Quango head on discipline charge

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The Independent Online
William Waldegrave, Minister of Agriculture, is being pressed to explain why his department appointed to a key post a senior civil servant who was under investigation by the Australian government.

Philip Corrigan, the £50,000-a-year head of operations in the Meat Hygiene Service, was named yesterday in the Australian senate as having faced six disciplinary charges under Section 61 of the Australian Public Service Act. The result of the investigation, believed to concern overseas travel funding, has not yet been made public. The alleged offences are not criminal and penalties range from counselling to dismissal.

Mr Corrigan - an Australian veterinary surgeon, and an acknowledged international expert in his field - is responsible for enforcing the standards of abattoirs throughout Britain. He was formerly a senior official in the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).

The row, which erupted yesterday in the Australian senate in Canberra yesterday, will fuel mounting controversy over the creation of the Meat Hygiene Service which Mr Waldegrave's department is hiving off as an agency from April.

Mr Corrigan's appointment has been questioned by Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrats' agriculture spokesman, who last week tabled a Parliamentary question on what references the Government sought before appointing Mr Corrigan. Angela Browning, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the ministry, said "inquiries had been made in the usual way . . . including from his previous employer, AQIS."

In the Canberra senate yesterday, Senator Bill O'Chee a prominent member of the powerful Senate Estimates Committee complained that the committee had not been told last November that Mr Corrigan had been given official permission "to have extended leave of absence so that he could take up a high-paying job in the United Kingdom".

Senator O'Chee claimed that it was a "matter of record" that the charges against Mr Corrigan had been "finalised" on 15 February and added that the governing Labor Party had shown "contempt" by not informing the senate of the outcome of the charges.

Senator O'Chee demanded immediate publication of the findings so "we can assess exactly what has happened at AQIS".

A document tabled in the senate in 1993, while members of the estimates committee were pressing the government on alleged improprieties by AQIS officials, purports to be a letter from Mr Corrigan to the Cold Storage Association of Australia seeking a $500 grant towards a trip to a conference on food-borne infections in Berlin. After a request for financial support, the letter states: "I will of course provide you with a report and also promote any particular aspect of your industry you would wish me to."

Mr Corrigan yesterday declined to comment, referring inquiries to the Ministry of Agriculture which said: "We knew about allegations against Mr Corrigan in Australia but inquiries both before he was appointed and subsequently have not produced any evidence that he has acted improperly or dishonestly."

But Mr Tyler said yesterday: "In view of Jeremy Hanley's crusade on standards in public life, this looks like the pot calling a kettle black.

"This appointment, made when Mr Corrigan was under investigation, seems bizarre even by Mr Hanley's standards.

"I know of no justification for removing the service from local government and taking it out of direct democratic control."