Labour enraged as Major denies cover-up on E coli

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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister and Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, yesterday denied there had been a cover-up over an unpublished report warning of the danger to public health of E. coli contamination in red meat, and sought refuge in blaming their officials.

John Major and Mr Hogg were accused by Labour of applying a new doctrine of "ministerial infallibility" by refusing to accept responsibility for failures to warn the public of the risks from E. coli contamination in abattoirs, which caused illness and deaths in Scotland in other parts of Britain, particularly among the elderly.

The European Commission expressed concern that it had not been told of the report and asked the Government to supply it with a copy.

The Government sought to calm public anxiety and quell renewed calls for Mr Hogg's dismissal by volunteering an emergency Commons statement over press disclosures about the report.

Mr Major and Mr Hogg were forced on to the defensive as Labour accused the Government of suppressing the report on the threat of E. coli in meat at the height of the BSE crisis because they feared it would compound the damage to the Government in the run-up to the election.

Mr Major accused Tony Blair of "raising scares" about the safety of meat. Mr Hogg, who was brought to the brink of resignation over his handling of the export ban on British beef, told MPs the report to the Meat Hygiene Service cost pounds 454,000, although it had never been published. Labour MPs reacted with astonishment when Mr Major, in clashes with Mr Blair, said ministers had not received it. "That is true," said Mr Major. "It was a working document." Mr Blair said the report covered 54 pages and contained 81 recommendations. It warned of "serious concern about the contamination ... If he says this report was not shown to ministers, I say: 'Why not?' "

Mr Major said: "The point you perhaps genuinely do not understand is that it was working document ... There are huge numbers of working documents of this sort every year. If they all came to ministers, if ministers read every one, ministers would do nothing else at all. You have been in Opposition so long you don't understand that."

Mr Hogg also insisted the existence of the report had been made explicit in the annual report of the Meat Hygiene Service, because it referred to a review. "Anyone who knows anything about government reviews knows they generate a report. If anyone had wanted the report, they only had to ask for it. I would have sent a most lordly number."

But Labour MPs told Mr Hogg he could not "have it both ways" by saying he had received the report, and claiming the Opposition should have known of its existence. Brushing aside allegations that he was responsible, Mr Hogg said: "Policy is a matter for ministers. In this case, implementation of policy is a matter for the agency. I have total confidence in the chief executive."