\ Ruling against public inquiry 'was flawed'

Ruling against public inquiry 'was flawed'

February 19, 2002 The Daily Telegraph(London) by Joshua Rozenberg
THE Government's decision not to hold a public inquiry into last year's foot and mouth crisis was "irredeemably flawed", the High Court was told yesterday.

Richard Lissack, QC, was challenging the announcement by ministers last August that there would be two private inquiries and a policy commission, instead of a public inquiry with the power to call witnesses.

He represents a group hit by the crisis, including farmers, a youth hostel warden and a molecatcher.

The policy commission has already reported. A scientific review and the so-called Lessons to be Learned Inquiry have both begun and are due to report back this summer. The Lessons to be Learned Inquiry, to be held in private by Dr Iain Anderson, was "tainted from the start", said Mr Lissack.

He asked how there could be confidence in its independence when Dr Anderson was a former adviser to the Prime Minister and his secretariat was based in the Cabinet Office, which describes itself as being "at the heart of government".

Mr Lissack said those calling for a public inquiry were "very puzzled".

He added: "This is an administration which embraces the concept of open government more than any before. Rightly they are praised for it.

"Why now, on this extremely important issue, does their appetite for openness fail them so selectively? Why will only ministers and senior officials not be reported verbatim? Why was this made a term or condition of Dr Anderson accepting the inquiry?"

Stephen Smith, QC, for another group of applicants, argued that instead of asking how they could discover most quickly and cheaply how to prevent a future outbreak, ministers should have considered the public need to understand what went wrong.

Calling an open inquiry "is a power designed to restore the confidence of the public in its government", he said.

In rejecting calls for a public inquiry last August, Margaret Beckett, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, said it would take too long, be too expensive and could discourage key players from being full and open.

Mr Lissack told Lord Justice Simon Brown and Mr Justice Scott Baker that, at least, the Lessons to be Learned Inquiry should have been set up as a public inquiry.

Lord Goldsmith, QC, who as Attorney General is the Government's chief legal adviser, appeared in person to argue that Mrs Beckett's decision was not reviewable by the courts.

News organisations, including The Daily Telegraph, have been given permission to intervene in the hearing. They will argue that the decision to hold the inquiry in private is a breach of the right to freedom of expression. Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention includes the freedom to "receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority".

In his opening remarks, Mr Lissack made clear he was not suggesting Dr Anderson was biased. But how could one man, however able and well-intentioned, possibly do justice and report in the time available without forsaking thoroughness and rigour in the interests of speed and efficiency, he asked.

The inquiry had no power to compel attendance of witnesses or production of documents.

It received evidence from those willing to provide it, but had neither the time nor resources nor power to ensure that all avenueshad been investigated.

He said he would like to nail at the outset a suggestion that those calling for a public inquiry were engaged in a witch-hunt. They just wanted to ensure that such a disaster did not happen again.

The images of "Britain burning" as millions of animal carcasses were disposed of were "no more than the evocative imagery of the devastation of this disease", said Mr Lissack.

The statistics were bad enough - up to 10 million animals slaughtered, a cost to the nation of perhaps tens of billions of pounds. But the human cost was not amenable to that sort of analysis.

The outbreak had opened and widened a "deep fissure in the relationship of trust between the Government and many members of the rural community", added Mr Lissack.

Mr Lissack told the court that people could not understand how the disease was allowed to spread so far and so fast, apparently unchecked. Why was vaccination not used? Was the use of contiguous culling, involving the slaughter of millions of healthy animals, really the right way forward?

The complainants did not suggest they had a right to a public inquiry. But they had a right to ask the court to review the basis on which it was rejected and the lawfulness of what was erected in its place.

The hearing continues today.

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