Letter: BSE reveals systemic failure of government

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Sir: Peter Robb (Letters, May 10) is right - the BSE crisis has highlighted the responsibility of government to manage risk, and to ensure that it has accurate information to help it do this. However, the Government fails to ensure the independence of its advisory committees. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee does not meet in public. It is under no obligation to publish its advice, nor to put an annual report before Parliament. The public have no rights of access to the agendas, research papers or minutes of this committee. Nor are there registers of members interests for this and other committees relating to the food industry, which would enable us to see whether the committee had been "captured" by vested interests. Scientists who dissent from the prevailing view are simply not appointed.

In these circumstances how can we have any confidence that the advice which the Government is given is broad enough to allow them to manage risks on our behalf? We urgently need a new body of public law. A possible model is the post-war "access laws" in the United States. These laws are designed to prevent the capture of government agencies by organised interests, to require balance in their membership, to give the public right of access to meetings and documents and to provide safeguards against conflicts of interest. Such laws would, of course, include a Freedom of Information Act.

The BSE crisis illustrates not just a specific failure by a government but a systemic failure. Unless radical reforms are introduced that provide a proper framework of accountability, more such disasters are inevitable.

Andrew Puddephatt

Director, Charter 88

London EC1