Fillet of Whitehall

March 29, 1996

For years the Government has been ignoring expert advice. This week it has been hiding behind scientists. In the late 1980s, when BSE was first diagnosed in cattle, ministers acted too slowly and did too little, apparently putting the jobs and profits of farmers, food industries and agrichemical industries before the health of the population.

The immediate damage which would have been done by swift action was obvious, while the danger to the population was speculative. Ministers assessed the risks wrongly and are now paying the price in a worldwide public loss of confidence.

And why should we believe them, since it is all too evident that the information needed to offer convincing reassurance is lacking? Too little is known about the behaviour of the infective agent. Tests for its presence take two years. And people know that however comprehensive regulations may be, when profit drives people may cheat and inspectors cannot be everywhere.

There is a huge challenge here for science: to discover more about the disease; to find out how to eradicate it from the food chain; to find treatments for this most terrifying of diseases.

But today's problems are not just scientific, however much the Government may wish it so. Handling the crisis requires different skills - social science skills, psychology, risk assessment, marketing, political and diplomatic skills. Customers are on strike, maybe because people prefer not to take the risk, maybe because it seems the only way to force the Government to pay attention to the general public rather than the industries concerned, and to take action.

But what action? As we went to press it seemed that a burnt offering of at least some cattle would be decreed. Filthy feeding practices will have to be comprehensively banned. Already damage to the industries involved is substantial and is likely to get worse. The Government is already working with the European Union to secure help with the cost of the programmes which our partners advise are necessary to restore confidence. Hectoring them looks foolish. Now if ever is the time to reap some benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy. There needs also to be rapid action to make sure the research effort is adequately co-ordinated and funded. We need to find out as much as possible as soon as possible about how to treat the disease in the human population in case it does turn out to be as widespread as some fear.

In this we will be largely on our own. The waves of dollars which, for example, poured into Aids research under the pressure of US public opinion will not help us with what is perceived to be a British problem. We claim to be good at science, particularly medical research. Now we will have to prove it.

But there will need also to be fundamental reform in Whitehall - and it is not reform which can be confined to splitting the Ministry of Agriculture's responsibilities for the food industry from its regulatory role. That split needs to be made right across Whitehall.

Problems of public confidence arise again and again when sponsors and regulators are part of the same department. It is evident in the Ministry of Defence as we have seen over the arms to Iraq affair, in the Home Office where the Home Secretary is responsible for securing prison services at low cost and for the quality of the prison regimes, and in higher education. And recently the risk has been introduced into science with the transfer of science funding to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Those intent on driving down unit costs and fostering industries must not also be responsible for quality. Where these functions are combined, the public rightly suspects that regulation will be compromised. Something may yet be gained from this, the latest and most terrifying crisis arising from failure to separate these functions, if reform of Whitehall is undertaken as a result.

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