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BSE Friday, 27 November, 1998, 13:53 GMT
Clarke hits back at BSE claims
Kenneth Clarke
Kenneth Clarke arrives at the BSE inquiry
Fomer Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke has dismissed the idea that the BSE crisis was exacerbated by Whitehall in-fighting.

Giving evidence to the BSE inquiry, Mr Clarke admitted there had been some "Whitehall fighting" during his time at the Department of Health between 1988 and 1990.

But he said: "Turf battles and territorial rivalries are not unknown.

"There was a certain territorial rivalry between medics and MAFF but the rivalry did not interfere with the proper transaction of business."

Mr Clarke also denied there had been confusion or awkwardness over the division of responsibility between MAFF and the Department of Health.

He said: "There was a clear split of responsibilities with my department being fundamentally responsible for public health, and MAFF being responsible for food.

"But nevertheless we should have been pointing in the same direction, and generally we were."

The former health secretary said he had relied on the opinion and advice of scientific and medical experts during the crisis because he had no expert knowledge of the disease himself, and he was caught up in a time-consuming reorganisation of the NHS.

In a written statement to the inquiry he said: "BSE and Creutzfeldt Jakob disease raised complex scientific issues on which ministers required advice.

"We received advice from both civil servants and independent scientific experts."

He listed the three most influential members of that group - all from the Department of Health - as Sir Donald Acheson, chief medical officer 1983-91, Dr Jeremy Metters, deputy chief medical officer from 1989 and Dr Hilary Pickles, principal medical officer 1988-91.

Expert advice

Sir Donald Acheson
Sir Donald Acheson: trusted advice
He said that at no point had he doubted the advice that he had received, and said Sir Donald was "one of the wisest people he had ever worked with".

"At no stage did I suddenly get the feeling that I was being misled by the advice, and as it happens I have the same confidence in the advice now as I did when I received it then," Mr Clarke said.

He added that during the crisis he had been advised to let the Ministry of Agriculture take the lead in announcing government policy to the general public, and he had preferred to leave health announcements to Sir Donald Acheson, chief medical officer at the time.

He told the inquiry he had been advised to let MAFF take the lead in announcing the introduction of the regulations concerning the offal ban at the end of 1989.

Agriculture minister John MacGregor in June of that year had proposed that the new measures should be publicised through a joint Department of Health and MAFF announcement.

Mr Clarke said that on May 16, 1990, the chief medical officer issued a public statement about the safety of beef which was still considered to be safe for consumption.

He said: "I felt it would be much more sensible and appropriate for him to make it.

"The public was far more likely to trust and act upon the opinion of the chief medical officer than that of a politician with no medical training or expertise."

Maintaining consumer confidence

Department of Health
Department of Health: territorial rivalry with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Mr Clarke said that he now believed MAFF's proposed ban on offal was more in the interests of maintaining consumer confidence than a threat to public health.

"We had no scientific advice that was strong enough to propose a ban of offal. These regulations would not have stood up if they had been put forward just on the basis of consumer confidence.

"There was no opposition from us and no attempt to stop it, but our people were anxious that we shouldn't be party to the announcement."

Mr Clarke said that throughout the BSE crisis it had been a struggle to strike a balance between giving people information and avoiding mass panic.

"We were constantly balancing between maintaining a proper flow of information and making sure on the other hand that we were not feeding the mass media's alarmist campaigns," he said.

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