Ex-ministers agree to give evidence at BSE inquiry

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The BSE inquiry, which starts hearings in March, will aim to establish what led to the crisis which engulfed the beef industry, and has killed 23 people. But, says Charles Arthur, Science Editor, the timetable is tight - the report is due by the end of this year.

Former government ministers have agreed to face questions from the inquiry into the BSE crisis, launched yesterday by Lord Justice Phillips.

Civil servants and workers from the animal feed industry are also being encouraged to act as whistleblowers, and give evidence about the conditions, practices and decisions made behind closed doors that led to the spiralling epidemic of "mad cow disease", which has so far led to the deaths of 23 people from its human version, and infected more than 100,000 cattle, while costing the country billions of pounds in lost export business and disposal costs. There are still thousands of BSE cases in Britain every year, though the number is falling steadily.

Announcing the agenda for the inquiry yesterday, Lord Justice Phillips said "We shall be considering the actions taken, and whether those actions were adequate. The primary object will be to find out the facts and what went wrong, and what lessons can be learnt."

However if the inquiry determines that some people were at fault they will be given the chance to respond - with advice from lawyers if necessary. But Lord Justice Phillips said "If, at the end of the day, we think that criticism is justified, we shall not hesitate to say so."

The inquiry has no powers to subpoena witnesses, nor to force them to speak on oath. But Lord Justice Phillips sounded confident that potential witnesses would not fear reprisal. "We have heard that ministers are prepared to give evidence," he said, adding that the head of the civil service has given assurances that no civil servant who gives evidence will face disciplinary proceedings as a result.

But he admitted it was impossible to give any such assurances to members of the animal feed, slaughterhouse or rendering industries, which have been strongly implicated in the BSE crisis.

The inquiry's terms of reference are to focus on the time from that BSE emerged up to 20 March 1996, when the previous administration said the probable cause of "new variant" CJD was exposure to BSE. But Lord Justice Phillips warned that "this inquiry cannot definitively pronounce on the cause of BSE. Scientists are still working on that question."

The judge said he did not intend to take any evidence in closed proceedings. Instead, transcripts of daily evidence will be posted as soon as possible on an Internet site to make the inquiry as open as possible.

The members of the inquiry panel besides the judge are June Bridgeman, formerly deputy chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, and Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, a genetics expert from the University of Cambridge.

Those wishing to give evidence can write to the BSE Inquiry at PO Box 163, London SE29 7UZ, or phone 0845 602-1013