17 March 2002

In the continued and scandalous absence of an independent, public inquiry on the foot and mouth epidemic, Euro MPs, led by Conservatives Robert Sturdy and Neil Parish, have taken a hand and successfully initiated a public inquiry in the European Parliament. Largely regarded with indifference by the British public, this might seem a major coup for this institution, which has taken the 'democratic' course so studiously avoided by Mr Blair's government.

However, as always in the European Union, nothing is quite what it seems. One of the more interesting facets of the 'new' democracy is the multinational nature of the Parliament, where 15 countries are represented. Add to that the labyrinthine nature of the political groups in the Parliament and arranging representation of all the various interests on the inquiry has become a nightmare.

It was inevitable, therefore, that most of the discussions to date have not been about foot and mouth but the composition of the committee. Three months down the line, there have not yet been any evidential sessions and the only outcome of hours of negotiation has been the assembly of a disparate group of thirty MEPs, and as many 'substitutes'. To accommodate the different nationalities and political pursuasions, they have been appointed not for their knowledge of the subject but for their political and national 'fit'.

Inevitably, also, because of the political implications of the disease, it was impossible to have a British MEP in either of the key positions - the chairman or the 'rapporteur', effectively the inquiry 'secretary'. We have ended up with a Spanish lady 'chair' and a German rapporteur, both politically neutral but without any detailed knowledge of what actually happened.

If that was not bad enough, because of the frenetic, treadmill-like activity of the Parliament, every MEP already sits on two of the existing standing committees and, with the voting commitments and other activities, they actually have very little time to spare for this inquiry. Thus, although the Committee is set to last a year, there will only be twelve full sessions, with a very limited number of witnesses who can be called for each.

Amazingly, it gets worse. Everything has a 'democratic' dimension so the witnesses to be called are nominated by the political groups, with the numbers allocated in accordance with the size of the group. The bigger the group, the more witnesses they can nominate, the shortlist then being refined during a process of political haggling.

As a result, witnesses have been nominated not only for the value of their potential contributions but for the opportunities offered for political grandstanding. And, given that most of the MEPs involved have a very limited knowledge of what happened, they are not really in a position to make an informed choice as to what witnesses to call. Thus, the initial list of British witnesses to be called is missing two absolutely key players - Professor David King, the government's chief scientist, and Prof. Roy Anderson, leader of the foot and mouth science group which advised Tony Blair on the disastrous 'contiguous cull'.

And, without the powers to demand the attendance of witnesses, the committee has already 'bottled out' and chosen not to call the most important witness of all, Tony Blair - who took a personal hand in managing the crisis. Anticipating a refusal, an invitation is not even to be issued.

That apart, not only is the committee a matter of the blind leading the blind, it is also the dumb leading the deaf - or such is the effect of the Tower of Babel that is the European Parliament. Because this is a temporary committee, funding is limited and there are serious financial and logistic restraints. An important deficiency is the lack of interpreters for the planning sessions. Thus we had the almost surreal event of a recent meeting when our lady Spanish 'chair', who could not speak English, had to address a group of English and a Dutch MEP, none of whom could speak Spanish.

At least the lady had some French, and for those who could not handle that, there was interpretation of sorts from the sole member of the secretariat, who happened to be German. That might have sufficed - apart from the difficulty of understanding French spoken with a strong Spanish accent, or English with a heavy German accent - but for the fact that the lady kept drifting in Spanish, the two languages merging to create an incomprehensible mix which could only be described as 'Sprench', or perhaps 'Frenish'. What should have taken minutes to settle stretched to a laborious hour and a half, and I am still not absolutely certain what was agreed.

If at all possible, it gets still worse. As with the witnesses, the questions to be asked will also be determined in advance, again by the political groups, with the biggest groups getting the lion's share of the action. Given the limits of the knowledge - to be kind - of the potential questioners, and the irresistible urge to grandstand, the chances of any really penetrating questions being asked are remote. And since everyone must have their turn, there will be very limited opportunities for the supplementaries which tend to be more revealing.

As an inquiry, it may in the future provide good theatre, and perhaps some headlines - especially as Nick Brown and chief vet Jim Scudamore are to come before the committee. But, as a serious attempt at finding out what really happened, the whole enterprise is doomed. The European Parliament, to the eternal shame of the British government, may have stolen a march in having a public inquiry, but the end result will be no better that the empty 'inquiry process' that has been launched in Britain.

The fact remains that, until there is a proper public inquiry, as requested by the Federation of Small Businesses, and many other bodies besides, the many questions about what must be one of biggest government fiascos of all time will remain unanswered.