So what did we learn from BSE?
A year on from the Phillips inquiry report, key flaws in policy-making remain. By Erik Mills
When Lord Justice Phillips and his colleagues published their report on BSE last October, the government announced, unusually, that it would take time to consider seriously the report's conclusions before responding.
When the response emerged in February, it was not at all bad. It contained sensible remarks about the need to provide improved care for victims of variant CJD, to ensure the development of better ways to obtain and use scientific advice, as well as the need for improved research strategies, greater openness and more sophisticated and inclusive mechanisms for policy-making on risk issues. There was even a list of issues for further consultation.
So changes are occurring. But the pace is frustratingly slow and uneven. It seems that, behind the scenes in Whitehall, a struggle is under way between an ancien regime that would like to make only cosmetic and rhetorical changes, and those who wish to develop and operate new ways to make risk-policy decisions that have greater scientific and democratic legitimacy.
Under the ancien regime, ministers characteristically hid behind their scientific experts and denied and concealed scientific uncertainties, while all advice and decisions were represented as objective and neutral.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), now abolished, was a compulsive adherent to that regime, but it was not alone among government departments. The decision to hold the inquiries into foot-and-mouth disease in private indicates that traditionalists have yet to lose their grip.
The way that Maff handled BSE, like its handling of issues such as salmonella poisoning, food additives, pesticides and GM foods, was bedevilled by a fundamental contradiction in the department's remit. The consequence of being expected to promote simultaneously the commercial interests of farmers and the food industry, and to protect consumers and public health, was that Maff failed all of its consti- tuencies and fell short of its objectives.
The government has learnt at least some of the lessons. The Food Standards Agency was created in April 2000 precisely to deprive Maff of its responsibility for consumer protection. But instead of giving the agency responsibility for the entire food chain, "from the plough to the plate", the government defined its remit to run only from the farm gate to the plate. Responsibility for regulating what happened on farms and the agricultural supply trade (especially pesticides and veterinary medicines) remained with Maff. And much of the responsibility for BSE policy remained with the ministry, entrenching the view that BSE is primarily a veterinary problem rather than an issue of public health.
Maff's handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis was the last straw; Britain no longer has a ministry of agriculture. Yet the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) replicates the same structural flaw that undermined its predecessor.
Defra is supposed to promote and manage environmental protection, as well as the commercial interests of UK farmers, the food industry and agribusiness.
In this respect the conclusions of the Phillips report did not help. The report is replete with evidence detailing occasions when ministers and civil servants chose to subordinate consumer protection to the short-term political interests of the department and the commercial interests of the cattle and meat trade. Yet its "findings and conclusions" claim that there was no evidence of any fundamental conflict of interest between protecting consumers and promoting industry and commerce.
Another important lesson that should have been learnt from the BSE saga concerns the relationship between science and politics. Ministers, civil servants and expert advisers have for too long colluded in the pretence that policy on complex and uncertain issues such as BSE, foot-and-mouth, GM foods and global warming can be based solely on scientific considerations and judgements.
Ministers repeatedly told parliament that government policy on BSE sprang from the advice of scientific experts. In practice, scientific advisers either made their own political judgements about the acceptability of the possible risks or were expected to endorse and defend official judgements on these matters. However, the advice of expert committees was subsequently represented as though it were purely scientific.
Furthermore, although the experts advising Maff stated repeatedly that there could be no scientific certainty that food contaminated with the BSE pathogen was safe to eat, senior officials and ministers decided to "sedate" the public by misrepresenting the underlying science. The arrangements allowed ministers and senior officials to hide behind the scientists and deny the uncertainties. This obscured the real policy dilemmas raised by BSE and disguised ministers' political objectives and the character of the decisions they took.
Ministers have not entirely given up their practice of hiding behind expert advisers. When, in January 1998, the government ministers Jack Cunningham, Tessa Jowell and Jeff Rooker published the white paper on the Food Standards Agency, they emphasised that future policy decisions would be taken by elected representatives rather than unaccountable officials. Yet the agency's board is now deciding policy, with ministers applying, at most, a light rubber stamp.
A new arrangement is needed in which ministers take responsibility for setting policy objectives and deciding how they will be met. Scientists' responsibility should be confined primarily to estimating the likely consequences of following, or failing to follow, a range of courses of action. Scientists should not make political decisions (least of all covert ones) and governments must abandon the practice of trying to receive the advice they want to hear.
One of the problems with the rhetoric of "joined-up government" is that it overlooks the occasional need for a systematic separation of functions. Arrangements at both Defra and the Food Standards Agency do not provide clear lines of separation, or even adequate clarifications of the differences between the scientific and political aspects of risk assessment.
The Phillips report provided the British public with unrivalled access to the intricate details of the policy-making process. But the conclusion under-diagnosed the severity of the problem, in particular the deep tensions in the policy- making system.
Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, one of the three members of the Phillips inquiry team, told the British Association Science Festival recently that he was worried that their report was degenerating into a £26m doorstop. On the evidence, we should share his fears.
Erik Millstone is a senior lecturer and Patrick van Zwanenberg a research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex