The Phillips report on the Government's handling of the BSE crisis was published on 26 October 2000. Its key conclusions are summarised below, together with a brief commentary.
See also a separate note which gives advice to officials on the preparation of advice to Ministers on risks to health and safety. And if you think it was ever easy to forecast the future number of cases of vCJD, you might like to try to look this note on vCJD statistics.
The Inquiry's key conclusions that affect the civil service are:
The report's introductory comments on the performance of individual civil servants are worth repeating in full:
The more senior posts in the civil service are seldom sinecures. Ministerial office never is. We have limited our consideration of individual responsibility to those who occupied such positions. The shortcomings that we have criticised have not been the product of indolence; they have for the most part been mistakes made under pressure of work – pressure made the greater by the imposition on already busy lives of the considerable additional burdens of handling BSE.
The day- to- day demands made by BSE on MAFF, and particularly on the State Veterinary Service, were considerable. By way simply of example, in the period with which we are concerned approximately 200,000 suspect cattle had to be inspected, slaughtered and autopsied by histopathology. The carcasses had to be collected and destroyed. Compensation had to be assessed and paid.
Between 1988 and 1995 about 30 Statutory Instruments in Great Britain alone were brought into force making or amending Regulations dealing with BSE. Some of these involved a great deal of work, but more significantly they evidence the ongoing attention being focused on addressing the implications of BSE for both animal and human health during a period when it was considered unlikely that BSE was in fact a threat to humans. Thus the individual criticisms that we have made must be read in the context of participation in a positive response to BSE, which on the one hand brought the animal disease under control, and on the other resulted in the removal from human food and from medicines of a very high proportion of the material that might have had the capacity to infect.
There are aspects of the response to BSE that stemmed from broader government policies, or from particular ways of handling the problem. Again, these may not be matters that give rise to individual criticism, but they may well highlight lessons for the future. For example, we have noted that Ministers often sought policy advice from SEAC during most of the period. A lesson we have drawn from this is that where the policy decision involves the balancing of considerations which fall outside the expertise of the committee, it will normally not be appropriate to ask the committee to advise which policy option to adopt. It is not our job to examine broad government policies, for example the deregulation initiative. Where relevant, we have examined their implications for the BSE story. For example, our consideration of the impact of the deregulation initiative for slaughterhouses is in Volume 6.
Those who were most active in addressing the challenges of BSE are those who are most likely to have made mistakes. As was observed in the course of the Inquiry, ‘if you do not put a foot forward you do not put a foot wrong’. In this context we think it right to single out for mention Mr Meldrum. Mr Meldrum was Chief Veterinary Officer in Great Britain for almost the whole of the period with which we are concerned. He involved himself personally in almost every aspect of the response to BSE. He placed himself at the front of the firing line so far as risk of criticism is concerned.
Mr Meldrum impressed us as a particularly dedicated and hard- working civil servant. We are aware that many consider that he epitomises an approach on the part of MAFF that placed more weight on the interests of the farmer than on the safety of the consumer. We do not consider such an accusation to be fair.
Mr Meldrum was at all times concerned that the livestock industry should not be damaged by a public reaction to BSE for which there was, in his opinion, no scientific justification. That is not an approach for which Mr Meldrum can be criticised. On the contrary, we consider that it was a proper approach for the Chief Veterinary Officer to adopt.
In the BSE story there were a number of issues on which Mr Meldrum advanced the view that the possibility of risk to humans was too insignificant to warrant precautionary measures:
We do not doubt that the views which Mr Meldrum advanced reflected his own beliefs.
When Mr Meldrum had concerns about risks to humans, he acted on them. Thus:
We are satisfied that where Mr Meldrum perceived the possibility of a significant risk to human health he gave this precedence over consideration of the interests of the livestock industry.
Pressures on busy people go some way to mitigate a number of other criticisms that we have made – for example, the failures to review the Southwood Report , and failures to give rigorous consideration to the form of the animal SBO ban.
We have criticised the restrictions on dissemination of information about BSE in the early stages of the story, which were motivated in part by concern for the export market. We suspect that this may have reflected a culture of secrecy within MAFF, which Mr Gummer sought to end with his policy of openness. If those we have criticised were misguided, they were nonetheless acting in accordance with what they conceived to be the proper performance of their duties.
For all these reasons, while we have identified a number of grounds for individual criticism, we suggest that any who have come to our Report hoping to find villains or scapegoats should go away disappointed."
The Govermment's interim response to the report seemed to accept all its key conclusions and recommendations. Its weakness, which to some extent it shares with the wider Modernising Government Initiative, appeared to be that it promised change in some but not all of the principal characteristics of the organisation that is the modern UK government - see achieving change within the leadership chapter of How to be a Civil Servant. As long as other characterisitics remain the same, it seemed all to likley that the organisation would remain in its original risk-averse and uncommunicative shape.
Whilst one must applaud the fair-minded approach dislayed in Phillips' comments, and the sensible nature of the Government's interim response, it will nevertheless remain difficult truly to change Whitehall's current culture. Indeed, there must now be a real danger that senior officials will, with some relief, mentally file away the BSE report and fail to learn and act on the wise advice that it contains.
It is also worth noting that the inquiry team, like the earlier Scott Inquiry into "Arms to Iraq" felt it right to comment on the work and performance of individual civil servants. I think that this was inevitable and right, but it is a small breach of the principle that officials advice to Ministers is private. I suspect that this breach could in fact be made a little larger without greatly damaging the relationship between officials and Ministers, and maybe there should be more frequent inquiries into the effectiveness of civil servants' handling of major issues. But I believe that the wholescale publication of policy advice would greatly inhibit the freeedom of Ministers. I know that some think that this would be a good thing, but I instinctively doubt it, and fear for the power that would inevitably be handed to officials as a result of such openness.
Finally, the scientific conclusions are also interesting. Scientists originally thought that BSE was probably transmitted to cattle from sheep with scrapie (e.g. in recycled animal protein used in cattle feed). And this led some scientists to suggest that it was therefore possible that the disease could also cross the further species barrier into man, whilst others pointed out that scrapie had never crossed from sheep to man, so it was unlikely that BSE would do so.
However, the inquiry concluded that the disease probably originated as a gene mutation in the 1970s. This means that scapie did not cross any species barrier. However, paradoxically, the new disease was not derived from scrapie and it was able to cross the species barrier in man and so cause new variant CJD.
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