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Sheep and BSE

– in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 22nd October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:51 pm, 22nd October 2001

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to put Members in the picture about research into scrapie and the theoretical possibility that scrapie might mask BSE in sheep. This work is being undertaken through a variety of different research projects at different institutes of excellence. I would also like to address the significance of the experiment undertaken at the Institute of Animal Health (IAH) on the so-called 1990 scrapie brain pool, which was due to be reported to the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) last Friday.

"The UK and my department are in the forefront of European research to understand the incidence of scrapie in the national sheep flock, and whether the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep is a real one. The IAH research is merely one of a number of projects. Those on more recent brains are more important, and so far BSE has not been found. But more work needs to be done, and that is why a couple of weeks ago we took steps to ensure that more brains are offered for testing. We need to keep this issue in its proper perspective.

"We have known since the experiments began that there were some doubts about whether the brains--which were collected a long time ago for a completely different experiment--were cross-contaminated with bovine BSE material. As results began to emerge from the experiments, it became critical that we resolved the issue of cross-contamination with as much clarity as possible. That is why DEFRA--in consultation with SEAC and others--commissioned the DNA testing work at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC).

"The DNA results were presented to DEFRA by the LGC last Wednesday afternoon. The finding that there was no sheep material in the sample sent to the DNA lab was a totally unforeseen development. Government's responsibility in these circumstances is two-fold: first, to establish the facts as quickly as possible. The most obvious question which sprang to mind was whether the material analysed by the LGC was actually the same as that used in the experiment. To put it somewhat brutally, would the sample which should have been sent to the LGC be discovered at the back of the fridge in some dark corner of the Institute for Animal Health? We needed to establish the facts.

"I immediately asked for an independent risk assessment company to perform a detailed audit of the IAH experiment including how these homogenised samples were stored and handled. As the company is already familiar with the IAH project, it is aiming to report its findings within a week or so. We have also asked the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS) to undertake to a longer time-scale a vigorous assessment of the chain of custody arrangements for the IAH experiment. Only at around 6 p.m. on the Wednesday evening did we receive information suggesting that the sample sent to the DNA lab was indeed representative of that brain pool. But we still do not know this for certain. We will not know the full facts until the audit team has reported.

"Second, to share these emerging findings with the public, let me emphasise that at that stage the only question was not whether we should make this public, but how and when. It was already clear that the SEAC meeting planned for Friday could not now take place, since this was the only item on the agenda. Accordingly, the chairman took the decision to cancel it.

"I took the decision, against the advice of my press office, that rather than wait to have a properly staged press briefing the following morning, we should make a statement as soon as possible about what we knew for certain. I will tell the House bluntly that I was convinced the information would leak, and I did not want the slightest hint of a cover-up. In fact, I looked unsuccessfully for the chair of the EFRA Select Committee that evening in order to update him and correct information I had given him, in good faith, earlier that day.

"A press notice was duly sent to PA after we had observed the ordinary courtesies of consulting those involved and who might be asked to comment on it, including SEAC and the Food Standards Agency. In other words, a statement was made the same day and within a few hours of Ministers being told what was thought to have occurred.

"Let me say one other thing about the suggestion that we were seeking to suppress this information. We are all mature politicians. I invite the House to consider what in fact I had to suppress. This research was commissioned by MAFF. It was not carried out by the department. The cross-check which revealed these problems was also commissioned by my department as a 'belt and braces' measure. Of course there was embarrassment and delay among those involved with this work, but there was no embarrassment or dismay for the Government--only a very real concern as to where we would go from here, and a real anxiety to treat carefully and seriously an issue which is of great sensitivity.

"I understand the phraseology of one part of the press release--which I wrote--is thought to have been obscure. But of course, at the time it was drafted we knew the results of the cross-contamination check and we had been told it was thought that this came from the same material as that used in the experiment; but I could not feel confident of what weight I should give to each piece of advice given the very short time for checks to be made. This entire issue rests on the handling of samples and the keeping of records. In consequence, it seemed to me right to say, as we did, simply that the validity of the sample had been called into question. There was absolutely no intention to conceal or to mislead. There was little press interest or follow-up afterwards, but then being told that an experiment may be inconclusive does not always excite the media.

"What is important is what this experiment could mean or have meant. It is not going to give us a definite answer as to whether or not BSE is in sheep today. Indeed, there are other scientists who are not yet convinced that it would have told us even whether BSE was present in sheep in the early 1990s. All that this work could have done was to reduce some of the uncertainties and add to the little we currently know.

"On scrapie generally, my department is working closely with the FSA to introduce, early next year, an abattoir survey to test for scrapie approximately 20,000 sheep annually aged over 18 months. This will cost the UK around £5 million and be part of an EU-wide programme designed to give information on the incidence of scrapie in the EU. This week's Agriculture Council in Brussels will be reviewing this programme which, for both cattle and sheep testing, will cost the UK over £50 million next year.

"Although useful, I must warn this House that the results of the sheep abattoir survey may not prove conclusive. A similar survey commissioned by the Government two to three years ago on nearly 3,000 abattoir sheep brains identified no scrapie cases at all. I would certainly be prepared to examine carefully the case for doing an even larger survey. However, my department's BSE in Sheep Contingency Plan, published on 28th September, estimated that testing all 20 million or so lambs entering the food chain could cost £400 million annually, and questioned whether even such a huge survey would detect scrapie in lambs even if it was there. Testing all older cull sheep would also cost a huge amount. I do urge Members to study that contingency plan document if they have not already done so. We would welcome comments.

"Around 500 to 600 scrapie cases are reported in Great Britain each year. My department is funding a great deal of work to look for BSE in these cases. It is difficult work, at the forefront of science, and scientists do not always agree on particular aspects. The two methods for distinguishing BSE from scrapie are, however, through passage of sheep brain into genetically selected mice, and through molecular means.

"I must emphasise that all of this work is at the very forefront of science. We are talking about research being conducted at the leading edge of scientific experimentation. We are not talking about research that gives simple 'yes' and 'no' answers. I have asked for the most thorough review of the range of scientific studies presently being undertaken into this complex and difficult area, and I will make this available to the House.

"I would also like to inform the House that, for several months, we have been working on proposals to take the necessary powers to introduce compulsory genotyping of sheep. Although the current voluntary scheme has made a positive start, it would take 15 years or more to achieve a scrapie-resistant breeding flock, and we cannot wait that long. We have always envisaged that we would eventually need to make the scheme compulsory. So I can today inform the House that we will shortly be introducing legislation to enable us to ensure that all sheep are genotyped and that we have powers to slaughter or castrate those found not to have an acceptable genotype. We would of course fully consult with industry and other interested parties before introducing detailed arrangements for compulsory genotyping.

"The legislation will go even further than this. As well as enabling us to accelerate the programme of breeding resistance, it will give us the powers we need if it were ever to be established that there was BSE in sheep, in particular slaughter powers to deal with disposal in an orderly way. Of course the House will want to give this proper scrutiny. I hope it will have an opportunity to do so in the very near future.

"We have been open and transparent in all our research into BSE, overseen by the independent Food Standards Agency and our advisory committee, SEAC. FSA advice remains unchanged. There is no reason why consumers should not eat sheepmeat. We will continue actively to promote research to reduce risk, theoretical or not, and to put all our research in the public domain."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 4:02 pm, 22nd October 2001

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made in another place a few minutes ago. I would first ask the Minister why the Statement was not made last week. There was an opportunity to make the Statement on Thursday but it was not made then. Indeed, we had a mini Statement, which was made in response to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. That in itself is important, but this is obviously of major importance. Why was the Statement not made at the first opportunity, which would have been last Thursday?

Secondly, I understand that the press release announcing this problem was made at 10.30 on Wednesday evening. How could the Secretary of State, as I understand she did, have written to my honourable friend Peter Ainsworth days before, if in fact the news was not known until just before she announced it at 10.30 on Wednesday evening? Can the noble Lord also explain what difference the Government consider there to be between a Statement and a mini Statement? Last Thursday a mini Statement was made on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, to which we did not have a chance to respond in this House. There is a matter of protocol in relation to our knowing what will happen in the future regarding Statements and mini Statements. It is something that we should clarify today if possible.

I turn to the Statement itself. It has been said that we have known for some time that there was doubt as to whether the right brains were being used. If there was some doubt that there might be cross-contamination, when did the Government know about that? What action was taken? Why did DEFRA, in consultation with SEAC, not go to the core of the matter and find out exactly when the problem arose?

I gather that it was at about six o'clock on Wednesday evening that information was received suggesting that that which had been sent to the DNA laboratory was a representative sample of the brain pool, but DEFRA still did not know for certain when that was. When will it report? I understand that the matter is to be the subject of audit. When will that take place?

I understand from the Statement that it was decided that the announcement would be left and that there was not a cover-up. Many of us are very concerned that, by not making a Statement, a cover-up has in fact happened. The Statement itself goes on to say that there was little press interest following the announcement by Margaret Beckett. We are then told that the experiment may not be conclusive and that it does not always excite the media. Do the Government read the news? Certainly in the past few days the press reports have highlighted this problem, and it does indeed look as though there has been a cover-up.

We acknowledge the fact and are pleased that many of the 3,000 abattoir sheep brains have indicated no scrapie cases at all. Contingency plans published on 28th September estimate that the testing of the some 20 million lambs or so entering the food chain might cost £400 million annually and question whether that would be feasible. The date of 28th September brought to mind the fact that Elliot Morley made an announcement that day, saying that in all matters relating to BSE and animal health the Government's handling had been open and transparent. I question that. On the same day Mr Morley also announced that it was a possibility that all the sheep in the country might have to be culled. Does it not seem very strange that various announcements and suggestions have been made, and yet there has been no open statement until today?

I accept that it is too early for us to have firm conclusions from the experiments that are going on. However, does the noble Lord agree that Professor Bostock said almost a year ago that he was concerned that there might be a mix-up between the brains being tested? If there was concern, why did nothing happen until just recently? Either there was concern and the Government took action, or the Government were not aware of the need for action; in which case it begs the question as to how MAFF was running its department.

Another statement was made that British baby food did not contain British lamb. I should be grateful if the Minister would offer clarification on that point. My understanding is that on one day it was said that baby food did not contain any British lamb and the next day the manufacturers said that it did. Can the noble Lord clarify for us whether it is safe for British babies to eat British lamb?

The noble Lord missed out part of the Statement. It may have been an oversight, but paragraph 12 reads:

"Mouse passage was of course the method being used by the IAH. The mouse passage method has also been used on individual scrapie brains selected over the last 2-3 years. In about 180 cases, the experiments have reached the first point at which, if any of these scrapie cases was BSE, this might have become evident. It has not done so. However, it is too soon to draw firm conclusions from these ongoing experiments that can last several years".

Can the Minister offer clarification? Was it an oversight that he did not raise the matter with us? The plans in hand for breeding gene-resistant flocks are very important. Next year, as we have heard today, there will also be work on extending the scheme to rams of all flocks.

We are grateful for this Statement today. However, it raises many questions and we shall need to look at those questions more carefully later. The most important point to establish is that when costly tests are carried out, they are carried out on the right material. There has been a suggestion that the labelling of the material was at fault, not the tests themselves. Can the Minister elaborate on who is responsible; and how does it work? Is it true that the material being tested by the Institute of Animal Health was supplied by MAFF as the body controlling the handling of all BSE material and the scientific infected material? If the Minister could respond to those points, it would be enormously helpful.

As I say, it was a shame that the Statement was not made last Thursday. I again press the Minister to explain to the House the whole question of Statements, mini-Statements and PNQs as we on these Benches are concerned that announcements are being made outside Parliament rather than to the House.

Photo of Lord Hooson Lord Hooson Liberal Democrat 4:10 pm, 22nd October 2001

My Lords, I also thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. He said that we are talking about research being conducted at the leading edge of scientific experimentation. That must be true but it is also at the leading edge of public concern about health in this country. Does he not realise that the Statement discloses a case of monumental negligence if not on the part of an individual, on the part of a group? The Statement states that the Government had doubts whether the brains in question had been cross-contaminated with bovine material. When did those thoughts occur, who had them and why?

The Minister said that finding no sheep material whatsoever in the sample was a totally unforeseen development. How long a period transpired between the Government's doubts and the discovery that there was no sheep material whatsoever in the sample? The public are rightly concerned about this whole sorry episode as it undermines our belief and our confidence in the agricultural scientific establishment on the one hand and/or it undermines our confidence in the civil servants who dealt with these matters. This is a serious episode in recent history. At one stage I farmed and I had responsibility for agriculture within my party. I think I am right in saying that at no stage has there ever been a case of BSE found in sheep. That is an important point. Although there is some similarity with the old established disease of scrapie which is found in certain parts of the country, in particular in Scotland, no sign of BSE has ever been associated with it.

As I say, that is an important point. But, had this mistake not been discovered, does not the Minister realise that we might have been faced with getting rid of the whole of our sheep population? That could have constituted an enormous loss to agriculture and done enormous damage to the British economy and to the hopes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to put it mildly. A bland Statement of this kind--I do not blame the Minister for the nature of the Statement--does not begin to get to the root of the problem, the public concern and the scientific and agricultural concern about this whole episode.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:14 pm, 22nd October 2001

My Lords, as regards the final comment of the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, this was not intended to be, and I hope did not come across as, a bland Statement. It was an attempt to move the discussion away from one of tittle tattle about cover-ups to explaining the full scientific facts. I agree with what the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said; namely, that this is not a happy episode as regards the accuracy of some aspects of the recording of the scientific information. However, it also indicates my department's concern that we investigate the possibility of BSE occurring in sheep which, as the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said, is still a theoretical possibility. There has not been a case of BSE naturally occurring in sheep. Nevertheless, we should investigate that thoroughly. It also shows that if information indicating either outcome comes to light, we should put it in the public arena as rapidly as possible.

The noble Baroness asked why the Statement was not made last week. The timing of the information reaching us has been explained. A SEAC meeting was due to take place on Friday and a Food Standards Agency meeting today before we were in full possession of what the changed advice might be were the experiment to indicate what at one time it looked as if it was going to indicate. The SEAC meeting was cancelled but the FSA meeting was not; it took place this morning. We believed that it was helpful for the House to be given the views of the FSA on the matter--I mentioned that at the end of the Statement--before we went much further. It was therefore important that we completed that process before a formal report was made to the House. My colleague, Elliot Morley, was asked a supplementary oral Question on this issue during Question Time on Thursday. It did not comprise a mini Statement. As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a mini Statement; there is either a Statement or a reply to a Question.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, I may have misled the Minister. I refer to the mini Statement made on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. That was the mini Statement to which I referred, not the comments of Elliot Morley.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, coincidentally, the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, on rural recovery was announced that morning and the journalists present at the press conference were given the opportunity to ask questions on the matter we are discussing as by that time it was in the public arena. However, no mini Statement was made either to the House or to the press; it was a clarification of the implications of the Statement that had been made the previous night. We make today's Statement with the full benefit--if "benefit" is the appropriate word--both of having considered what happened and of having had the FSA's opinion on that.

I was unclear about the noble Baroness's comments with regard to the letter to Peter Ainsworth as that was sent on Saturday after the events that I described took place. Therefore, I do not think there is any contradiction there. The noble Baroness also asked when the concern about cross-contamination became apparent to the Government. Clearly, we have always been concerned that the research should have a proper basis. We expected the IAH to check that throughout the experiment. When it became clear that the outcome of the research could have profound effects on our sheep industry and that of the whole of Europe, we wanted to be absolutely sure about that and we therefore commissioned the DNA research in July that was reported on last week.

The noble Baroness also asked how long it would take before the full audit was completed. As I indicated, we hope that it will occur within a week or two but it is a complicated matter that goes back to the beginning of the research and includes labelling and how samples were dealt with right up until last week. However, knowing the capabilities of the firms involved, we hope that the audit will be completed by the date I have indicated.

The noble Baroness also referred to Professor Bostock's comments. At some earlier point during the experiment he sought to check the potential contamination of the sample. The story that emerged this morning is more complicated than it appeared. We shall have to await the results of the full audit to discover the nature of the testing that the Veterinary Laboratories Agency undertook on samples at that point.

As regards baby food, the Food Standards Agency corrected the error made on the "Today" programme by Sir John Krebs; in fact, he corrected himself. The original statement indicated that all British baby food was sourced from outside the United Kingdom. In fact, much of it but not all, is sourced from outside, but some baby food is sourced in the UK and comes from scrapie free flocks.

I should underline that these facts are reassuring to consumers who wish to exercise choice, but as the FSA has said consistently it is not a safety requirement that baby food should be sourced from outside the UK. Nothing that the experiment has thrown up changes that advice or any other advice from the FSA, which reiterated at this morning's meeting that there is no need to change it. No advice has been given to consumers to avoid eating sheepmeat.

For the record and for clarification to the House--and with apologies to the two Front Benches--the Statement, which was provided in advance, included two or three paragraphs which the Secretary of State did not use in the final version. The information in those paragraphs is accurate. On the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about the 180 samples of sheep brains that have been analysed using the molecular method, there has been no sign of scrapie at this time. She is therefore correct that the previous draft of the statement is accurate.

Photo of Lord Hooson Lord Hooson Liberal Democrat

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he say what period of time elapsed between the fears that there had been cross-contamination and the discovery that there were no sheep brains in the sample?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I said earlier that the department had tried to check the scientists' views, as indicated by Professor Bostock's statement this morning. The department commissioned the research in July, which was reported last week. It is in that period when the testing of our doubts as to whether there was contamination ran.

Photo of Lord Hughes of Woodside Lord Hughes of Woodside Labour 4:22 pm, 22nd October 2001

My Lords, is it not a fact that concentrating on when and how the announcement was made is trivial compared with the enormity of the grotesque incompetence of at least one, if not two, research establishments? How could a research establishment continue for four years without even knowing what material it was testing? It is absolutely disgraceful. After the Audit Commission report, I hope that we shall not see some poor secretary who did the labelling being reprimanded. I hope that people in the most senior positions in these establishments will be dealt with. There has been enormous damage to our belief in the scientific competence of such research establishments in the food industry. Confidence has been totally destroyed and we can no longer believe them.

Does the Minister not realise the damage done by the scaremongers who now say that we must go through all that process again and that there are still grave doubts about BSE in sheep? Words fail me. There are no decent words in the English language to describe how the matter has been dealt with by the researchers. What are the Government doing to get their money back from these establishments? Or shall we be giving them even more money to repeat their incompetence? I hope that the Minister will understand that the public are thoroughly fed up with the way in which these matters have been handled. Firm action needs to be taken by the department against those institutions who are responsible.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I accept that the credibility of research in general is a major concern, but it is unwarranted. The establishments are centres of excellence in animal research and it is deeply unfortunate that these mistakes have been made. It is also important that the Government try to find out as rapidly and in as much detail as possible how such mistakes were made, why they were made, by whom and who was responsible for them. When we have received the audit report, I assure the House that the Government will take the appropriate action.

It is important to note that had the checking not taken place and the experiment had proceeded, with the apparent result being accepted by the FSA and ourselves, the position of the sheep industry in the UK and Europe would have been catastrophic. By conducting that check, the Government have at least saved us from that disaster. It is now important that we take measures to ensure that such mistakes do not happen again.

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative

My Lords, on a slightly happier note, may I assure the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that as a pedigree sheep farmer, I, like many others, will very much welcome compulsory testing of the national flock for the scrapie gene. I wonder whether the noble Lord can say what kind of time scale is envisaged for the completion of the testing of the national flock, and at what cost. Will compulsory compensation be made available for the genetically at risk sheep that will have to be culled under such rules?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, the plans for the national scrapie scheme were announced in July. It was our intention to move as rapidly as possible, but it takes many years to breed the scrapie propensity out of a sheep flock. There will be compensation for compulsory destruction of animals, which is a necessary part of the plan. Otherwise, the situation that is already partly the case will continue, where there is under-reporting of scrapie. The genotyping of all sheep is beginning. The ultimate means of getting away from the suspicion that scrapie hides susceptibility to BSE is to create a national flock that is completely free of scrapie.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, should we not concentrate our minds on the question of confidence and the national market for meat within the United Kingdom? In so far as the introduction of a traceability scheme for beef had a major effect on confidence in the beef market, will my noble friend say what developments have taken place in that respect for sheep and sheep flocks?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, in advance of the national scrapie plan, and in response to both this situation and that arising from the need to control movements as a result of foot and mouth, we shall be introducing a traceability scheme for sheep within the UK flock. We shall do that in stages, which the technology dictates. It is our intention to ensure confidence that the animal is what it is said to be, and that the susceptibility to disease can be traced back. We need to re-establish the pre-eminence of British sheep and British meat in general throughout the world.

The time-scale on that is much faster than the introduction of the full national scrapie plan, which obviously depends on the pace of breeding.

Photo of Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Conservative

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for giving his Statement today. We all admit that the mistake represents a waste of effort and time, but every cloud has a silver lining. It came to light before horrendous decisions had to be taken as to whether to cull the whole of the sheep flock of this nation.

The other silver lining is that no doubt the study has contributed to the epidemiology by surveillance of prion disease in cattle, even though we thought that it was for sheep. Are Her Majesty's Government intent on repeating the study with greater safeguards to ensure the correct source of brains? I concur with the Minister that it is not the technology of detecting prions that is faulty. We are world leaders in our ability to detect prions in brain material. The problem is the adequacy of records of the material.

On a wider basis, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency is under one authority and the Institute for Animal Health is under another. Reports and studies in the past have recommended that the two bodies be brought together under a single authority so that such problems do not arise. Is it time for the Government to reconsider whether bodies doing work of such national importance should work under a common authority?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, on the first part of the noble Lord's question, my department and the chief scientists are urgently looking at what further research is needed in addition to the ongoing research that has already been commissioned, which, as I said, has shown no scrapie in the 180 brains tested in the more recent period. It is true that we are at the forefront of developing testing techniques, but the testing needs to be fully validated by independent external means, so we cannot totally rely on molecular testing. All avenues of research need to be considered.

As to the institutional point, the VLA is an agency of my department, whereas the IAH is an independent institute. I do not immediately draw the conclusion that they should be merged or brought under the same authority. Some form of arm's length relationship is normally quite helpful. Unfortunately, in this case it appears not totally to have worked, but I am not sure that that undermines the general view that we have to have different sources of expertise, not necessarily under the same managerial or political control. However, the Government will have to examine that issue and many others as a result of this unfortunate case.

Photo of Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Labour

My Lords, how many examinations of sheeps' brains have taken place using molecular methods?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, since November last year, the VLA has screened a total of 465 scrapie-infected brains and none has given results indicative of BSE. As I have just said, that needs to be validated externally, but it is an encouraging result.

Photo of Baroness Carnegy of Lour Baroness Carnegy of Lour Conservative

My Lords, one of the points that the House is concerned about is why farmers were very nearly subjected to a cataclysmic culling of all sheep on false grounds. The third paragraph of the Statement says:

"We have known since the experiments began that there were some doubts about whether the brains--which were collected a long time ago for a completely different experiment--were cross-contaminated with bovine BSE material".

As the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, asked, at what point did the Government become aware of that fact and why did they not stop the experiments at that time? If there was any bovine material in the brain, the experiments were clearly pointless. Did the Government know from the beginning but still tolerate those clearly pointless experiments?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, because those samples of brain--had they been the ones they were thought to be--were collected for an entirely different purpose, it was never absolutely clear that they would be 100 per cent uncontaminated. Nevertheless, the assumption must be that were they to show a serious increase in the probability of BSE, some change in the risk assessment of the BSE position would have to be made. As it became clear earlier this year that the likely outcome of those experiments would be that there was some increased probability--that was in part put in the public arena back in August--the Government were very insistent that we needed to be absolutely clear that that contamination was not significant enough to change those results. That is why back in July we commissioned the cross-checking to which I referred.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, on the procedures involved, can my noble friend say something more, even at this early stage, about the steps being taken to make sure that such a mix-up cannot happen again?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, there are two aspects. First, there will be a thorough and rigorous audit. It needs to be absolutely clear how samples are checked when they come in, how they are labelled, how they are handled, who handles them and what is the record process of any institute that deals with them. If that is shown to be wanting and the main problem is administrative, procedures will have to be put in place in every laboratory used by the Government, or anybody else, for such experiments.

However, it may also become apparent that the nature of the experiments is not the most appropriate to establish whether there are TSEs in sheep or other species and that another scientific base is needed. My department, the Chief Scientist and people across Whitehall are addressing what other experiments will be needed to establish the facts in this case.

Photo of Lord Palmer Lord Palmer Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister give the House a rough idea of when we might expect the audit report?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I have said that the first stage of the audit report, which should indicate the main administrative issues, should be with us in a couple of weeks. The more detailed report will take somewhat longer.

Photo of Baroness Mallalieu Baroness Mallalieu Labour

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can tell me whether I have correctly understood the time-scale and sequence that he has described. As I understand it, there was some doubt from the outset as to whether the samples might have some contamination, but only in July was it decided that some cross-checks were necessary. They were then commissioned and the results given last week. If that is right, why did Mr Elliot Morley from the department make an announcement in September, putting forward the possibility of the slaughter of the whole national flock? Given the state of livestock farming at the moment, the lack of confidence in the industry and among farmers and the widespread belief that it is the Government's unstated intention to bring about a drastic reduction in the national flock and given that that Minister must have known that there was a doubt underlying the whole experiment, that seems to have been an unwise course. Have I correctly understood the sequence?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, my noble friend has understood the dates but not the channels whereby we came to these issues. The announcement on 28th September related to our response to the Phillips inquiry on BSE. One of the inquiry's main recommendations for the future was that the Government should prepare a contingency plan should BSE emerge in sheep or other species as it did in cattle. We therefore included in our response to the Phillips inquiry the details of our contingency plan to cover such an eventuality. Various gradations were included in the contingency plan, as they would have been in response to any authenticated evidence that emerged from the experiment. It would not necessarily have meant the slaughter of the whole flock. That is the extreme example covered by the contingency plan. Clearly, the kind of contingency plan that Phillips envisaged would need to cover all such contingencies. That is what it did.

The Government have no hidden plan to destroy the UK sheep flock. In the wake of foot and mouth and market developments, an assessment clearly needs to be made of the future viability of the sheep flock by commercial decisions and by Government and EU policy. No doubt those will have an influence. However, that has nothing to do with the contingency plan to deal with what would be the horrendous impact of BSE being found in sheep. As the House required when we discussed the outcome of the Phillips report, such a contingency plan forms part of the fulfilment of our commitment to that report.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may ask further questions about the audit that has been commissioned. A moment ago we heard about the time-scale within which it is being reported. Can the noble Lord confirm the terms of reference of the report? Will it be confined simply to administrative matters or to the scientific basis on which the organisations were operating? Can he say precisely which organisations are to be covered by the audit? And can he confirm that the reports--both the short-term and the long-term ones to which he referred a few moments ago--by the auditors will be made public immediately they are available?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, the risk assessment audit will look immediately at what we can say about the sequence of events and the administrative procedures. In addition, we have asked the United Kingdom Accreditation Service to look, over a longer time-scale, at the issues which lie behind those events and procedures. In both cases, the audit trail will cover all institutions involved in the sequence.

As to whether the reports will be made public, as I said in answer to my noble friend Lord Hughes, clearly, the Government may need to take action following receipt of the reports, and that will be reported to the House.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Donington Lord Bruce of Donington Labour

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the term "audit" is a very wide one and covers a variety of matters? Will he give the House an assurance that the precise details of the matters to be covered by the audit will be made available? In that way, its scope may be perceived as being particular and accurate and not as containing, as some audit reports do, a lot of wild generalities under which a number of people can shelter.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I cannot imagine to which audit reports my noble friend refers. However, the institutions which report to the UK Government are very thorough and are clearly described in remit. Discussions with the two organisations which are conducting these audits have yet to be completed and, therefore, the precise terms of reference have yet to be finalised. They will address the issues to which I have referred. Should my noble friend be interested, I can write to him and to other noble Lords about the final terms of reference.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, the 20 minutes for questions are now complete.