pounds 20bn has been wasted. People have died. Yet the ministry to blam e is still a slave to the farming business. Only when secrecy ends will consumers come first, says Andrew Pudephatt

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The Independent Online
Maurice Callaghan, 30, died from a new variant of the brain disease CJD last November. Just three weeks ago, John Lecky, the Belfast coroner considering the case, gave his verdict. He agreed with experts' views that Callaghan's death was linked to exposure to BSE - and his words confirmed the worst fears of public health experts. The BSE crisis shows no signs of abating, and some specialists fear that deaths could increase significantly in years to come given BSE's incubation period.

We might well wonder where the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (Maff) has been in this period and how vigorous it has been in defending the interests of the consumer. Unfortunately for us, the answer is nowhere.

After all, this is the ministry that, while the Department of Health was working on a plan to reduce fat intake in the population, sponsored a Fish and Chip Shop of the Year competition. The problem is that the ministry aims to "improve the economic performance of the agricultural, fishing and food industries". Caught between a powerful food producers' lobby on one hand and the Treasury on the other, consumers have never featured as a high priority. The links between BSE and CJD have long been suspected - and long been covered up. At every stage Maff dragged its feet - refusing for two years to make BSE a notifiable disease, and only ordering the banning of offal from the food chain three years after BSE's discovery.

Nor were the European Commission officials, who should have been a backstop, much better. The commission's top agricultural bureaucrat, Guy Legras, who heads the agriculture department, wrote to other civil servants working on BSE in 1993. He warned that "all discussions on BSE inevitably cause problems in the beef market" and suggested that "in order to keep the public at ease it is essential not to provoke a re-opening of the debate. If you can help me, we need to be prudent and avoid the discussion getting into the scientific committees."

Even earlier than this, in 1990, a standing veterinary committee within the Brussels Commission argued that it was "necessary to minimise the BSE affair by using disinformation".

Back in Britain even the Department of Health failed to make the health of the public its first priority. In the late 1980s, the Public Health Laboratory Service, funded by and accountable to the Secretary of State for Health, wanted to investigate a possible link between BSE and CJD. The Department of Health refused to allow this research to take place, since a link had not been conclusively proven. The scientist Harash Narang alleges that documents in his possession show that the Department of Health told the Public Health Laboratory Service not to investigate the new form of CJD.

If the families of those who have died from CJD do take their cases to court, it could reveal substantial disclosures of documentary proof showing the extent of the cover-up in Britain.

This refusal to face the prospect of a potential link between BSE and CJD is perhaps the only explanation for the extraordinary comment made by Dr Stephen Dorrell in March when he announced the possibility of a link. He added: "There is no contingency plan in place."

Suspicion of a cover-up and the Government's handling of the subsequent developments have led to a collapse in public confidence. The Rowntree Reform Trust State of the Nation poll conducted in September found that three out of four people did not trust Government ministers, or their advisory committees, to tell the truth about the safety of British beef. And a Consumers' Association survey published in June found that more than 70 per cent of people thought that the Government had withheld information about the risks associated with BSE. More than two-thirds of people questioned for the association believed that the influence of food producers had resulted in a policy that was against our interests as consumers. The Government was trusted less than any other source, including the food industry, to give impartial advice.

What started as a health crisis has become a crisis of government - and it's a crisis which illustrates a wider problem: that of government policy making.

Government ministers cannot be expected to have a detailed grasp of policy. They rely on their civil servants, who in turn seek outside advice when generating policy briefs for their departments. But while business and professional groups have frequently been consulted, consumers and users of services rarely figure. In the case of the food industry, this has meant Maff and NFU domination of post-war agricultural policy to the exclusion of consumer groups, environmentalists or wider taxpayer interests.

This closed policy network contributed to the gap between the discovery of BSE in British herds in 1986 and the admission of the link between CJD and BSE 10 years later.

And why should we expect a more critical perspective to be provided by advisory quangos such as Seac (the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee), formed to provide much needed and supposedly intelligent scientific advice on BSE? As Democratic Audit (the unit which monitors the workings of our democracy from its base at Essex University) has shown, most advisory quangos are secretive and unaccountable. We are told only what they choose to tell us. We have no right to know.

It is this secret, enclosed world of policy making that is ultimately to blame for the BSE crisis. Committees meeting in private and not subject to outside scrutiny develop a cosy, consensual approach to their work. Dissidents find themselves excluded from the committees, their work derided, their access to research funds blocked, and - sometimes - even their sanity questioned.

Scientists who did not accept the Maff line that BSE could not jump species - including Professor Richard Lacey, Professor Bernard Tomlinson and Dr Harash Narang - were not considered to be suitable members of Seac. And as a result, the growing evidence of the danger of BSE transmission to humans was ignored.

But even as concern about the threat to public health grew, the twin priorities of the interest groups concerned - protecting farming and limiting public spending - meant that policy makers, civil servants and even ministers were willing to manipulate evidence and mislead the public.

People's lives were put at risk to try to protect one of the most powerful lobby groups in the country - the farming industry. The consequence has been a disaster, not just for public health and the taxpayer, but for the farming industry itself. Bans on British beef have cost us more than pounds 500 million in exports, and an estimated 6,000 jobs. Some economists estimate an increase to the public-sector borrowing requirement of pounds 20 billion. It is not enough to find individuals or institutions to blame.

If we are to avoid future problems on a similar scale, we must end the secretive nature of policy making in this country. Government departments should be forced to publish lists of those they consult on policy issues - and those lists must include consumer interests. All advisory quangos should be placed on a proper statutory footing, be open in their dealings, publish their advice and give us access to their discussions. Our parliamentary process can't escape either. Select Committees in the House of Commons should be strengthened and given tougher powers to investigate the work of government departments. Our MPs need the power to scrutinise legislation and take expert evidence in public - from whoever they choose - on bills before the House.

And finally we need a freedom of information act, to give us all the right to know. Information held by official bodies in a democracy should be the property of the people. It belongs to us, not a political elite. If you pick up a can of steak and kidney pudding in the supermarket today you can find out how much fat it contains. You can see how many calories it provides, and even how much meat is in it. But you can't know whether or not it is safe to eat. And that just isn't good enough.

The writer is director of Charter 88, the campaign for a fair and modern democracy. The issues in this article are to be discussed at a major conference, "BSE: a sickness of government?" to be held at Regent's College Conference Centre, Inner Circle, London, NW1 4NS on 18 November. For information phone Charter 88 on 0171-278 9188. Tickets are pounds 20 or pounds 10 for concessions.