Leading Article: Finally called to account for the BSE farce

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The Independent Online
It is possible to feel sorry for Douglas Hogg. A not especially remarkable Cabinet minister whose only purpose would have been to catch out trivia quiz contestants asked to list agriculture ministers. Memorable for his hats, a Grade II listed surname, for being married to a clever woman, and for having the misfortune to be holding the BSE parcel bomb when the music stopped.

But let us not allow sympathy to get in the way of retribution. Because it is right that the Government should be held to account for its handling of mad cow disease. For 10 years, it has been guilty of incompetence, complacency and cowardice. And the conventions of parliamentary accountability require Mr Hogg to take the rap, even though he has only been in charge for the last 18 months.

Labour is right to put down Monday's motion to reduce his salary - the polite way of calling for him to be sacked - and to make BSE an issue on which the Government could fall. It probably won't, but there would be a form of justice done if it did. Our only cavil is that Labour should have supported the Liberal Democrats when they put down exactly the same motion last year. That act of tribal small-mindedness weakens Mr Blair in Monday's vote. It adds to the impression that the Labour leader is making an opportunistic gesture. But just because they did the wrong thing then does not mean they should be condemned for doing the right thing now.

So what is the case against the Government on BSE?

The possibility that the agents that cause mad cow disease might end up in beefburgers was first raised at the end of 1986. Mr Gummer's unwise publicity stunt in which he publicly fed a hamburger to his daughter Cordelia is one of the political images that will stick in our collective mind, and it contains an essential truth about the Government's attitude. Rather than err on the side of caution, Mr Gummer blithely asserted that, because no risk had been proved, there was no risk.

It is at this point in the argument that the stock response is usually deployed: Yes, but what would Labour have done? It usually emerges that Her Majesty's Opposition was either fast asleep on the job or ranting off at a tangent about something else entirely. Not in this case.

Step forward the unexpected figure of David Clark. Yes, him. Very probably there are members of his own family who don't know that he is a member of the Shadow Cabinet. But he is, and he was Mr Gummer's agricultural shadow. And his response to the possibility of BSE entering the human food chain was correct from the start. As a precautionary measure, he said, infected cattle should be traced and related animals culled. Feeding them on minced sheep should be stopped. And research should be stepped up. We do not yet know how many people will die from the human variant of BSE, but prompt action then could well have saved some lives.

Why did the Government not act sooner? One of the more pathetic bleats of ministerial self-justification came recently from David Willetts, the allegedly brainy Postmaster General. Modern British government, he wrote, is constrained by the "iron triangle" of the courts, European institutions and domestic interest groups. He was trying to explain the unfortunate appearance of government passivity in general, but his words stand as a poignant commentary on the BSE crisis in particular.

Now we as a newspaper are very much in favour of farmers. They grow and breed a lot of our food, and jolly good it (mostly) is. And, second only to the victims of the new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, they have borne the cost of the BSE crisis. But we see no reason why they should be singled out for vast amounts of taxpayer subsidy, especially when it is often shaped precisely to encourage the kinds of intensive farming methods that threaten both our environment and, potentially, our health. And it is neither in farmers' long-term interest, nor that of the rest of the population, that they should exert so much influence on food policy.

So the most urgent of the fundamental lessons of the BSE crisis is that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods should be abolished. Food safety should be the responsibility of the Department of Health, and the farming and fishing industries should be treated no differently from any other by the Department of Trade and Industry. So far, Labour has only proposed an "arm's-length" Food Standards Agency, which is not enough.

But Monday's vote is about the Government's record. For once, it is not a pointless Commons charade. There are good reasons of substance why honest, independent-minded MPs should vote against the Government on Monday. Tony Blair may have shied away from them yesterday, because he does not want to add to worries about British beef now that the Government has finally taken all the action it should have taken years ago. Instead, he chose to concentrate on John Major's foolish promise to get the European ban on British beef lifted by last November. That, and the Prime Minister's petulant policy of non-co-operation with Brussels, should be condemned. But the real charge is that, bowing to farming interests, this Government needlessly endangered the health of its citizens a long time ago. This whole sorry tale has been one of accumulated mismanagement from start to finish.