Beef's Future: Missing witnesses weaken inquiry

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The Independent Online
The inquiry into BSE was announced yesterday - but it may be a damp squib unless it can call witnesses from the civil service. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, asks what value an examination without witnesses would be.

The Government yesterday announced its long-awaited inquiry into the BSE crisis and the consequent deaths of more than 20 Britons - but gave it less than the full powers that observers had been hoping for.

Jack Cunningham, the agriculture minister, told the House of Commons that Lord Justice Phillips, an appeal court judge, would head an "independent inquiry" which would report back within a year.

The terms of reference means Lord Justice Phillips will have less ability to demand witnesses than Lord Justice Scott did when he led the inquiry into the sale of arms to Iraq. The terms also fall far short of those available under a full judicial inquiry made under the 1921 Act, which would allow him to subpoena witnesses, who would have to give evidence under oath. In fact it may be impossible to interview key witnesses. The Government has said that it will not give evidence. Yet many of the decisions on beef and BSE were made within government.

However last night nobody could clarify whether this only applies to present government ministers, or whether working civil servants - such as the Chief Veterinary Officer, Keith Meldrum, who presided over the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food throughout the BSE crisis - would also be exempt.

David Body, a solicitor representing families whose relatives have died of BSE-induced CJD, said: "I would want to know that any government employee could give evidence without hesitation or fear that it would affect their employment. I'm just concerned that everybody who has something to say can say it."

The sweep of the inquiry will take in almost two decades, stretching from the "history and emergence" of BSE, and the action taken in response, up to March 1996 when the former Conservative government announced that the deaths of a score of young people from "new variant" Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (v-CJD) was "almost certainly" caused by exposure to BSE.