17 August 2001

Brief is to recommend ways to tackle any future F&M outbreak

IAIN Anderson is keeping a low profile.

The man who spent 33 years working for Unilever stopped talking to journalists shortly after he was named chairman of the inquiry into the governments handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Dr Anderson will not "get involved" with reporters until the inquiry starts because he has very little he wants to say, said a Cabinet Office spokeswoman. And although he may start preliminary work, the inquiry will not formally begin until the disease is finally on its way out. Which means it could be months away.

The silence has left farmers with only Dr Andersons CV and a handful of soundbites to provide clues about the man who is also chairman of BT Scotland. He agreed to a couple of interviews with the BBC shortly after his appointment, but interview requests from newspapers and magazines have been turned down.

Dr Anderson has some experience in government work and has worked with DEFRA secretary, Margaret Beckett. He was the Prime Ministers special adviser in the taskforce set up to reduce the risks from the Millennium Bug. Mrs Beckett, who was then at the Home Office, chaired a special cabinet committee on "bug" issues.

But Dr Anderson has been keen to dismiss suggestions that his inquiry wont be independent because of his background. "I will have the freedom to conduct this inquiry entirely as I see fit," he told the BBCs Today programme. "I hardly think that chairing a previous task force rules one out from doing a job of this type."

He has also defended the governments decision to have an independent inquiry into the crisis rather an investigation open to public scrutiny. He openly rejected Tory party claims that this was the only way to uncover the full facts about the epidemic and hold former ministers to account.

"The judgement is that the best way to proceed now is to consult widely, but not to do so in public. It is on these terms that I have agreed to undertake the inquiry."

During the same BBC interview, Dr Anderson added: "I am satisfied that, following the approach I have outlined, we will have the best possible chance of extracting lessons from the past and building on these lessons to set us out on the best track for the future."

And learning lessons is what the inquiry is all supposed to be about. Dr Andersons brief is to make recommendations on the way in which the government should handle future disease outbreaks. It will be a tight timetable bearing in mind how much evidence – both written and oral – there will be to get through.

He has been given just six months and in that time has to look at the handling of the crisis across the whole of Britain. This means he will be dealing with the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales which will inevitably introduce complications.

Dr Anderson is free to call who he likes as witnesses, but DEFRA has admitted that ministers cannot be compelled to attend and wont have to give evidence on oath. Dr Anderson is unlikely to share more of his views until F&M is under control. Fingers will be crossed that the wait is not too long. &#42

Isabel Davies

The "Lessons Learned" Inquiry

Chairman: Dr Iain Anderson

Terms of Reference: An independent inquiry into the lessons to be learned from the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England and the way the government should handle any future major animal disease outbreak.

Timetable: Will not start until it is clear that inquiry will not distract from eradication of F&M. Aim is to complete report within six months.