Leading Article: John Major's doctrine: evade and survive

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Is our meat safe to eat? Let those who think politics does not matter address themselves to this question. Food hygiene regulations are a basic responsibility of the Government, and when they fail politicians must be held to account.

A report by abattoir inspectors, entitled Red Meat, found "serious cause for concern" that meat could be contaminated by E coli 0157 and salmonella. This is an important finding which matters to the 19 out of 20 of us who are not (increasingly smug) vegetarians. The finding should have mattered to the Government, which they elected to look after their interests. What happened to it? It was suppressed: expressions of concern and references to specific contaminants were removed from the report, which therefore attracted no attention.

This is outrageous. People's lives have been put at risk. Nobody can say whether any of the 18 elderly people who died in the E coli outbreak in Scotland would have lived if the original report had been published and acted upon, but the possibility is there. This was an issue that demanded, at the very least, some humility from John Major and Douglas Hogg yesterday. Instead, we got bluster and unconvincing attempts at self-justification. The Prime Minister accused Tony Blair of the "height of irresponsibility" in raising the issue before the agriculture minister had made his statement - rich coming from Mr Major, for whose government the concept of "responsibility" seems to have an idiosyncratic meaning.

It must be a characteristic of any government that it tries to avoid responsibility for things going wrong and take the credit for anything going right. The Civil Service culture of Whitehall is riddled with buck- passing. But this government has turned the evasion tendency into a doctrine.

Mr Hogg would not resign over BSE, and he will not resign now. But the record of this government on food hygiene demands a sacrifice. It was clear, even before the BSE crisis, that it was undesirable to have a single government department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), representing the interests of both producers and consumers. Its responsibility for the farming and fishing industries should be handed to the Department of Trade and Industry, and for consumers to the Department of Health.

Mr Hogg's name is only one on a long list of Mr Major's ministers who should have gone but did not. Norman Lamont refused to take responsibility for the failure of ERM membership. William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell refused to take responsibility for bending the rules on selling arms to Iraq. Michael Howard will not take responsibility for anything that happens in prisons. Nicholas Soames says his civil servants lied to him; and this week his counterpart in the Lords, Earl Howe, said he too misled Parliament about the use of pesticides blamed for illnesses of Gulf war troops. They still have their ministerial cars, and the head of no official has rolled.

Sure, resignations after taking responsibility for mistakes have never been common. Jim Callaghan's, in 1967, over devaluation, and Lord Carrington's, in 1982, over the failure of the Foreign Office to foresee the invasion of the Falklands, stand out partly for that reason. But since John Major became Prime Minister, no important minister has resigned voluntarily because they accepted that their department had done something wrong. "The concept of responsibility has been ... replaced by a different code: survival." That was John Smith, speaking in 1993.

This was the context of Mr Major's interview on Newsnight on Wednesday. It seemed to be promising: very much the kind of thing we have wanted to see for some time. He was reasonable, direct and positive. He refused to have a go at Tony Blair. He was politely insistent about the country's sound economic position. And he offered Jeremy Paxman a deal which marked some improvement on the doctrine of irresponsibility. He was prepared to say sorry for the cost to the taxpayer of trying to stay in the ERM if he were allowed to "accept the credit for the fact that we now have a low-inflation economy".

That would have been a fair deal if Mr Lamont had resigned as Chancellor in 1992. It might be a fair deal now if Mr Hogg is forced belatedly to take responsibility for the BSE crisis and the Red Meat affair. But in the cold light of Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons yesterday, "Honest" John reverted to slippery mode. The Red Meat report was "circulated to the people who needed to take action and I am advised by those people that they have implemented the action".

At this point, the cynic might mutter the familiar counsel of the voter who refuses to take responsibility: that politicians are all as bad as each other and there is nothing to choose between them. Wrong. At all times, the voter has a duty to weigh up the records and prospectuses of the politicians and choose the best - or the least bad.

Nobody yet knows for sure that a government led by Mr Blair would take more responsibility, although the Labour leader is on record as demanding resignations in various circumstances which will no doubt be cited if he takes over in Downing Street. As befits an opposition politician, he has taken the high moral ground on ministerial responsibility; but he has yet to be given the opportunity to prove that this is more than a reflex posture. Let us hope that Mr Blair is building a concept of ministerial responsibility on the foundations laid by Mr Smith, his predecessor, who introduced a strongly moral language into our politics. One of the ways in which a new government may be judged is by the quality of its resignations.