Civil servants avoid the blame, as ever

the BSE inquiry
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IN BUSINESS, you are accountable. Mistakes carry a penalty. People are fired for incompetence. In the parallel world of government and the public services, the reverse is the case. Thus in the BSE Inquiry, which has just begun its public hearings, the chairman, Sir Nicholas Phillips, stated that the primary object of this Inquiry is "not to attribute blame for what occurred". I see this formulation as the civil servants' outermost defence - oh dear, we'll have to agree to an inquiry, but no criticising us for what went wrong.

Their second line is also in place. This is the technique of dispersing blame over as wide a field as possible. Five separate government departments were involved from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, led by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Health. About 150 ministers served in the relevant departments during that period. Each had their own platoon of civil servants. Over a hundred scientists had roles in dealing with the deadly disease. It's like the saga of the incompetent building of the new British Library; nobody was ever in charge long enough for them to be held responsible for the disaster.

But I have a lot of faith in Sir Nicholas Phillips, a Lord Justice of Appeal. Remarkably, he has harnessed information technology to enhance the public nature of the Inquiry. Full transcripts of each day's evidence are posted on a dedicated web page ( and provision is made for feedback. The use that can be made of this type of electronic facility is unfamiliar, but in theory it considerably widens out the public nature of the hearings. The entire community of people concerned with BSE and its impact on public health, from scientists via consumer groups to agricultural businesses, can keep themselves completely up-to-date. They are asked to e-mail in any comments they may have. In the past, even if you physically attended an inquiry, you were unable to express your opinion unless you were called as a witness.

I don't know whether it was on a computer screen that Sir Derek Andrews, who was permanent secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture from 1987 to 1993, first saw remarks that an early witness, Sir Richard Southwood, attributed to him.

According to Sir Richard, who chaired a committee looking into the disease, Sir Derek expressed the hope that "any recommendations we would make would not lead to an increase in public expenditure". At all events, Sir Derek shot back an exculpation straight away. Notice the bureaucratic skill of his reply: "I take this to be a reference to my meeting with Sir Richard at which Sir Donald (Acheson) was present. I do not recall the precise words that I used ten years ago, but there is nothing in the record of that meeting which would bear this interpretation." Translation: "Prove it. And you won't have much luck if you ask Sir Donald."

In theory, Sir Derek is probably the person to whom one of the questions that most concerns many people can be most appropriately put. Sir Derek spent his entire career at the Ministry of Agriculture, apart from four years at 10 Downing Street.

Professor Lacey outlined the case against the Ministry when asked to contrast the response to BSE with the attitude to other animal diseases, for example, an outbreak of foot and mouth in the 1970s. He said that where diseases in animals have a primary and adverse effect on farming and farming communities, like foot and mouth disease, action has been taken vigorously and sensibly and radically. But in those cases that impinge upon the human population, for example salmonella and BSE, the main thrust of the control has been cosmetic, to appear to be taking action. Thus we have had no adequate resolution of the problem of salmonella in eggs. The potential effect on human population has not been taken as the priority; the first consideration has always been the welfare of animal husbandry.

Farmers first; is this how it was, Sir Derek?

I also want to know about an even broader issue: when should it have been realised that scrapie in sheep was transmissible and that the virus could jump from one species to another, with the result that when sheep's carcasses with the disease were manufactured into feed, the upshot would be that cattle and humans would be infected? The Inquiry has already heard that as long ago as 1965, the Journal of Infectious Diseases reported that mink had been diagnosed as suffering from the "SE" of BSE, that is from Spongiform (because the brain tissue looks like a sponge with holes) Encephalopathy (disease of the brain), and that these mink had been fed meal from cattle that had been suffering from the bovine version of the same disease.

In 1977 the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to a scientist who demonstrated that spongiform encephalopathies, such as scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (CJD) in humans, could be transmitted by injection of brain tissue. At this time, British vets were beginning to see examples of BSE at farms without then realising what it was. In an extraordinary story, dating from 1981, a vet told the Inquiry he remembered one cow in particular and her symptoms, because the farmer had just died of a brain tumour. He spoke to the widow and said: "It is strange, is it not? It looks as if this cow has the same thing." He now realises it was BSE

The first case in the United Kingdom was officially recorded in 1984, cow number 133 on the farm of Mr Peter Stent. More cases were found. The crisis had begun. Four years later, in May 1988, the government acted. The use of feed derived from sheep and cattle carcasses was prohibited. It had taken eleven years from the loud warning bell sounded by the Nobel prize award.

If the BSE Inquiry establishes that preventative action should have been taken much earlier, will anybody take responsibility? I would like to think that some of the senior civil servants of the period, now retired, drawing their inflation-linked pensions, would see it as their duty to say frankly that they made mistakes and what they were. Such explanations might do more good than anything they had previously achieved.