Judges Want to Scrutinise Science Advisers
Robert Verkaik Legal Affairs Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)
THE BSE CRISIS, controversy over GM food trials and the policy of mass slaughter employed in the foot-and-mouth epidemic has spread deep-rooted public distrust of ministers and their scientific advisers. Now judges want to call policy makers to account in a court of law where they will be asked to justify their decisions and present the science for all to see.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, told environmentalists last week that a series of environmental crises meant public unease had reached "exceptional heights".
Under the Woolf proposals an environmental court would handle a broad range of cases where all interest groups would have their say. The scientific evidence would be in the public domain and specialist judges would be able to highlight the risks and the benefits of taking forward controversial policies.
The court would also be backed up by a regulatory system which could evaluate the work of scientists as well as giving them "due recognition".
Lord Woolf's estimation of growing public concern in this area is mirrored by research published in The Ecologist magazine last month. It showed that the exposure of Whitehall's incompetence during the BSE crisis together with vast public opposition to GM foods and anxiety about the foot-and- mouth epidemic, has caused 72 per cent of the public to disregard ministers giving reassurances of public safety.
The Centre for the Study of Environmental Change at Lancaster University said last year that "controversies of the GM kind arise because of reasonable public concerns about areas where there is sensed to be no knowledge."
And a 1998 Royal Commission report on environmental pollution concluded that there was a need for "transparency and openness" in all aspects of environmental management and that there should be opportunities for the public to "exert an influence on that process". The feeling that matters of national environmental safety have been decided in secret by ministers with access to unbalanced scientific advice has added to the public's sense of distrust. When governments want to show the public they have nothing to hide they set up inquiries chaired by judges. So it seems a natural progression to ask the judiciary to help open closed- door policy- making.
The BSE inquiry was led by Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Master of the Rolls, who is a close friend of Lord Woolf. Lawyers believe Lord Phillips' experience in charge of the inquiry has shaped the Lord Chief Justice's views on the environment.
In his report, Lord Phillips saw the need for open government so there would be no repeat of what he suggested was an honest scientific mistake about the infectiousness of BSE, combined with bureaucratic incompetence and bad PR.
Lord Woolf …
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Publication information: Article title: Judges Want to Scrutinise Science Advisers. Contributors: Robert Verkaik Legal Affairs Correspondent - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: May 29, 2001. Page number: 4. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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