The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997-2001 Parliament

Mr Major’s Commons Speech on the BSE Enquiry – 15 October 2000

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons speech on the BSE Enquiry, made in October 2000.

Mr Major: Like every other hon. Member, I have not yet had an opportunity to study the many volumes of the report, but, from what I have read in the past few hours, it is clear that it is an impressive and objective report. We all owe our thanks to Lord Phillips and his colleagues for the way in which they conducted their inquiry. The Government were right to set up the inquiry and the House will be right to consider its report soberly and to take appropriate action.
All of us, as we read the report, must accept our responsibility for shortcomings and the problems that arose from them. BSE and its transmission to CJD has been a dreadful and scarring experience–above all, of course, for the victims of that terrible disease and their families, who must have suffered an agony of mind and body that we can barely begin to imagine. It has also, for different and lesser reasons, been a huge problem for the beef industry, and for the officials and Ministers who sought to deal with the problem, which, as the Minister honestly made clear today, even today remains on the frontiers of our knowledge.
Will the Minister confirm that many of the people who face individual criticisms in the annexe to the report are precisely the same people who are praised elsewhere in the report for other actions and are, by definition, those–officials predominantly, but also several Ministers–who were most active in challenging BSE, and, therefore, in the position of having to take difficult decisions? I am grateful to the Minister, on behalf of those officials and Ministers, for expressing, as the report does, that no “villains or scapegoats” emerge from the report.
Does the Minister recall that, even though it was believed, and passionately believed, on advice, by those dealing with it, that there was no threat to human life, even so more than 30 pieces of legislation were presented to the House and passed by the House to protect against the spread of BSE? Lord Phillips’s balanced report emphasises that some mistakes were made, and emphasises also, in fairness, that they were not due to indolence but, in many cases, where they occurred, were due to overwhelming pressure upon a few key officials who had the particular knowledge in dealing with this. That is a point that I hope will be borne in mind when those officials face any possible disciplinary action in future.
Will the Minister confirm also that it has invariably been the case that those officials and Ministers accepted the advice of the Government’s advisory body as, if I may quote the Prime Minister on genetically modified foods –I strongly agree with what he said– any responsible Government would have to do?
This is a balanced report and I hope that it will help the House to focus upon the lessons to be learned from that report. That remains important for, as we have seen in the past few days on matters related to vaccines, BSE remains an appallingly difficult problem with which to deal. It was for the previous Government and remains, in some respects, for the present Government and the Ministers and officials who must still deal with it. Will the Minister endeavour to ensure that the provisions of the compensation scheme, which I strongly welcome, are enacted as speedily and fairly as he can arrange? Finally, I thank him for his promise that the Leader of the House will arrange a debate. Can we ensure that, within that debate, there is a proper opportunity to consider in detail the recommendations made by Lord Phillips so that the report does not gather dust but is an active and living document to ensure that such a tragedy does not occur again?