Time to put your head on the block, Mr Hogg

It is part of a necessary constitutional fiction for the minister to take the blame - even when the fault lies in Whitehall, says Richard D North

People these days don't have much sense of history, but it is surprising how many of them have at least heard of Crichel Down. Like Speenhamland or Tolpuddle, it is a place which has given its name to a moment in history. It is supposed to mark one of the few occasions when a government minister volunteered to walk the plank in recognition that he is responsible for the actions of his civil servants. Sir Thomas Dugdale in 1954 resigned as Minister of Agriculture after a hue and cry about his ministry's underhand activity as it hung on to some Dorset farmland nationalised before the Second World War.

Crichel Down vented people's anger that the Men from the Ministry still relished the power they wielded during wartime exigencies. Similarly, the meat hygiene issues vent contemporary feelings of unease about Animal Farm. Lurking behind that is the larger unease that the urge to innovate in agriculture is breaking nature's wiser rule.

Presumably, as John Major wrestles with the BSE and E coli brouhahas, he must be wondering what precedent might direct him to do. Crichel Down should resonate as part of the weird blend of pragmatism and principle that makes up the British constitution.

For all we know, Douglas Hogg is itching to accept the blame for his ministry's actions or lack of actions in the past. However, prime ministers generally have more appetite for ministers hanging on to office than for gallantry.

William Plowden, a close observer of government, confirms that even Sir Thomas Dugdale's famous resignation was not what it seemed: "The revisionist view of Dugdale is that he was much more involved in the decisions which were found to be untenable than had been supposed. It wasn't a case of him just falling on his sword because of his officials' actions." Ministers are most likely to go, as Sir Thomas did, when their own party decides they are an embarrassment. Fostering a myth of disinterested nobility then became convenient all round. The abiding but perverse impression was that one could despise the Men from the Ministry, but revere good old Tom.

It does not do to be too cynical. Professor Peter Hennessy, Whitehall's biographer, stresses that the "folkloric" view of another famous resignation is well-found. One of Dugdale's junior ministers was the young Peter (now Lord ) Carrington, who tendered his resignation along with his boss. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, would not accept it. In 1982, Lord Carrington again tendered his resignation. According to Hennessy: "He was the specialist adviser on the Falklands, and he got it wrong. He was carrying the can for his officials."

The principle of ministerial responsibility is crucial to the understanding that democratic control of some part of the executive really does work. We see where the real power lies. But it also marks a quid pro quo. As servants of the Crown in Parliament, at the temporary behest of a particular minister, and in exchange for being ciphers, officials must be given a large degree of protection and anonymity. The less ministers accept responsibility, the more the public will seek it among officials. If that leads to an understanding that officials have real power, it will open up the vast new difficulty of how to make them accountable for it.

Reading Hennessy, or the inspiration for his work, Anthony Sampson's Anatomy of Britain, one gathers that the more a minister knows about what his civil servants have been up to, or has directed it, the more their actions are his responsibility. But the principle applies even when the minister knows nothing, or wasn't even around.

According to Plowden: "Successive ministers of agriculture seem to have presided over a shambles. Whoever happens to be sitting on the chair when the music stops ought to resign. So there is a case that Douglas Hogg ought to resign. He may say `it wasn't me', but that's not how the system works". It amounts to a regimen in which a ministry (in the sense of continuous administration of the country by a particular prime minister or party) has collective responsibility.

Much of this is a necessary fiction. Successive ministers in a department do not agree with each other's policies any more than cabinet contemporaries agree about everything. Ministers do not actually control their departments, any more than they understand the specialist or scientific advice on which they act. Their culpability for most of what they do is likely to be feeble. But their accountability is not. Ministers have the trappings of power as an expression of their role in the democratic system (and whether they otherwise deserve them or not), and sometimes they will have to resign to show that they remain sensitive to the honour of their position, whether they deserve to or not.

Ministers will often be hounded by people who know little and care less about the real difficulties of government. Much of the witch-hunt about the meat industry is misguided. The presence of BSE in cattle was something no one predicted. Once contamination had happened, the Government sought, published and mostly implemented good scientific advice on future regulation. It still looks likely that most people eating most beef have had no exposure to BSE and their exposure has lessened because of government intervention.

But it also looks at least possible, and even likely, that some people have already died, and that perhaps many more people will die from eating beef, and that sloppy habits in slaughterhouses have risked the continuance of the contamination. Mr Hogg's most recent troubles flow from what is perceived as, and may be, inadequate ministerial control of abattoirs. The evidence of dangerous infection in slaughterhouses, which links BSE and E coli, would perhaps warrant a resignation on its own.

A contributory reason why Mr Hogg should go is that only by reassuring the public that ministerial responsibility is real can we avoid the formation of a new bureaucracy and thus a lessening of ministerial responsibility. The opposition parties and the media are now baying for an independent agency to run food safety. Agencies are fine. They can advise ministers and administer ministerial authority, and if they are well led can punch beyond their weight. But in the degree to which they are independent they also risk being both weak and unaccountable. The fashion for them risks promising far more than they can deliver.

Even so, Mr Major presumably found himself embarrassed on Tuesday when he told the Commons, what is true, that a new food safety agency would make accountability more difficult. After all, we have sharp memories of Michael Howard's refusal to take responsibility for the prisons agency. True, successive home secretaries have refused to abandon office just because prisoners abscond from jail. The point, though, is that Mr Howard needed to be super-sensitive to the public's need to see accountability at work precisely because "agencification" risks diluting accountability.

Where regulatory agencies work, it is because, as in the National Rivers Authority, their leadership fosters an open, feisty culture in which officials are encouraged in the ancient civil service role of "speaking truth to power". But we do not necessarily need new agencies to achieve this effect. This Government has stressed that it understands that scientific and technical civil servants must be free to speak their minds, and that their advice will increasingly be published. Technical advice is, after all, intended to be cool and unpolitical; it deserves to be seen as quite distinct from the politically-driven policy derived from it. If that culture is seriously encouraged, then we might do very well without new agencies. Either way, we would still need to protect officials from the wrath of the public. After all, we know they will go on making mistakes.

Some of the difficulties the Ministry of Agriculture faced flow from a need to protect farmers. This is especially true when its work involves a farm product, such as beef, and where the European Union has so much power over our fortunes. But this last works both ways: the EU also wanted to protect the reputation of British beef for too long, because British beef and EU beef had become co-terminous. The EU had to juggle competing interests in health and economics, just as the UK government had to.

Perhaps it would be attractive to separate accountability for food safety from that for farmers' well-being. But the merits of this approach can be overstated: collective responsibility binds all ministers to a single policy and to mutual support. Successive ministers in charge of both agriculture and health have lined up to sing from the same song-sheet. Stephen Dorrell, at Health, said beef was "safe by any normal use of the word". John Gummer, at Maff, publicly fed a beefburger to his daughter.

Dorrell and Gummer were, respectively, dangerously casuist and dangerously vulgar. What they said was more or less true ("by any normal use"), if said by an opinionated journalist or someone in a pub. But government ministers should have stuck with repeating what the scientists had said, which was, in effect: "We think beef is safe, but if we're wrong it's serious." It turned out that at least some bits of beef were very dangerous indeed.

Conservatives above all should abhor anything like nannying. Professor Hennessy stresses that the government minimalists of the 19th century believed that the two core functions of the state were public health and security. The first of these preoccupations has backfired: it has turned government into a reassurance industry.

So Douglas Hogg ought to resign because he is in the wrong place at the wrong time; because he has close responsibility for slaughterhouse practices which have gone wrong; because by resigning he can demonstrate that his ministry wants to stay in the food safety business; and because if he stays there will be further pressure for new bureaucracies which may achieve nothing.

But above all he ought to go because the Government has not sufficiently understood that while its main business is to banish risk from our lives, it has an even greater responsibility not to mislead us about those risks it cannot banish. Ministers had the task of trying to keep meat clean. They made a poorish job of doing this. But their behaviour becomes a resignation matter when we see that, when meat became more rather than less risky to eat, ministers from various departments went on stressing that it was safe, and did so in terms which suggested nothing had changed with the arrival of BSE.

In this, they have been wrong all along. Events have conspired to throw their words and actions into high relief. There's a lot of noise about, but we can still detect that the music has stopped - and we all know who's in the chair.

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