Sir: You report (2 December) that a public inquiry is to be constituted into the BSE crisis. Apparently "a senior figure will be appointed to head the inquiry and it is likely to have similar powers as the Scott Inquiry into the arms to Iraq affair".
As solicitor representing the families who have lost members to new variant CJD, may I suggest the following potential shortcomings in the planned inquiry?
1. The inquiry needs to be headed by a senior judge. The task of reviewing the documentation from a sceptical view point must fall to someone whose experience of objective enquiry will not be in doubt. A senior civil servant or political figure would not necessarily satisfy this need.
2. The Scott Inquiry was constituted on an ad hoc basis without powers of subpoena of either people or documents. The should be constituted under the terms of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 so as to confer those powers, particularly since there is likely to be a need to seek discovery of some papers from non-governmental sources. The Scott Inquiry was delayed at least in part because it had to rely upon the agreement of government departments to disclose papers thought to be material.
3. The Scott Inquiry did not take evidence on oath; as a consequence a great deal of time was taken in allowing those who had given evidence to review what had been said before the inquiry reached its final conclusions. The will need to review evidence from many people, some of whom, by virtue of their employment, will not wish to volunteer to give evidence, but whose contribution nevertheless will be critical to a proper understanding of the way in which BSE arose and the way it was dealt with. The 1921 Act provides for the taking of evidence on oath in the same way that evidence in contested litigation would be taken on oath.
The Royal Commission on Tribunals of Inquiry in 1966 urged that the inquisitorial machinery in the 1921 Act be confined to matters of vital public importance concerning which there was something in the nature of a nationwide crisis of confidence. The BSE crisis must surely satisfy this criterion.
D I B BODY
Irwin Mitchell Solicitors