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Leading Article: The food ministry still serves the wrong people

At last the Government has got round to announcing a full-dress inquiry into the sequence of events and decisions surrounding the discovery of BSE and its consequences for humans - though, for an administration full of the delights of Bill Gates, to be heard blaming a computer breakdown for the embarrassing delay in getting Jack Cunningham to the despatch box was ... well, off message has become the favoured phrase.

Still, much better late than never. Any detailed narrative of the inner workings of the state is welcome, especially where the public's health and safety are concerned. The Scott Report on the sale of arms to Iraq, dense, multi-volumed beast that it was, will stand the test of the years and remain an absorbing and informative account of how Whitehall really works. The BSE report should be delivered more quickly and should be shorter - but must be just as rigorous.

If there has been a breakdown in mutual understanding between the us, the governed, and them, the government, one way out is better public education in the by-ways of power. That might lead us to conclude that, most of the time, and allowing for human frailty, the system works. This ought to be a result of a freedom of information Bill - establishing that we have a governing system in which deficits and mistakes can be rectified. Only a fool would suggest that governing a pluralistic, diverse society is easy. To govern is to place competing interests in controversial order. But the public has to be convinced time and again that the processes by which decisions are taken are fair, ordered and reliable. This is what the BSE inquiry must discover.

Its ultimate value will not however be some sort of bureaucratic or scientific equivalent of "who lost China?". Labour ministers will, no doubt, be keen to have guilty Conservatives named, if they can find some. The public, too, is still owed a blow-by-blow account of who knew what when, and whether decisions were unjustifiably delayed. But what this inquiry surely ought to do, above all, is hammer a final nail into the coffin of that special organ of government dedicated to a privileged interest group, the farmers and food processors. If the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food survives this exercise, it will have been in vain.

No one is asking for some tight fit between the way government is structured and the world as it is. But there is something remarkable and dismaying about how the present structure of ministries would be readily identifiable to a Rip Van Attlee, waking after 50 years to survey the cabinet ranks. The Department of Health is, still, a department for doctors in which public health and preventive medicine remain also-rans. The state's twin arms for taking money from people and paying money to people are still miles apart. And then there is Maff, still going strong, despite the liberalisation of trade which means, or ought to mean that British consumers have the run of the world for their food; despite the continuing shrinkage of primary production as a proportion of national product; and despite the rise of environmental consciousness and public concern at the industrialisation of agriculture. To say that we have to have Maff because of the Common Agricultural Policy is to put the cart before the horse. The CAP is both a sign of the European Union's weakness (the Eurosceptics have never understood that point) and a barrier to the EU's development.

Labour promises an independent Food Safety Agency but seems to think the public would accept its location under Jack Cunningham and Maff. It won't. The BSE inquiry will, we suspect, kill for ever the idea that Maff and its ministers are a food ministry rather than a producers' support system. And it would be a nonsense to separate food safety from the promotion of public health. We already know that however eminent the experts and however disinterested (for example on the Food Safety Advisory Committee) their reports, they are discoloured by being made to Maff officials and ministers. It is not that departments are entirely hidebound, or that the people running them are bad, rather that certain attitudes get built into the piping, and the public suffers.

There are other, better ways of dividing the administrative cake. A Ministry for the Countryside might, for example, be seen to respond to public alarm at urbanisation and concern for the conservation of plants, fauna and landscape. Of course such a ministry would be at loggerheads with the advocates of new roads, with developers. But far better to have that inevitable conflict fought cleanly between departments rather than, as now, within a single, monolithic Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. If, as Mr Blair keeps saying, he is not frightened of tough decisions, he should not hesitate to carve up the turf now commanded by his deputy. Apart from anything else, it would do Labour's image a power of good to be seen to care for the countryside - something not to be confused with the views of landowners or of opponents of fox-hunting. Or even of Welsh farmers.