A transcript of the interview on the One o'clock News on Radio Four on Monday 31st December 2001
Nick Clark spoke to Nick Brown, former minister at MAFF at the start of the Foot and Mouth crisis.
"Only one county, Northumberland, is classified at still being at risk from foot and mouth, the others were taken off the list today. But that ray of light comes at the end of what, by any standards, has been a shocking year for farmers across the country. In the next of our end of year interviews, my colleague Nick Clark has been talking to the man at the epicentre of the crisis, the former agriculture minister, Nick Brown."
There has been nothing dull about Nick Brown's year. For four months, he was the focus of National attention, charged with the handling of a rural crisis that disrupted the election campaign, wrecked many tourist enterprises and diminished our international reputation. Then, after June 7th, he not only found himself moved sideways to a post in the Department of Work and Pensions., with no more than an observer status in the Cabinet but he saw his old Ministry, MAFF, wound up and its functions dispersed around Whitehall.
Some claim that he was, in part, a victim of the power politics between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. As a close colleague of the Chancellor, the argument went, he was reshuffled into a less prominent position. But when I went to see Nick Brown in his new office last week I detected no sense of grievance about what had happened to him, nor indeed any sense of doubt about he had handled the foot and mouth outbreak
Nick Brown I am absolutely certain that the strategic decision to head after the disease and to bear down on it and eliminate it as swiftly as possible was the right decision. We pursued that policy remorselessly and, as we now know, with success.
Nick Clark What about all the talk about vaccination? I mean even now it's being said that at some point quite early in the proceedings, you would have liked to have investigated this as one way to deal with it but you were stopped from doing so by food producers and others - the very, very big fixed interest blocks in this field.
Nick Brown You're right to say there are very big interests in a vaccination policy but I think it's wrong to say that either the supermarkets or the National Farmers' Union brought unfair pressure to bear on the government. The truth of the matter is that there are so many uncertainties in pursuing a vaccination policy not least over what would happen to the milk from the dairy animals, the meat from the animals that were being raised for beef and those uncertainties I think meant that it was an unworkable policy. Is this a sensible approach? Is there a case for vaccination? I always believed there was a case for vaccination but not if it meant introducing a whole new set of uncertainties into what was already a difficult enough set of problems as it was.
Nick Clark Well you use the words "unfair pressure" but you concede then that there was pressure from all these people, that they didn't want vaccination the retail stores and the rest of them, did they?
Nick Brown Both the farmers' representatives and separately the big retailers and food processors made perfectly sensible points to the government about the effects of vaccination...
Nick Clark They applied pressure?
Nick Brown They put their case to the government. The retailers said to us very clearly, they said, " we will not offer to our customers a product that they regard as in any way inferior."
Nick Clark You talk about uncertainty. Looking back over the cuttings as I have been doing we have at one point the Chief Scientist saying that "a decision about vaccination will be taken within a couple of days" - in May as it happens - now all through these proceedings there were leaks and suggestions and rumours that this was about to happen and some of the uncertainty came because nobody quite knew what was happening in the heart of government where you were. Weren't you and your colleagues partly responsible for this uncertainty?
Nick Brown Well, I most certainly was not. I had a very clear view of it. If vaccination could have somehow brought the disease to an end earlier or played a useful part in defeating the disease then we would could have explored how that could have been made to work but the more we explored the issue the more it seemed the uncertainties outweighed the value of using this as an intervention. Should we use vaccination in the future think there's a very strong case for it and I launched, together with Laurens Brinkhorst the Dutch Minister, an initiative for the Council of Ministers to have a conference to look whether vaccination could be a useful strategy and in what circumstances should such a thing ever happen again.
Nick Clark Why would it be more suitable in some future instance than it was in this one
Nick Brown There were uncertainties in the regulatory machine and even greater uncertainties in the Market Place. Cadburys issued a statement that they would not use milk from vaccinates which put their competitor Nestlé in a very difficult position - Nestlé take a very great deal of milk from Cumbria. In those circumstances it made it a very difficult option to vaccinate and have the animals live. And of course in Holland they vaccinated but slaughtered the animals out afterwards.
Nick Clark Weren't you a bit all over the place as a government on this. We had an extraordinary statement by Tony Blair only a few weeks really after the whole thing began saying, "the Countryside is open for business" and here you are saying what you did say actually we need to close things down. Then at various times people have blamed ramblers and the farmers are unhappy about where people have gone and where they haven't and you haven't really been able to work out a strategy through all that, have you?
Nick Brown Tony Blair handled this very well and I am very grateful to all my colleagues in government for the support that they gave and for the way we worked together through a very, very difficult set of circumstances..
Nick Clark So you don't regret anything really about this because I mean I'm looking at the first report to come out which of course was this Devon Inquiry and it was full of people from Devon who didn't like what had happened to their county and it was a very unfriendly report. It said that you hadn't got a clue from the start and it said that if you'd only looked back to 1967 it would all have been different. I mean you must have read that and thought...what exactly?
Nick Brown I thought it mostly nonsense. In fact we did very well compared to the 67 outbreak. It's also reasonable to point out that the circumstances were very different.
Nick Clark Was it the right decision to close down MAFF after it was all over?
Nick Brown There is always a case to be made for amalgamating some of the functions of the Department of the Environment with the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I was a strong supporter of that.
Nick Clark What about you yourself? You're sitting in a ministerial office here so it hasn't been a disaster, but on the other hand you were demoted in terms of what anyone would understand by this. Did you feel let down by that?
Nick Brown The job I've got now is actually a great job for a Labour member of... Nick Clark I'm not knocking it, I'm not knocking the job but I'm saying did you feel let down that you hadn't got something better still?
Nick Brown I'm not that status conscious and when the Prime Minister says "I want you to serve in the government and this is the job I want you to do" you can choose. You are either in the government or you're not and I passionately believe in what this government is doing and very proud to be in it
Nick Clark It was said also about you is that the reason you've been moved out of a prime Cabinet position was because of your connection with Gordon Brown and it was sort of felt that the balance of the Cabinet ought to be changed. How would you answer that?
Nick Brown I've been friends with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair as anyone who reads these books about the recent Labour history knows and I've been friends with both of them....
Nick Clark Yes, I wasn't really disputing that but it is well known that you have been a colleague of Gordon Brown's for many years. I mean he's a man who is expressing himself more and more as time goes on at the moment. I mean, are you pleased to see that happening?
Nick Brown I think the Chancellor is one of the great figures in our government and I am a very strong supporter of his. I believe in what he's doing. I believe in both the policies that he's pushing forward but also the morality of it...
Nick Clark There do seem from the outside to be tensions - maybe they're creative tensions, I don't know - between ministers who are described - and I put this in heavy quotes "New Labour" ministers and Mr Brown's view and those who believe like him as you say you yourself do - is there a tension there or are we just making that whole thing up?
Nick Brown Well you describe to me a government that has been more cohesive in ideological terms and in policy terms and has done as much as the Labour government since 1997.