Food Standards: Tory handling of BSE crisis to go before public inquiry

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A full-scale public inquiry into the Tories' handling of the BSE crisis is to be announced by the Government.

Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says it is a victory for the families of the CJD victims but will not satisfy Welsh farmers who dumped Irish beefburgers into the sea.

Ministers are likely to announce the inquiry before Christmas. News of the move emerged as the Government faced renewed protests from farmers in Wales, who have been dumping beefburgers into Holyhead docks as a sharp reminder that the beef ban still has not been lifted.

Jack Cunningham, the Minister for Agriculture, who yesterday had to answer thefarmers' protests, has secured Downing Street backing for the inquiry. Senior Government sources have told The Independent that agreement could be reached in the next 10 days on the detailed terms of reference.

It will be separate from the Department of Health inquiry into the disclosure that three people may have been infected with CJD from transplants from a patient, who died and was discovered to be suffering from the disease after a post-mortem examination.

The aim of the inquiry will be to learn the lessons from the handling of the crisis which - in spite of repeated assurances - has still failed to lift the EU beef ban. But there is also a determination among ministers to answer criticism for the deaths associated with BSE and the massive cost of the subsidies, which have run into billions of pounds.

"We have public inquiries for rail crashes where seven people are killed. With BSE we have had more than 20 die from CJD, and billions lost in compensation and we have had nothing," said a Cabinet source.

The latest estimates show BSE will cost Britain a further pounds 3.4bn before the millennium - 1.5bn in 1996-97; pounds 930m in 1997-98; pounds 563m in 1998-99 and pounds 488m in 1999-2000, with some offset by EU rebates. More than 1.2 million cattle have been slaughtered under the 30-month scheme.

Criticisms levelled at the last Government include the following charges: that it failed to supervise adequately the rendering industry; it failed to ensure an effective ban on the feeding of mean-and-bone meal to ruminants such as cattle; it failed to respect the national prohibitive legislation outlawing imports of meal from the UK; it put pressure on the Commission not to include anything related to BSE in its general inspections of slaughterhouses; and it did not display sufficient zeal in monitoring the maintenance of the embargo on meat and by-products.

Britain and the European Commission were attacked in a European Parliament committee of inquiry for continuing to allow the export of animal feedstuffs that could not legally be fed to cattle in this country, and narrowly escaped censure. But there was confusion over the selective cull scheme agreed at Florence in 1996.

Dr Cunningham was given the staunch backing of Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, in pressing for the Government to announce the inquiry, in spite of misgivings within Downing Street and officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The inquiry was discussed at a special Cabinet ad hoc committee on BSE yesterday, attended by Dr Cunningham, Mr Dobson, Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, and Alistair Darling, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The details will be fixed at further meetings over the next fortnight.

A senior figure will be appointed to head the inquiry, and it is likely to have similar powers as the Scott inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq affair. But ministers are keen to ensure that it is thorough, quick and does not drag on for the three years which the Scott inquiry took. John Major and the former agriculture minister Douglas Hogg could be among those summoned to give evidence.

Downing Street raised reservations about the inquiry, fearing that it would reopen old wounds and make it more difficult for Britain to persuade the European partners to lift the beef ban in Europe. Dr Cunningham convinced Tony Blair that the inquiry would not hamper the lifting of the beef ban, which would be based on scientific opinion.

Former Tory ministers have told The Independent that there was no cover- up under John Major's administration, but the inquiry will will investigate whether ministers were at fault in not acting more quickly, and whether there was mishandling of the lifting of the beef ban, which is still in place, in spite of repeated assurances that under the Tories that Europe was moving towards lifting a ban.

Maff officials were also worried about the prospect of an inquiry into their actions. There may be fears that some could be made scapegoats, but one reason for moving quickly with the inquiry is to ensure that it is held while the Tory responsibility for handling the BSE is still fresh in the public's mind. Ministers were convinced that an inquiry would have to be held and any delay risked associating the blame with the Labour Government.