This inquiry must help restore a climate of trust

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It does not take great guts for a government to launch an investigation into the failings of a predecessor, especially when the governing party has changed.

It does not take great guts for a government to launch an investigation into the failings of a predecessor, especially when the governing party has changed. So there is little surprise that the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, has announced a long-overdue inquiry into the Camelford scandal, the country's worst case of water poisoning.

Thirteen summers ago, the water supply to 20,000 homes in north Cornwall was accidentally contaminated by aluminium sulphate. But local officials, aided and abetted by the then Tory government and their scientific advisers, insisted for weeks that the population was in the grip of collective hysteria. The evident symptoms, from nausea and pain to skin that peeled and hair that turned green, were dismissed as delusions. An internal inquiry by the Department of Health entailed no comprehensive survey of those affected and hardly broached the possible long-term effects to health, including brain damage.

The inquiry now begun is designed to remedy that omission. In revisiting Camelford, however, the Government needs to bear one point in mind. The disgrace of the accident was less that it happened, since human error will always be with us, than the dreadful obfuscation that ensued. In the traditional and shameful British way, officials failed to give desperately worried victims a speedy explanation of the facts or to address their justified apprehensions. Instead, there were just blithe assurances that everything was fine, that people should trust officialdom; the underlying message was that it was no business of the public to be worried.

Sadly, subsequent governments have failed to learn from such mistakes. Still ringing in our ears are those cabinet-level assurances about the safety of British beef, even as the BSE epidemic unfolded. And it was well before foot-and-mouth spread to the Brecon Beacons that ministers were telling us how confident they were the outbreak was under control and the slaughters at an end. Is it any wonder that we react with scepticism, if not outright disbelief, when ministers and officials insist our food and water are safe?

With no political stake in the Camelford inquiry, the Government has no reason not to give the committee its full support or to act on its eventual recommendations, however unpalatable or expensive they may be. That could be a first step towards restoring a climate of trust in one of the most basic areas of government responsibility.

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