This inquiry must help restore a climate of trust

Share
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mary Christmas: the Bethlehem story is Mary's moment, when a poor peasant girl gives birth to the Son of God in a stable  

The appeal of the Virgin Mary: A supernatural hope at a time of scepticism

Peter Stanford
 

Letters: Why Cameron is wrong about EU child benefits

Independent Voices
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'