Leading Article: A small helping of humble pie for the Prime Minister

Click to follow
LORD SAINSBURY says that any direct financial interest that he may have in biotechnology is held in a blind trust and is therefore above board, or at least below concern. He also says that he is an enthusiast for scientific advancement, including biotechnology.

There's the rub. We can accept, on the evidence so far, that the Science Minister has behaved properly. We can understand that, unlike Lord Simon and his BP shares, Lord Sainsbury cannot unload his huge, billion-pound personal shareholdings. A blind trust is the approved solution to this dilemma.

But this still leaves a minister intimately connected with the food trade, who is personally enthusiastic about bio-engineering and its potential for British business, right at the heart of a government that has come under heavy fire for its policy on the issue. The very fact that Lord Sainsbury said that he had had to absent himself from a recent Cabinet committee meeting on biotechnology gives the lie to Downing Street's suggestion that he is really concerned with science and not food.

It's no good the Prime Minister dismissing, as he did yesterday, the whole furore as a storm in the media drinking-cup. The press may have made a right muddle of the science, and got itself into a lather about much that has been here for years. It could even be accused of making far more than it should have done out of a potential conflict of interest in Lord Sainsbury's case. There is something unhealthy at the moment in the press's desire to hound a man as soon as it scents blood.

But what cannot be waved away is the simple fact that people are instinctively concerned by anything that messes around with what they and their children eat. They worry - rightly or wrongly - about the safety of their food. They distrust, the more so after BSE, scientific pronouncements and the value of government assurances. They not only want testing of new technology to be carried out, they want it to be seen to be carried out. And they worry about developments pushed by large corporations.

Which brings us back to Lord Sainsbury. It is not his fault that he is embroiled in this mess. He is, by all accounts, a decent, honourable chap who wants to be left alone to do his job and promote science in industry. There is, at this stage, no reason why he should resign. Tony Blair is right about that.

But the Prime Minister must learn from this food furore. First, he should start to appreciate that people have legitimate concerns about the food that ends up in their bellies. And second, he must understand that while businessmen can bring certain fresh qualities to government, they're not omniscient and can lead to more trouble than they are worth.