UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
Q574 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Can I ask about the foot and mouth episode? Why was it in private?
Sir Brian Bender: Let me run through the sequence of events that happened. First of all, the Labour Electionm Manifesto 2001 volunteered and proposed two inquiries: the first was on the future of farming and food, which became John Curry's policy commission, and the second was the scientific inquiry, which became the Royal Society Inquiry. It becae very clear soon after the election that there was a need for a third inquiry that was looking specifically at the lessons learned. The Government's view, from the Prime Minister down ‑ so this was not something that was particularly based on the advice of civil servants ‑ was that, first of all, speed was important in this. If we wanted to learn the lessons, we needed to do so fairly soon and that the three years of the BSE Inquiry would not have been appropriate because actually foot and mouth had not been eradicated. It could blow up again. So, if there were lessons, we needed to learn them very soon. That process, particularly based on speed, led ministers to the view that, as we were looking for a forward‑looking inquiry with speed, it would best be obtained by taking evidence from key witnesses in private; and Dr Anderson himself was happy with that process, not least ‑ and I think Alan Evans said this in his evidence to you ‑ that this could contribute to greater candour in those sessions. That said, Dr Anderson, of course, did set out a process which involved public meetings as well around the country and then taking evidence in private, but it was primarily an issue of speed and getting something that was forward‑looking rather than something with all the elaboration of the Salmon procedures, legal representation, and so on, that would have been felt to have been necessary had it been evidence taken public.
Q575 Mr Liddell-Grainger: On the assumption that something like foot and mouth was a complete disaster for the nation, it spread across the entire nation with so many hundreds of thousands of people affected, obviously less children in Bristol and that is tragic as well, but that was a comparatively small number of people. Thousands of people were affected with foot and mouth. Surely we should have had some form of very public part of this to try and establish whether or not this will happen again. I also sit on the Defra Select Committee, and you have done an exercise that was not overly inspiring. If you have another epidemic I think you might have another problem on your hands. This inquiry itself surely should have had a very much more public part to try to work out why, when and how this might happen again: because a lot of what was recommended, I suspect, is still private?
Sir Brian Bender: I hope not.
Q576 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Is everything out in the open?
Sir Brian Bender: Yes, absolutely. I would be interested, perhaps outside this formal session, to find out why you have said that the exercise, which involved several hundred staff from the department and across the country, was, as you described, "uninspiring". Exercises are hugely important in these issues and doing them regularly and learning from them, because any exercise throws up issues that you think, "We should have sorted that out." I hope and firmly believe there is nothing going on in private now. We did have a contingency plan for foot and mouth. It was available, it had been discussed with stakeholders, but it was still regarded as a well kept secret. The issue on foot and mouth was that we had something of unprecedented scale. The day that the first outbreak was detected we now know that the virus was on between 50 and 100 farms in the country. I could bore the Committee at length with what we are doing now and have done as a result of Ian Anderson's inquiry and the Royal Society's study to be better prepared, but I am sure you do not want that.
Chairman: No, we will skip that. We are quite keen not to be detained by the interstices of particular inquiries, only as illustrations.
Q577 Mr Liddell-Grainger: It is the private part that fascinates me, because other ones that have been in private have tended to be medical where sensibilities are affected. With no disrespect, I would not count cattle and sheep in quite the same category! Would you?
Sir Brian Bender: No, of course not. I can only repeat the point I made earlier, that the issues that led ministers to take the view that the evidence from key people should be taken in private related to speed and potentially candour, and there was a public element as well.
Q578 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Do you think in future that things like outbreaks of this severity ‑ and I am not asking you to look back I am asking you about the future ‑ should be held in public?
Sir Brian Bender: I think a real tribute to Dr Anderson was that he completed his report within six months of starting and 12 months of the inquiry being announced. That was an enormous achievement and it was a pretty hard hitting report that contained some powerful lessons. The question comes back to: what is appropriate in the circumstances?
Q579 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Yes, that I do not disagree with, but there are a lot of these other ones which have a much broader brief. We have a list here of the ones that have been undertaken by all three of your departments. Some of them are very, very comprehensive indeed. This one was the smallest brief: to make recommendations on the way the Government should handle any future major outbreak. Was it too narrow because you were trying to get speed? There have been inquiries into foot and mouth before. Is this the sixth inquiry?
Sir Brian Bender: You are probably better informed than I. The previous one was the 1969 Northumberland one.
Q580 Mr Liddell-Grainger: There have been more since then. There are not many years we have not had some form of foot and mouth. It seems to reoccur, does it not?
Sir Brian Bender: No, we had 1969 and then 1980, or 1986.
Q581 Chairman: 1922, 1954, 1968.
Sir Brian Bender: In the 19th century, the early part of the 20th century there were lots. 1967/8 was the last big outbreak, and then there was something small on the Isle of Wight in the 1980s. Do bear in mind that there were three separate aspects of foot and mouth that were inquired into. One can debate whether it was right to break it into three, but that is what ministers decided and each was conducted fairly efficiently. Therefore there was an inquiry on the future of the farming industry which had been in crisis, there was an inquiry on the scientific issues and there was something about what are the systemic lessons? My view is that the fact that each of those three was conducted quickly and gave fairly powerful lessons for government and stakeholders is a tribute to the processes. Whether we do it the same in the future, I could not say.
Q582 Chairman: The BSE Inquiry in 1997, which is the nearest equivalent to which your department was involved, was a very comprehensive three year inquiry under Lord Phillips. It was a very good report indeed. It went into enormous depth. One report ‑ okay it did take longer ‑ one inquiry. You are talking about basically four separate inquiries: Dr Anderson's and the Curry three. You had the scientific, you had the lessons and you had the future of farming. Surely with an inquiry of that type it would have been better, looking back on it, to have lumped them together, would it not, and do the more intensive inquiry that Lord Phillips carried out in 1997?
Sir Brian Bender: Again, the primary issue around BSE was the investigation over a ten year period.
Q583 Chairman: We are talking about a 100 year period?
Sir Brian Bender: Actually ministers did not want to talk about a 100 year period. Ministers wanted talk about the current science of foot and mouth and the lessons from the 2001 outbreak to minimise the risk of recurrence. I think the circumstances were different. I certainly think the circumstances around Curry were different from the circumstances around the Royal Society study and the Anderson inquiry, because the Curry one was forward looking on the farming industry, whereas Anderson and the Royal Society were looking at the issues around the outbreak. You could certainly argue that those two could have been combined and in future might be?...More