Ministers press Blair for inquiry into BSE crisis

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Tony Blair is being urged by two Cabinet colleagues to set up an all-powerful judicial inquiry to pin the blame for new-variant Creutzfeldt- Jakob Disease, the human BSE. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports that former Conservative ministers could be in the firing line.

Two members of the Cabinet decided last week that the Government had a duty to track down those who were guilty of allowing BSE to be introduced into the human food chain - and subsequently covering up the evidence.

Jack Cunningham, the Minister for Agriculture, and Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, agreed at a meeting - without civil servants present - that the Government had a moral and legal duty to track down those who responsible.

The decision was bolstered by the fact that the relatives of some of the 23 people who have so far died of v-CJD are planning court action against the Government. Ministers in the new government are currently unable to offer a definitive answer to questions raised about BSE and v-CJD, because they are unable to get access to the Whitehall papers of any previous administration.

Even the Prime Minister himself is barred from seeing the Government papers that would show how BSE was introduced into the country's cattle, and then on into food for human consumption.

Labour ministers believe that a decision taken some time after the Tories took office in 1979 allowed cows to become infected with BSE. But that cannot be proved without the papers giving the inside story of who took the decisions involved - what warnings were given, and by whom, at the time.

There is also a suspicion in the new government that some officials, and even ministers, might subsequently have covered up the initial error - hiding vital information from inquiries by Commons committees and the official BSE advisory committee, SEAC.

Dr Cunningham and Mr Dobson have advised the Prime Minister that only a High Court judge, sitting with all the draconian powers of an inquiry set up under the terms of the Tribunals of Inquiry Act 1921 would now be able to unearth the truth of a scandal that has cost the lives of innocent people and billions of pounds in losses to farmers.

Ministers believe the alternative form of investigation, like the one held into the supply of arms to Iraq, under Lord Justice Scott, took too long and did not have enough power to cut through Whitehall obstruction.

The case for judicial review will have been further enhanced by new and harder evidence from scientific tests on mice, published this week, which found that BSE in cattle was identical to the new variant CJD now being found in people. "This makes it highly likely that humans with v- CJD contracted it by consuming meat from cattle infected with BSE," the scientists say.

The parents of one v-CJD victim, Stephen Churchill, who died in 1995, said this week a public inquiry was now required. David Churchill said: "This is the dreadful result we were all expecting. It means our son and all the other victims of this human BSE genuinely died from human BSE, which can't be dressed up in other terms. We really need to know why it happened."