Gordon Brown plays his clever-dicky election mind-games whilst dithering as to whether he should abandon the character of a lifetime, a character which has at its heart dishonour, dishonesty, a lack of courage, a predilection for the whiff of devious conspiracy and a masterful ability to absent himself when shot and shell begin to fly.

What he might care to ponder as he schemes and plots is that the issue of ministerial competence, as Ed Balls said on “The Daily Politics” this lunchtime (so that they cannot weasel out of even this issue), is going to figure greatly in the next election, whether that be in 2007, 2008 or 2009. Not just the competence of ministers whom he has chosen for his administration, but also those of his predecessor, whose name no longer comes readily to mind, if the issue of incompetence revolves around inadequate financing, for all issues of a budgetary nature eventually devolve upon him in his previous guise as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Thus we are bound this week to return to the issue of the competence of those who have been charged with managing DEFRA in recent years (and there have been a lot of them) in the light of the extraordinary revelations made at the weekend by one Steve Kenward, who worked as a contractor at the Government’s Institute of Animal Health (IAH) site at Pirbright which is also occupied by Merial, a site which has been found to be the source of the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease in southern England, almost certainly because overflow waters in a drainage system allowed the escape of the virus from the labs and its eventual transfer into the countryside.

It is here that we return to the question which I recently identified as the ‘Tricky Dicky’ question, to wit: what did they know and when did they know it?

In relation to the incompetence which allowed the escape of this virulent and deeply damaging disease we are now able, with Mr. Kendrew’s assistance, to pinpoint much more accurately the date by which DEFRA was fixed with clear and unambiguous knowledge that a serious state of affairs in relation to the drainage at Pirbright existed.

Mr. Kendrew is an experienced contractor and has worked at both the Pirbright site and the IAH’s other laboratory at Compton, Berkshire (once run by my late uncle Bill Gordon, a world expert in the sheep disease scrapie, whom I recall with amusement taking us to see a goat at Compton that was truly omnivorous, having a predilection for chewing Navy Plug tobacco) and plainly knows his job. When he came to work on the drains at Pirbright, he took the trouble to look into plans of some antiquity which showed the construction of drainage systems at the IAH designed to carry waste liquid for disinfection by virtue of their possible carrying viruses of a variety of potentially devastating animal diseases:

“It was unbelievable,” said Kendrew. “Some of the maps were missing so we didn’t even know where they all were. Few of them had been inspected or pressure tested for leaks in years. It was a disaster waiting to happen.”

It must be inferred from what he says that this drainage system, of crucial importance to the biosecurity of the site, had been the object of long-term neglect by those charged with site maintenance and ultimately by Ministers who bore responsibility for the site.

Crucially he can date his enquiries with certainty, to fifteen months ago, say May 2006. Mr. Kendrew soon found that the system was in an awful condition: some pipes, it is true, were of modern plastics but most were of cast iron and clay – all joined with ageing pumps, valves and pipe junctions.

Mr. Kendrew clearly recognized the grave implications of what he had found and just as quickly notified the IAH of what he had found and what those implications were, namely that there was a risk of escape of such a dimension that it could cause an ‘international disaster’. This is important because it firstly fixes the authorities with clear and precise knowledge of what was wrong but also with clear and precise knowledge of the risk that would be run through inaction. It may be thought that in ordinary circumstances the drainage system would have been fixed as a matter of the utmost urgency. We now know that that was not the case.

We need to know the names of those to whom he communicated the information and who precisely he warned as to the implications of what he had found. Unless those people can provide a satisfactory explanation for their failure properly to act timeously, they must be dismissed.

Not only did he tell the managers at the IAH about this problem, but, in an indication of his knowing only too well how the system worked and who held the immediate purse strings, he took the trouble also to alert officials at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) who are responsible for channeling funding to the IAH. Commendably he did not let the matter drop and continued to remind those concerned by email, so the correspondence trail has presumably been preserved, thus closing off a major escape route, of the defects in the system, no doubt because he was acutely conscious that absolutely nothing had been done.

Thus in November 2006, just under a year ago, he raised the matter afresh with named individuals of the IAH (see here). By now he was sufficiently concerned also to make sure that ‘senior officials’ at DEFRA were fixed with knowledge of the deficiencies he had found and the implications thereof.

In due course, as a result of Professor Spratt’s enquiry after the August outbreak of F&MD, the virus probably escaped from the Merial site via the IAH drainage system (and from a legal standpoint ‘probably’ is enough for proof in civil litigation). Kendrew says that he specifically warned IAH that Merial’s activities were capable of overwhelming the IAH drainage system if IAH did not properly attend to their end of the system.

Although IAH claims that these concerns were dealt with, that claim simply does not stand up to even the most cursory of examinations. It is a matter of note that, whilst Merial’s end of the system was found, by Professor Spratt, to be in excellent condition, IAH appears to have done nothing whatsoever, certainly nothing adequate, to remedy a clear and unambiguous threat to international animal health and the lives and livelihoods of thousands of British Farmers and their families and the rural economies within which they operate.

That is a state of affairs to which one might apply the usual epithets of ‘disgraceful’ and ‘scandalous’ with facility. It is surely not adequate, however, to leave it there.

We need to know who it was at the BBSRC who failed, on the face of it, to act or for an explanation to be forthcoming as to Mr. Kendrew’s assertions. Again, unless some adequate explanation can be given for their failure to act, for the outbreak surely demonstrates that they did not, then again their services must be speedily dispensed with.

Finally, though, it comes down to this. We now know, do we not, upon whose watch this all happened. It is a matter of curiosity that when a Minister in charge of DEFRA discharges his or her duties with rank incompetence, instead of being dispatched forthwith to the backbenches, the preferred option is to promote them to be Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, one of the Great Offices of State. So it was with Margaret Beckett (now thankfully dispatched to the Valhalla of political oblivion).

Now we know the time when Mr. Kendrew alerted officials of the clear problems at Pirbright, it is incumbent upon the Government now to answer: what did the man who is now Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, know, when did he know it and when he knew about it, what did he or did he not do to remedy it? And if he did not know it, how did he come to manage his department in such a way that a threat of international dimensions to animal health was allowed to develop, for that suggests a failure of management on his part of epic proportions.

In a way I feel slightly sorry for Hilary Benn. He has been sold a huge hospital pass by his predecessors. He must, of course, answer for any failures in his handling since August of the F&MD outbreaks and of the bluetongue outbreaks in East Anglia and he should know that how he now puts right that which has plainly gone wrong under the regime of his predecessors will be subjected to minute scrutiny. But is it not the case that Miliband and Beckett have, on the face of it, so carried out their duties that the very obvious risks to which Mr. Kenward adverted so long ago were so shamefully neglected? And should not Mr. Miliband now be made to account for his actions before Parliament?

And finally, to Macavity. Who, it may be asked, held the purse strings at the relevant time? For it was he. And was it not the regime of budgetary skimping that he and his ministers imposed on fellow ministers and their departments and the constant harrying about expenditure that brings on the cutting of corners and the squabbling over who has to pay the bill that really lies at the heart of this particular piece of rank incompetence?

When enquiries are further made, surely it is a matter of importance that the issue of what representations were made to HM Treasury concerning funding for IAH were made and when they were made and what the response of the Treasury was. If it should be found that specific representations were made, then it must be the case that Gordon Brown must carry the can personally for the utterly appalling deficiencies at Pirbright.

Meanwhile we should salute Mr. Kenward. He, at least, has had the courage to explain what he did and when he did it. For some reason he appears to have been removed from his work in June 2007. We need to know why that was. Was it because he was continuing to make a nuisance of himself and continued to raise matters which had, by them become inconvenient?

Most of the country is tired of ministers and civil servants acting with incompetence but never having to carry the can for it as happens in the real world. Ministers never accept responsibility, though they are greedy for the plaudits if something, despite their best efforts, goes right. Civil Servants are never sacked, merely moved sideways to another department, there to wreck a different section of society’s lives. Cameron could do a lot worse than to promise that, on his watch, the can will be carried.

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