New policy unit planned to avoid repeat of fiasco

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The Ministry of Agriculture will face a radical overhaul following the BSE crisis, with the creation of a new policy unit to give advice to ministers.

The Ministry of Agriculture will face a radical overhaul following the BSE crisis, with the creation of a new policy unit to give advice to ministers.

A strategy and policy unit, modelled on Downing Street's pro-active policy groups, is being created by ministers to prevent a repeat of the mistakes that led to the BSE disaster and ensure that ministers receive immediate and impartial advice.

The plans, which are still a secret within much of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, are far advanced and follow calls from ministers for a systematic overhaul following the BSE debacle.

The BSE inquiry highlighted serious communication failings within the Ministry of Agriculture and attacked a culture of secrecy and complacency within Whitehall.

Yesterday Stephen Dorrell, the former Tory health secretary, became the first former minister criticised by the inquiry to express remorse publicly for the BSE catastrophe.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, Mr Dorrell said he regretted claiming beef posed "no conceivable risk" while serving as Conservative health secretary from 1995 to 1997.

"I should have said then that on the best available evidence we have taken the precautions necessary to make beef safe to eat in the normal meaning of the word safe," he said. "The question about conceivable risk was that it was my phrase. I have responsibility for that and, as I have said, I regret having made that statement," he said.

Mr Dorrell added that the Phillips inquiry raised questions about the standard of advice that ministers received.

"We clearly now need to go away and reflect upon how to ensure if similar circumstances ever arose again we get better quality advice, the best quality advice available," he said.

Downing Street is privately concerned about the "entrenched" culture within the Ministry of Agriculture and the failure to find solutions to problems facing farmers. Many ministers have been frustrated by the time it takes to obtain policy advice, the standard of policy papers and the lack of will to look at radical solutions to helping the countryside.

The new policy unit, which has the backing of Downing Street, will report directly to ministers and will have a direct line of communication to Downing Street. It's creation is likely to be viewed as a challenge to the authority of many civil servants and the traditional Whitehall system.

A leader for the powerful new MAFF body will be recruited by Brian Bender, the top civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture and a highly respected Whitehall moderniser.

Mr Bender, who was formerly Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office, has been asked to make changes to ensure that such disasters as BSE cannot happen again.

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