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Richard North (Dr)
Research Director EDD (European Parliament)
10 August 2001

A tale of two inquiries

It is clear that the overall response of the 'clever-dick' media to Margaret Beckett's announcement of her 'inquiry process' is to attack the appointment of Don Curry, formerly MLC Commissioner, mainly for his part in the BSE debacle. Whether it was a deliberate ploy or not, his appointment as chair on one of the trio of official government inquiries has diverted some attention from the other two, much more important effort, headed respectively by Dr Iain Anderson and Sir Brian Follett.

Anderson's task is 'the administrative inquiry into the handling of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak inquiry', identifying 'the lessons to be learned from the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak of 2001 and the way the Government should handle any future major animal disease outbreak'. Follett, on the other hand, must 'review scientific questions relating to the transmission, prevention and control of epidemic outbreaks of infectious disease in livestock in Great Britain', and make recommendations by Summer 2002.

The main point to take on board is that the split of responsibilities is odd to the point of being perverse. It is hard to see how Anderson can make recommendations for the way in which government should handle future outbreaks without being aware of the findings of the scientific review while, on the other hand, management, etc. of 'outbreaks, is not solely a scientific question - the choices made are determined politically. In other words, Beckett - with Blair clearly behind her - has split what should be inseparable. Divided, neither committee can come to clear conclusions.

Iain Anderson

From the background on the principle player, Iain Anderson, however, it is clear that Blair does not want clear conclusions - since they could hardly fail to involve criticism of his administration. Although a high profile businessman - listing amongst his portfolio, a non-executive directorships of BT and Scottish & Newcastle, and chairmanships of BT Scotland and the hi-tech company Intense Photonics - Anderson is an intensely political animal.

Immediately before the 1997 general election which brought Blair to power, he worked on a project for the Labour Party called 'Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in UK Schools' project, with the brief to advise Tony Blair and David Blunkett on 'the key priorities and directions the next Government should take in developing the use of ICT in primary and secondary schools'. The use of IT in schools was to become a core policy initiative of Blair and cannot be unconnected with a deal made between Sir Iain Vallance (Chairman of BT) and Blair, that BT would be cleared from a Government ban on delivering TV through the phone network, in return for linking up schools and hospitals to the internet.

Anderson then became Tony Blair's Special Adviser on Milliennium Compliance and was listed as an unpaid 'special advisor' on the staff of 10 Downing Street. He was duly rewarded with a CBE in the 2000 birthday honours list. He now remains a 'safe pair of hands' who can be relied upon not to dredge up anything which could be embarrassing to the 'project'.

Sir Brian Follett FRS

As to the second 'player' Sir Brian Follett, he was Vice-Chancellor, University of Warwick, Chair, Arts and Humanities Research Board, Professor of Zoology and Head of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, 1978-1993. He was elected fellow to the Royal Society in 1987. He is a board member of the Natural History Museum under its Chairman Professor Sir Robert May FRS, who was appointed President of Britain's Royal Society, one of the most esteemed positions in the world of science, in 2000.

The crucial thing to appreciate about the scientific inquiry which Follett will chair is that it is not 'his', in the way of the Northumberland inquiry. This is a Royal Society inquiry, prop. Robert May. And since the Society includes amongst its Fellows Professor Roy Anderson, Professor David King and Sir John Krebs, all of whom played controversial roles in the FMD debacle, it is hard to see how it can be considered 'objective'.

In fact, the Royal Society has a history of a certain partiality when the interests of its members are threatened, as in the curious affair of Dr. Arpad Pusztai and his revelation that the GM potatoes tested in his laboratory might not be safe. Many Royal Society Fellows have financial and professional interests in promoting GM and the Royal Society set up a hasty review of Pusztai's experimental results, without giving Pusztai the opportunity to assemble the complete set of data, published a report declaring Pusztai's findings flawed, and warned that no conclusions should be drawn.

The report stressed the importance of peer-review before the results were released to the public, despite the fact that at least part of the research in question had, by then, been published in The Lancet. The Editor of The Lancet referred to the Royal Society's review as 'a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists'.

Not content with this, the Royal Society then drew up a 'Guidance for editors' to 'assist' scientists and editors in writing scientific stories. 'Newspapers', this guidance stated, 'may suppose that they have produced "balanced" reports by quoting opposing views'. Not so, according to the Royal Society, if 'the opposing view is held by only a quixotic minority'. Journalists were told to identify, wherever possible, a majority view. That should be the one they should present. Never mind the message - control the messenger.

Smoke and mirrors

Fortunately, most of the mainstream media - BBC apart - have seen through some of the smokescreen, although Beckett and Morley are doing their best to make the label 'independent' stick. Of course, neither inquiry is at all independent and we are now to witness the ultimate in arrogance of an administration which has the power and intends to use it. Nature will out, though. FMD marches on. Since Anderson has been instructed not to start work formally until the epidemic is over, we could be in for a very long wait before his report is ready.