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DAVID FROST: It's only a few days of course since the publication of the Phillips report into BSE and we're still trying to digest the findings but with each day that passes there are new tragedies. This weekend 14 year old Zoe Jeffries died after years of suffering from CJD. Speculation continues about the scale of the death toll to come. Some think that as many as one a day may die in years to come. With me now is the current Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown. Good Morning Nick.
NICK BROWN: Morning David.
DAVID FROST: Actually that prediction there, that's in the Sunday Times and so on, and the figures range from a thousand - people say, people may die as a result of what's happened already, the incubation that's happened already - up to a figure of 130,000. But, one a day, how - what is your advice on how many people are going to die?
NICK BROWN: Well, we don't know David. That's the truth of it. The range of predictions actually, the total numbers are coming down, but these are just predictions. The reason we don't know is that we don't know the incubation period in humans of the, of the prion agent. We do of course know in cattle that it's on average five years, but for people, we just don't know.
DAVID FROST: And how do you and Alan Milburn prepare for a huge eventuality, or a small eventuality hopefully, but how do you prepare to deal with that?
NICK BROWN: Well this has been the subject of considerable discussion within government, it's obviously the Department of Health that are in the lead, but when we took the decision, which was announced last Thursday, to enhance the care package for the victims of variant Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease, the human BSE, and to put compensation arrangements in place as well, we were very mindful of the fact that the numbers to whom this would apply could be much, much larger than they are now. But I have to tell you, every minister that's been involved in this thought it was the right thing to do.
DAVID FROST: And in terms of the papers here today, the story that we quoted earlier, is that story true, the front page of the Independent on Sunday, that BSE safety controls have been dropped in one case here. Is that true?
NICK BROWN: It's a, it's an odd way to report what is actually quite a technical question. New controls have been brought in across the European Union, and of course that enhances the protection as we eat imported, imported meat. As I told the House of Commons on Thursday, the Food Standards Agency should now deal with these matters, not ministers. The Food Standards Agency see no need to alter our current controls and immediately disclosed that John Krebs is going to review the controls at its regular review meeting, and it's held in public, so the charge of secrecy isn't a fair one to make, nor are the control, the very powerful public protection measures that we have in place in this country, being dismantled. They aren't, remember the key is making sure that the animal feed is not contaminated. That's the key to control to protecting the animals, and the over 30 months scheme is a very expensive but very powerful public protection measure, which means that people are now protected. When we discuss the illness in people, we're talking about people that will have got this because of what happened in the past, not because of what's happening now.
DAVID FROST: I see. It says here that the ending of the ban on cow's offal was brought about by the specified risk material ¿ Under the regulation, the thymus(?), a gland near the base of the neck, and intestines of cows under six months, are allowed into the food chain for the first time since November 1994. That sounds like a loosening.
NICK BROWN: No. You've got to take this alongside the effect of the feed ban - remember that's been in place and effectively everybody accepts that since August 1996 - and the European Union context, where - in other words this ban has been brought in now across the European Union, including in countries that claim not to have BSE at all. That is a toughening of public protection across the European Union.
DAVID FROST: And so, Nick what is the situation, what do you say to all the beef-eaters watching us right now? Is A) British beef completely safe? And B) can we say with certainty that there is no BSE among our cattle herds?
NICK BROWN: And have you - they certainly can't say there's no BSE amongst the cattle herds, there clearly is. What I can say is that it doesn't get into the food chain. Remembering, remember it's still there in quite, in quite large numbers, amongst the ageing animals. But every, every animal over 30 months is paid for by the government, taken away and destroyed. We don't eat it. And that's such a powerful public protection measure, given that the incubation period of the prion is five years. I eat beef, British beef. I know that British beef is amongst the safest in the world - and that's not my judgement, that's the judgement of the scientific committee that advises the European Union. But it's only that way because of the very powerful public protection measures we now have in place.
DAVID FROST: Everybody's talking about getting rid of the culture of secrecy, and so on, and that was blamed for a lot of things that went wrong. What can you do about that? Is there anything can be done, or is the culture of secrecy just as bad today as it was in 1996?
NICK BROWN: If there is one lesson that comes out very strongly from the Phillips report it is that we've got to trust the public and put the facts in the public domain. That's why we've set up the Food Standards Agency, that's why it meets in public, that's why the scientists took advice available to ministers is put into the public domain and indeed on principle policy questions I often now put the advice that is given to me as the minister in the House of Commons library, so that fellow parliamentarians and journalists can see it as well. We've just got to be open about these issues.
DAVID FROST: And in terms of being open, is it a case for the Freedom of Information bill to be strengthened because people who've studied it say that since it's been watered down that in fact there would be no guarantee if this information didn't get into the public, getting, even if we had an information act because you can rule it when it's relevant for prosecution or statutory investigation, or if it's part and parcel of an analysis that's leading to advice on policy and so on - that in fact even this information bill would not have saved us from what happened. Should therefore the Freedom of Information bill be much stronger?
NICK BROWN: ¿ what - what's saved people from what's happened is having a different government. We haven't got the Freedom of Information bill in yet, we're struggling to get it in yet, where there's some reaction to it. The, the fact of the matter is that the present government wants to put this information into the public domain, anyway, and is doing so. Remember we set up the Food Standards Agency, and we explicitly said that it's advice to ministers must be transparent and it can be put into the public domain at the same time as its given. In other words, if ministers aren't going to take the advice that goes to the Secretary of State for Health - not the Agriculture minister - then you're going to have explain it and explain it in public. That's a pretty powerful safeguard.
DAVID FROST: And in terms of the actual Ministry of Agriculture. People are saying that the Minister of Agriculture, whoever he is, has an almost impossible job because he's got two sort of conflicting interests: on the one hand protecting the consumer, and on the other hand - a ministry of food, as it were - and on the other hand protecting the producer, the farmer and so on, and that that's an almost impossible conflict of interests and that's why ministers of agriculture come out with gung-ho statements, because they're protecting the producers and not the consumers, or the other way round, and that those two functions should be somehow separated into different ministries. Is that a good idea?
NICK BROWN: Yeah, it is a good idea and we've done it. The, the food safety, the human food safety function is now entirely removed from the Ministry of Agriculture, I have no say over it at all. It is John Krebs who heads up the Food Standards Agency and he reports to Alan Milburn - if he needs to report to a minister at all - in the Department of Health.
DAVID FROST: But it's not quite the same as two ministries because he's considerably junior to you as a member of the Cabinet.
NICK BROWN: But he's independently the head of a non-ministerial government department, he can put his advice into the public domain, the scientific advice is discussed in public and he reports to Alan Milburn. It's also fair to say that although Phillips looked at this question fairly thoroughly, he actually found the Ministry of Agriculture didn't, in the course of its handling of BSE, favour the producers over the consumers. But I think you're right that it clearly is a conflict of interest, ¿ in the wake of BSE does, people do think probably the wrong thing, and in any event we've dealt with it by setting up a separate agency.
DAVID FROST: Do you think with your current set up, BSE, the whole fiasco, might have been prevented?
NICK BROWN: No I don't think we could have prevented the emergence of the, of the prion condition in cattle but I certainly think that a different government would have acted a lot sooner to prevent it getting into the human food chain and the identification of what was happening actually happened in a reasonably timely way - at least that's Phillips finding - but the response didn't work. Ministers weren't making sure that their policy decisions were actually being implemented on the ground, there were demarcation disputes between local government, national government, and the rendering industry itself doesn't come out of this very well.
DAVID FROST: And you were, you were there examining those things, and as you examine them now - looking back, you were very, very diplomatic this week about the ministers under the Conservative government and so on - that they hadn't lied and so on. Certainly whether they'd misled the public, certainly. But you were saying in that, in all those cases they did it, they didn't do it deliberately.
NICK BROWN: Now the government hasn't formally responded to Lord Phillips report yet. What I was doing was quoting directly from Lord Phillips findings.
DAVID FROST: That they hadn't lied, yeah.
NICK BROWN: Trying - yes - trying to put his conclusions into the public domain in a balanced and fair-minded way. And I actually did that mostly by quoting directly from his executive summary, so these were his views not mine. This has been a national tragedy, everybody accepts that, and I thought it right, last Thursday when I'm making a statement to put Lord Phillips views into the public domain, to do it in a measured and restrained way. And I frankly think the victims, their memories and their families would prefer that, rather than see the whole thing immediately become a party political fight.
DAVID FROST: You were quoted as having spoken in the House, that you spoke very, very differently when you met some of the victims families and so on. What was the difference in what you said? Or was it a difference in what you felt, or were you moved or were you angry or what?
NICK BROWN: Truly moved, and it's very difficult to consider these issues and not be, not be moved. And also I didn't think Douglas Hogg behaved particularly well. I mean to pick two bits from the report which he thought spoke well for him, and not to refer to at least three other bits which don't speak so well to him, was I thought partial and very much the wrong tone coming from a former Conservative minister who'd been at the heart of this when it was developing.
DAVID FROST: And were you, as you look at the research and so on that's going on, how soon can we hope news about the incubation period and the other subjects that you're looking at - looking at the possibility of a vaccine maybe - how soon will you hope to be able to report on that, or Alan Milburn will be?
NICK BROWN: There is an enormous amount of research underway both on variant Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease in humans and of course the spongiform encephalopathies in animals - it isn't just cattle, we have a genome programme underway for sheep, to try to eliminate scrapie in the national herd, just in case on the very, very long shot that it might be masking some BSE conditions. So there's an enormous amount of important work underway, but it is going to be some considerable time before we know how the current condition is incubating in the population. I look for the day when the number of cases starts to steadily decline and then we will know, I think, that we are through this.
DAVID FROST: And do you think that the worries created by the 74 year old man who tragically died, that maybe there have been more people who've died of BSE before, before it was analysed really, before it was totally diagnosed. That in fact that there may actually as of today be more than 80?
NICK BROWN: That, that may well be true. Specialists tell us that the total number of cases that may be involved in this is relatively small, but I think Alan Milburn is absolutely right to check to see if we can find out if it has been misdiagnosed in older people. That will give us a further idea as to how the condition is developing in people.
DAVID FROST: Nick, thank you very much for being here this morning. Thank you very much.
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