BSE probe granted more time by Blair

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TONY Blair last night granted the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) inquiry team more time to consider the growing mountain of evidence.

The Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Phillips, heading the panel of three, said on the first day of the hearings in London that he needed six more months. "Having analysed the work to be done, I have concluded that it cannot be completed within a timescale that will result in a report at the end of the year." he said. "I am not prepared to contemplate a report that is superficial because it has been too rushed, and I don't believe that those who are anxiously looking forward to receiving this report would wish us to sacrifice thoroughness for speed."

Under the original timetable Lord Justice Phillips was to have submitted his report on the findings by December 30. Last night Dr Jack Cunningham, the Minister of Agriculture, confirmed in a parliamentary answer that the Government had agreed to the judge's request. A revised date for delivery of the report had been set of 30 June 1999.

Lord Justice Phillips said it was only during the last month that he had come to appreciate the true scale of the task involved. Five government departments, with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health at the forefront, had dealings with BSE over a period of about 10 years. During that time about 150 ministers had served in the relevant departments and he had written to them all. So far, more than 100 scientists and 300 civil servants and ministers had been contacted.

The aim of the inquiry - which is expected to cost more than pounds 2m - is to explore the causes of "mad cow disease" and the way in which the crisis was handled by civil servants and ministers. Over the next four months, politicians, scientists, civil servants, representatives of the beef and food industry, and relatives of victims of new variant Creutz- feldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD) - the human disease linked to BSE - will give evidence.

The hearings began yesterday with opening statements from Lord Justice Phillips, counsel for the Maff, DoH and National Farmers' Union, and a solicitor representing families of victims of nvCJD.

Counsel for Maff and the Department of Health expressed sympathy for the families of victims of CJD and said they would do everything in their power to assist the inquiry. Stuart Isaacs QC, for the NFU, said: "It is impossible to estimate the human tragedy of the disease for its victims and their families. The NFU shares with the victims a wish to establish the facts surrounding BSE."

David Body, solicitor for the victims' families, said his clients were not seeking scapegoats but believed that those who had made decisions on public policy concerning BSE should be held accountable. "They want to ensure that nothing like the BSE epidemic ever happens again," he said.

Roger Tomkins, whose vegetarian daughter, Clare, is dying of nvCJD, gives evidence today.