• 20 SEP 05
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    Has British Labour forgotten the lesson from BSE?

    A lesson learned by British Labour

    When Britian’s bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow” disease) scare hit the public’s awareness in the 1980’s, the UK government responded by having it’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) take responsibility for handling the issue. The Southwood committee MAFF set up was charged to diagnose and stop the spread of the illness in cattle and to address the ensuing public concern as to the possible spread to humans if the disease crossed the species barrier.

    While the Southwood committee was privately alarmed at the rapid and uncontrolled industrialization of animal husbandry, including the “unnatural” practice of feeding ground meat and bone to cattle, thus causing the spread of BSE, it’s public voice gave calm assurances of safety.

    Both advisors and MAFF officials were stating to the public that the risk of disease transmission from cows to humans was too small for concern. The Southwood committee was of the opinion (for the public’s consumption that is) that although BSE had already jumped the species barrier once, from sheep to cattle, there was little need to worry about a second jump from cattle to humans.

    Both MAFF and its committee’s public credibility were destroyed when it became apparent that the second jump had already happened with human cases of varient Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (vCJD) appearing in the British population. The ensuing panic in Britian, the EC and other trading partners saw a “civic dislocation” in Britain that caused citizens to loose faith in their government as a source of credible health and safety information. The government, MAFF and its expert committee were perceived as covering up the BSE threat to public health in order to protect the British cattle industry.

    After the Tony Blair’s Labour election victory in 1997, Blair made the restoration of trust an urgent priority and promised a full public inquiry. That inquiry concluded in 2000 that MAFF and its technical advisers had made substantial errors of judgement, on the basis of imperfect understandings of the facts and of available policy options. The inquiry identified MAFF’s culture of secrecy as an underlying problem that had prevented timely disclosure of risks and aggressive pursuit of scientific knowledge and policy alternatives. The inquiry concluded that responsible experts should have known that risk in a population extends across a continuum, from zero to certain harm, with corresponding opportunities for graduated precautionary action. These findings dealth a final blow to MAFF, which was dissolved. A new advisory committee was formed The Food Standards Agency to provide more transparent advice on matters of food safety.

    Reference: Jasanoff S, Restoring Reason: Causal Narratives and Political Culture,“ in B. Hutter and M. Power, eds., Organizational Encounters with Risk.

    Does Labour now suffer from short term memory loss?

    I recently received information about a UK think tank , the “Social Market Foundation” that serves as a pro-industry interface between Labour politicians and industry, especially the Mobile Operators Association, a trade body for the wireless carriers in the UK. The MOA has been involved in aggressive lobbying to government against proposals which would make obtaining planning permission for mobile phone masts more difficult.

    The Social Market Foundation promotes itself as an “independent think tank”, exploring ideas that link the state and the market to create a more just, free and prosperous society.


    Many of the SMF discussions are sponsored by companies that have a direct business interest in the topic under discussion. Nearly all of the discussion panels feature a Labour minister. For example, the Mobile Operators Association (MOA) is sponsored a discussion in 2004 with the title “Listening to the public: does community consultation improve the planning process?”, with environment minister Alun Michael MP on the panel . The MOA has been lobbying for some time to prevent stricter planning regulations on mobile phone masts . MOA sponsored a similar talk at the 2003 conference .

    According to a July 2004 article in The Daily Mail, MOA is opposing a proposal by a House of Commons Committee which would require mobile operators to obtain planning permission for all new mobile masts, and would give parents a veto over siting. It quotes MOA Executive Director Mike Dolan saying “This would hold up the next generation of mobile networks to the detriment of businesses and communities.” [ Good to see that Dolan is so concerned about communities.]


    According to the “Private Eye” of 16 Sept. 05 : ” The Social Market Foundation has published its list of corporate sponsored fringe meetings at the upcoming Labour party conference in Brighton – and it will be business as usual at a string of wine-and-policy meetings with ministers.

    The Mobile Operators Association is paying for a meeting with science minister Lord Sainsbury, where its director Mike Dolan will join a platform discussion on health scares in the media. Buoyed by recent studies showing no link between mobile phones and cancer, the phone firms want government backing against planning objections to new mobile masts. Mobile company ‘3’ meanwhile is sponsoring a meeting with culture secretary Tessa Jowell, Burnley MP and former special adviser to Patricia Hewitt Kitty Usher and Roy Hattersley.

    Though the mobile firms are cuddling up to Labour, they aren’t always so friendly. Collectively they currently have a claim working its way through the European Courts demanding a £3billion VAT rebate from Chancellor Gordon Brown for the 3G phone licences they bought from him.

    The other way they hope to recoup some of the cash they paid for the new ‘picture phones’ licences is – porn.
    For example, 3 sell its phones by advertising a ‘top shelf’ service which includes “slide shows and videos, from Playboy, Mayfair, Escort, Men Only, Club International, and Men’s World” on your handset. (hands free operation optional).”

    NOTE in the above where the industry is pushing the line that recent studies supposedly show no link between mobile phones and cancer (a gross misrepresentation to the limitiations of these studies), and therefore the telcos want the labour government to remove the basic democratic right of citizens to have any say in the siting of new mobile masts. An example of Dolan’s concerns for the community!

    When the industry gets that much power you get unacceptable situations where carriers can erect a 3G transmitter right next to someone’s home at the same elevation and then bankrupt the owners when they dare exercise their democratic right to object.

    If the Blair government and its Ministers could only remember way back to 2000 perhaps they would realize that taking the advise of MOA is as risky as taking the advice from the National Beef Association during the BSE issue. Do they want to risk bringing on a “civic dislocation” that will dwarf the problem they faced with loss of trust with BSE?

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