department of Health--I know that my noble friend Lord Carter will wish to return to it--there is particular concern about the inadequate compensation offered to farmers for infected cattle during the crucial period between the time when BSE was diagnosed and when the abattoir regulations came in. There is also concern about the food safety regulations and the separate MAFF regulations. It is always easy to be wise with hindsight. However, if, as the Labour Party had suggested, a separate food standards organisation entirely independent of MAFF had been established some of these problems might never have arisen. There is also a question about whether all of these issues should be seen in the context of the dogmatic drive towards deregulation in every aspect of our lives which has been conducted by the Government.
In the past few days we have heard repeatedly that the Government rely on the expert advisory committee and the scientists to tell them what to do next. Surely, this is a failure of political leadership. I am glad that the Secretary of State has said that science is not a substitute for personal or political choice, but if there has been a failure surely the failure to distinguish between scientific evidence and political judgment is culpable. If in the past Ministers had made the political judgment that public health was of paramount importance the story might have been different. It would then have been possible to deal with the recognition of the threat of BSE without loss of public confidence and the potential agricultural disaster that we all face today, which I believe the Statement will do little to alleviate.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness for having repeated the Statement. I received a copy of the Statement after her right honourable friend rose to his feet in the House of Commons. She will be aware that there are long-standing arrangements for making Statements available to representatives of the Opposition. That did not happen in this case. I hope that complaints of this kind will not have to be repeated in future, particularly on a matter as important as this. We are faced with an almost complete collapse of public confidence in British-produced beef.
I should like to put the following question, to which I know the noble Baroness will reply that it is a matter for the usual channels. First, if there is a debate on this matter in the House of Commons on Thursday of this week, I ask that there should be a similar opportunity for an early debate in this House to discuss these
Secondly, is the Minister aware that SEAC's statement makes two points of considerable importance? One is the assertion of the need for medium and long-term research which will require substantial additional resources. The Minister indicated that there will be such improvement in financial allocations to those concerned. The committee adds that there should be no delay due to difficulty in obtaining resources. Can the House assume therefore that adequate resources will be made available and that SEAC itself will pronounce judgment as to whether the additional resources made available are adequate?
Is the Minister aware that SEAC's recommendation is that it is necessary to ensure that all the restrictions proposed on 20th March and those in this document are implemented fully and are sustained? Is she aware that there is some public concern that a number of the recommendations have not yet been implemented? The concern is widespread. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us when those recommendations will be implemented fully.
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