Foot & mouth debacle proves need for independent regulators

If the muddle and buck passing that has characterised the management of the foot and mouth crisis has proved anything it is the absolute need to ensure that the nation’s health, safety and environmental regulators play a truly independent role in assessing risks and advising Government.

While MAFF may have been nominally in charge of dealing with the control of the disease in its initial stages, once the Prime Minister intervened there were obviously far too many cooks stirring up this particular witches’ brew.

The Environment Agency has had a key responsibility for advising on burial and burning sites where water sources could have been threatened and later in assessing hazards from emissions.

However, there appeared to be no clear line of command except among the military, called in to tackle the growing mountain of animal carcasses. Apart from MAFF, whose own specialists seemed at odds over issues such as whether to vaccinate or not, the Health Ministry has produced guidelines on burning pyres, on which, somewhat bizarrely, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon felt competent enough to allay public fears by running out the old line that Bonfire Night produced far more dioxins anyway.

Presiding above it all was the Prime Minister, aided by his ever-present Press Secretary, who, in their combined wisdom, reprieved the celebrated calf Phoenix and eased restrictions on animal movements all round.

Undoubtedly the foot and mouth crisis will subside, leaving “lessons to be learned” for future outbreaks of the disease, and by this time next year the memory of rotting cattle and sheep and potentially toxic fumes from open pyres may have been largely forgotten – though not by the farming community.

Nevertheless, the unedifying picture of political expediency overturning scientific advice and even riding roughshod over hitherto sacrosanct environmental protection legislation, points to the need to re-think not only our attitude to the way we farm our food, but, perhaps more fundamentally, to adopt a radical view on how we regulate health, safety and environmental affairs.

As we have argued in the past, there is strong case for hiving off our key regulators from their sponsoring Ministries, particularly within the DETR, where environmental protection, health and safety, rail, air and maritime safety all come under the same roof.

Whether or not there is a conflict of interest between the rigorous application of regulation in these key areas and political requirements, the protection of the public must be seen to take priority.

One solution would be to place the regulatory functions under a separate, and high-ranking Minister, of “Public Safety”, reporting directly to Parliament, or perhaps the Prime Minister, as in security matters.

In the light of the overlapping responsibilities revealed during the foot and mouth crisis it is paramount that a new initiative is mounted to ensure that the regulation of potentially risk-laden situations does not come second best to commercial or political considerations.

Editor, Alexander Catto

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