The taste of poison in the Cabinet

As two ministers fight for their survival, Conservative and Labour agree that the Ministry of Agriculture is now beyond repair
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In London last Thursday morning, Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, turned on the 7am news as usual, only to be astonished by the BBC's main headline. Within minutes he was on the phone to his officials to check it out. Then, says a civil servant, "the fertiliser hit the air conditioning".

Mr Forsyth had learned of the suppression of a draft report into conditions in Britain's slaughterhouses, which might have been linked to the deadly E. coli organism. But he might not have learned about it at all if copies of the report, in brown envelopes, had not arrived early last week in the offices of Dr Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, and Nigel Griffiths, the party's consumer affairs spokesman.

By Wednesday evening the story had found its way into the early editions of the Financial Times and the Times. Bill Swann, editor of the report, clearly angry that it had been sat on for a year, was happy to be quoted. By Thursday morning it dominated the news.

Politicians are always vulnerable to the unpredictable, but there were only a few people who could have foreseen the havoc that has been visited on John Major's government by food scares. Last week's controversy puts food safety under scrutiny again, and it may have far-reaching consequences. Another nail has been driven into the coffin of Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, as the inadequacies of his department have been again exposed.

But in Scotland this is no mere storm in a teacup: 20 people have died from E. coli poisoning yet Mr Forsyth was not alone in knowing nothing of the draft report. Nor did the man charged with investigating the epidemic, Professor Sir Hugh Pennington. Indeed, ministers at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had not seen it either.

Exactly what was said at Cabinet on Thursday morning remains opaque, but the Government has again looked divided and incompetent, within weeks of the election.

After hurried consultations on Thursday morning Mr Hogg's department thought Mr Forsyth was going to agree its line that the draft report, though never published, had been available to the Scottish Office at several meetings at which its officials were present. At Cabinet, Mr Hogg made a 10-minute contribution, saying he would make a statement to the Commons in the afternoon. He left on crutches (his ankle had been broken). As a Labour spin doctor said gleefully, "The perfect image of a government on its last legs".

But when Mr Forsyth arrived in Edinburgh to be briefed on Mr Hogg's explanation to MPs, his department's line was uncompromising. "Scottish Office ministers were not aware of the report and have not seen a copy," the press office said.

In Whitehall terms this meant war. MAFF, smarting from what it saw as a betrayal by Mr Forsyth, made known the dates of the meetings at which Scottish Office officials had been present, and the report made available (in June 1996 and January and February this year). Scottish Office sources disputed that the document had been produced at the later two, and that the E. coli connection was mentioned at the first. Although Mr Hogg and Mr Forsyth spoke by phone on Friday, the split was as deep as any in Whitehall memory.

The ferocity of Mr Forsyth's reaction reflects his skill as a street- fighter and his precarious position in Scotland. He has conducted a brutal and effective campaign against Labour, forcing the Opposition into a change of policy over a referendum on devolution, and raising his profile as a possible contender for the Tory leadership. Yet sitting for marginal Stirling (he has a 703 majority), Mr Forsyth will struggle to survive.

Like his predecessor but one and rival, Malcolm Rifkind, he has to be seen to fight Scotland's corner; there have been semi-public Cabinet battles over gun control and the lifting of the beef export ban for Scottish BSE- free herds. After the E. coli epidemic in Scotland, Mr Forsyth was bound to object to any hint that he and his ministers could be implicated in a cover-up.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is frequently the object of criticism from ministers, and it was no surprise to any of them that it should have been the cause of Mr Forsyth's mortification. It is, perhaps, Whitehall's least glamorous outpost.

A former minister recalls: "When I used to deal with them it was taken as read that our Permanent Secretary could eat their Permanent Secretary, and that our grade 3's were better than theirs because they simply didn't get very good people. That makes life difficult for agriculture ministers because other departments will have thought through all the angles".

MAFF has manifestly failed to meet its dual requirement of representing both the producer and the consumer. A former MAFF civil servant said: "When I was there I remember being struck by how much of a time-warp ministry it was. It clearly saw itself as an arm of the farming industry."

The future looks no more promising for MAFF than it does for Douglas Hogg. Last Friday Tony Blair announced Labour's plans for an independent food agency, which would remove one of MAFF's central functions, and a Conservative opposition is unlikely to object to that proposal.

Tim Yeo, a former minister in the Department of the Environment, argues: "What has happened in the last year is further evidence of the weaknesses at MAFF at the official level. The need for MAFF is an historic one concerned with stimulating food production. Now the logical step would be to split up the department with the producer element going to the Department of Trade and Industry, and the environmental functions to the Department of the Environment."

This prospect of reform is not much comfort in the short-term, however, to those committed to the serious business of avoiding a repetition of Scotland's E. coli outbreak. In his office at Aberdeen University, Professor Pennington now has two unexpurgated copies of the offending report. Neither came from government.

"The sanitised version was faxed by the Scottish Office," he says. "Since then various well-wishers have helped out. In fact. ITN was the first to get me a copy."