Strangely deaf to the doctor who blew the whistle on pesticides

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YOU MUST have to be a real pro to navigate the corridors of power. I find they sometimes seem to go round in circles, ending you up precisely where you came in. And at other times they seem to lead straight to the set of Yes, Minister.

Or so it appeared last week when I tried to find out who decides which experts should advise ministers. You'd have thought that the answer was simple - the ministers themselves. Not so.

But first meet Dr Goran Jamal, a consultant at the Southern General Hospital, Glasgow. Dr Jamal, a neurophysiologist, is a leading expert on the effects of organophosphate pesticides. His pioneering examination of more than 100 farmers has proved - to many minds, but in conflict with the official line - that they have caused serious neurological damage.

Until December 1996 Dr Jamal was on the Medical and Scientific Panel of the Veterinary Products Committee that advises agriculture ministers on pesticides, among other things. But then he resigned, because of a new "code of conduct" that, he said at the time would have compelled him "to be economical with the truth" when giving evidence for pesticide victims in court.

Michael Meacher, then an opposition environment spokesman, protested: "A key scientist has been forced to resign as a result of the Ministry's gagging attempts."

After the election, a new agriculture minister, Jeff Rooker, wrote to Dr Jamal expressing his distress and asking for a meeting. They met last August and, in the minister's words, the doctor agreed "to accept an offer of reappointment" to the panel.

Just hours later, the minister wrote to report a snag: he had learned that appointments had to be approved by the Committee itself. He promised to write to it that day adding: "I trust the matter will be agreed to speedily."

Months of silence followed. Last February, the minister wrote again to Dr Jamal to say he was "asking the Committee on behalf of Jack Cunningham and myself to invite you to rejoin". More months of silence. Finally, this month Dr Jamal heard from the Committee. It had met, said the letter, and "decided that there was no need, at the time of its meeting, to make an additional appointment to the panel".

Like the man said, who runs Britain?

o MEANWHILE, would you believe, a strikingly similar drama was being played out. Last August the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow had nominated Dr Jamal to serve on another committee which advises ministers on the effects of pesticides, the snappily titled Appraisal Panel for Human Suspected Adverse Reactions to Veterinary Medicines. Another long silence, followed by - you've guessed it. So is there a Doctor No? The letter rejecting the minister's recommendation was signed by a Professor Ian D Aitken OBE, chairman of the Veterinary Products Committee. Mr Rooker, writing to the pesticide campaigner Liz Sigmund, said that the Royal College's nomination was considered by a "sift panel" - chaired by Professor Aitken.

I rang the professor. He said it would be "inappropriate for me to comment" on Dr Jamal's position "at this stage". He denied being chairman of the sift panel. Though he had been a member of it he could not remember whether Dr Jamal had been one of those considered.

The Ministry of Agriculture insisted that the professor did chair the panel. So I rang him again, but still could not resolve the apparent conflict. But he now had "a suspicion" - which hardened as the conversation went on - that Dr Jamal had been on the list.

o YEARS ago I was trying to find out how the safety standard for a particularly deadly pollutant had been set. I avoided members of the committee that made the decision who were employed by the industry concerned and rang an independent one. He refused to talk. Why? "Where do you think our research grants come from?"

Now I am not for a moment suggesting there is anything improper about the committees we have been discussing, but I thought it would be valuable to know what direct or indirect interests their members might have. There is a list, so I asked the Ministry of Agriculture for it. No result for hours, despite repeated requests. The Ministry finally rang at 4.55 on Friday evening to say that the latest one was dated 1996 and that they could not find a copy.

Professor Aitken, more forthcoming in our second conversation, said it was "very difficult if not impossible" to find anyone knowledgeable in the area who was "not also sought after from time to time by individual companies" either directly or to do bits of research. Interests were declared when matters concerning particular companies came before the committee. "Every- thing is clear and above board."

I knew you'd be reassured.