Leading Article: A crisis that shows the urgent need for open government

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The Independent Culture
ANYONE WHO thought that the BSE scandal would lie down and die has been proved wrong again and again. Now comes the admission by the former Chief Medical Officer that Ministry of Agriculture officials downplayed for years the known risks of eating beef. Sir Kenneth Calman's evidence to the BSE inquiry is so astonishing that it bears repeating. The men from the Ministry seem to have realised as long ago as 1990 that BSE could cross the species barrier; yet they waited years to share this information with the public.

For all that time, ministers continued to inform the public that what they were eating was safe. Anyone who remembers John Gummer feeding his daughter a beefburger should shudder at the duplicity of it all. Since when have governments been elected in this country to pull the wool over our eyes, just to protect the vested interests of unelected officials and the over-mighty food industry?

The patronising attitude of Sir Kenneth during yesterday's inquiry was almost as bad as the information he was forced to impart. According to him, the word "safe" did not necessarily mean that there was no risk in eating beef. This Clintonesque usage will come as a shock to those of us who use the English language in a straightforward manner, in order to communicate and inform, rather than to obfuscate. At least he had the sense - according to his own evidence - to stop Ministry officials playing down the dangers, even when CJD, the human variant of BSE, was discovered in human beings. That was a step even our bureaucracy balked at; perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies.

The inquiry should now investigate those officials whom Sir Kenneth has implicated in this cover-up. What are their names? To whom are they accountable? Are they still working at the Ministry of Agriculture? If so, are they to be punished, or sacked? We have still had very few of the answers to these crucial questions. Just as in the arms to Sierra Leone farce earlier this year, there seems a worrying lack of accountability, even honour, among our mandarins.

New Labour should be careful of letting such things ride; it was exactly this kind of arrogance that did so much to discredit John Major's government.

It would be wonderful to believe that we would have got even this far without a formal inquiry. If House of Commons select committees would flex their muscles - and if government Whips would let them - we would get to the truth more regularly. More powerful committees, on the American model, would be very welcome in this regard. The Prime Minister's regrettable habit of treating select committees as if they are just a part of the Government's legislative juggernaut should be broken. There are talented MPs who could make their name by holding our leaders to account, and clean up public life at the same time. The Agriculture Select Committee could make a start, with a vigorous response to the BSE report, when it arrives.

The only way we would have the answers to our questions about BSE, and about future scandals yet to break, is if the Government were to get serious about freedom of information. Often regarded as a dry, academic topic, it is in fact crucial to a rejuvenation of our national life, and the modernisation of our political system. If they had known that anyone could soon find out who was recommending misleading the public, civil servants would have been much less likely to issue such advice; ministers would have been less likely to heed it; and all of us would have been better informed about our own lives.

Yesterday's BSE evidence was disturbing enough in itself; what it tells us about British governments is worse.