MAFFia to blame for BSE disaster

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The Independent Online
HAVE you been following the BSE inquiry? It is, though I hate to say it, one of the most riveting shows in town. And it is rapidly establishing mad cow disease as a worthy symbol of Thatcherism.

Witness after distinguished witness has revealed how penny-pinching, paranoia and the pursuit of deregulation - coupled with the arrogance and secrecy of the most obscurantist department in Whitehall - brought disaster to farming and turned us all into guinea pigs in a mass experiment on the spread of a deadly disease.

Sorry about the rant. No, on second thoughts, I'm not going to apologise. The evidence justifies it.

The first pathologist to identify the disease was effectively ignored by her superiors at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF). The first vet to recognise its seriousness was forced by the MAFF to doctor his report. And the first doctor to warn that it could spread to humans - using, in his words "common sense, undergraduate knowledge and a healthy mistrust of the food industry", all apparently lacking at the ministry - was ridiculed and refused a research grant.

Some of Britain's most distinguished scientists were treated little better. When Sir Richard Southwood, soon to be Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, was eventually asked to chair an inquiry, he was warned to avoid recommendations that would "lead to an increase in public expenditure".

Both he and Dr David Tyrrell, the first head of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, were deceived over the extent of MAFF's controls on the infection getting into food. Tyrrell's own report was shelved for months (he described the experience as like being in Yes, Minister). And the eminent epidemiologist Professor Roy Anderson was refused data for six years which would have enabled him to find out that the supposed ban on feeding cows to cows was not being enforced.

There's more - much more. But, having been berated by agriculture ministers for writing that the disaster was worsened by deregulation, I was particularly intrigued by the fate of a suggestion by Emeritus Professor George Manning of Nottingham University that a new committee should monitor the feed ban.

This was rejected, internal documents released to the inquiry show, on civil service advice that it "would add to the pressures for regulation when we are trying to go the other way".

THIS is the shower that Tony Blair wants to put in charge of the countryside. For, as The Independent on Sunday reported last month, the Prime Minister wants to merge the ministry with the countryside arm of John Prescott's environment department, into a new Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Inevitably, the MAFFia will end up dominating it.

The Country Landowners Association, which has done much to persuade Mr Blair to set up a new ministry, disagrees, arguing that bringing together all the officials responsible for the countryside in a new set up would provide a fresh start. I once believed this. No more.

MAFF should be abolished. Its powers over food safety are already going to a separate agency. Its countryside responsibilities should go to Mr Prescott, its promotion of agriculture and fisheries to the Department of Trade and Industry. It belongs in the knackers yard.

AND let's also abandon the assertion that "there's no evidence that" something does harm - the mantra trotted out over BSE, asbestos, lead, pesticides and so much else.

The phrase - designed to reassure by misleading, without actually telling lies - was being trotted out again last week over suggestions that radiation from mobile phones might cause cancer. But its most ludicrous recent outing was ministers' insistence, in response to the anthrax scare, that they had "no evidence" that the poison had been smuggled into Britain.

Somehow, if Saddam Hussein were really trying to get the stuff in, that is not very reassuring.

IT IS always a pleasure to welcome someone back to the environment beat, and even better to see a newspaper executive return to the honest (I was going to say humble) profession of reporting.

So, it will be good to work with Mike McCarthy, home editor of this paper before taking a break to write a novel, who will fill in on The Independent while its environment correspondent, Nick Schoon, also writes a book.

An award-winning environment correspondent, he was around the last time Britain held the EU Presidency. The environment ministers then met in Gleneagles, and were taken out to a local distillery. We hacks believed that this was to show that, despite appearances, ministers could indeed organise a piss up in a brewery.