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Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Phillips report packs a punch
Lord Phillips at the launch of the BSE report
Lord Phillips accused officials of a cover up
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Within minutes of its publication, Lord Phillip's report on BSE was being dismissed as a whitewash.

Some MPs and sections of the media accused the inquiry of failing to answer the key question: "Who is to blame?"


Despite the carefully unsensational language of the report, it still represents a devastating indictment of the government machine

And, although the report singles out a handful of former Tory ministers and officials for particular criticism, elsewhere it often praises the very same people.

The introduction to the document specifically states: "Any who have come to our report hoping to find villains or scapegoats should go away disappointed."

And many have indeed been deeply disappointed by the inquiry's findings.

It is certainly the case that it has not attempted to lay the blame for BSE at the door of just one or two people and is, instead, painstakingly balanced and even handed.

For example, ex-Agriculture Minister John Gummer escaped severe criticism for feeding his daughter a beefburger in front of TV cameras at the very start of the BSE crisis.

Wrong choice

It is an image that has dogged him ever since and which, for many, summed up the Tory government's attitude to the BSE crisis.


When emotions have cooled, political capital will most certainly be made out of this

In fact, Mr Gummer had no evidence that beef was unsafe at that point and the report simply states that, having been challenged by a newspaper to show his confidence in beef that way, he was faced with two unattractive alternatives.

The report limits its criticism to the statement: "It may seem with hindsight that, caught in a no-win situation, he chose the wrong option, but it is not a matter for which he ought to be criticised."

But, despite the carefully unsensational language of the report, it still represents a devastating indictment of the government machine.

The underlying message throughout the document is that a mixture of complacency, secrecy and Whitehall in-fighting combined to land Britain with a major health disaster.

Both civil servants and ministers repeatedly failed to gauge the real threat from BSE and persistently failed to tell consumers the truth.

There was an over-riding desire to avoid a health scare and a tendency to play down suggestions of a real risk to human health and, in the early days, protect the industry.

Speaking after its publication, Lord Phillips went further, declaring: "We do think, and have found, that there was what you might call a cover up in the first six months."

It is quite possible that some of the officials involved will face disciplinary action in the future.

And it is certain that public confidence in Whitehall to protect consumers' interests has been fatally damaged.

Political fallout

There is also a lingering suspicion that - despite the creation of the Food Standards Agency and moves to make decision-making more transparent - little has really changed.

And this will be the biggest test of the political reaction to Lord Phillips' report.

Consumers will be delighted at the care and compensation packages unveiled by Nick Brown, but they will also want to be reassured that such a disaster can never strike again.

And that may require some fundamental thinking about the way government departments and civil servants interact.

Meanwhile there will be the inevitable political fallout from the report.

Mr Brown was eager not to score any points at the Tories' expense and adopted a conciliatory and unconfrontational approach to the report.

He even appeared to slap down Liberal Democrat spokesman Colin Breed when he tore into the Tories for their handling of the crisis.

Mr Brown is well aware that any attempt use the report to make political capital out of the BSE disaster, which has seen the loss of dozens of lives, would dramatically backfire.

But he also knows he does not have to do so just yet. The disaster happened during Tory governments and Labour is untouched by it.

The media coverage of the Phillips report will do his work for him by reminding voters of the Tories' role in the affair.

But, when emotions have cooled, political capital will most certainly be made out of this.

Tony Blair has previously attacked the Tories as the government who "gave us BSE" and, as the election approaches it is a refrain voters will undoubtedly hear time and again.


CJD

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