Horse-for-beef scandal: Owen Paterson falls at every hurdle
Anger all round as Paterson refuses to impose ban on EU meat imports saying Brussels wouldn't like it
OWEN PATERSON, the Environment Secretary, stands accused of being "hapless" and "flat-footed" for the shambolic and slow response by the government to the horsemeat-for-beef food scandal.
Paterson's failure to get a grip has set the alarm bells ringing in Downing Street because it raises the spectre of the "omnishambles" that did so much damage to David Cameron in the spring of 2012.
Tory MP Anne McIntosh, chairman of the Environment Select Committee, has led the calls for Paterson to impose a moratorium on the import of meat from the EU.
But Paterson has refused to act, saying he does not have the power to ban imports from the EU unless there is a proven health risk – which, he still claims, there isn't.
Paterson was roasted on the Sunday Politics show by host Andrew Neil who argued that an instant moratorium was surely the only solution – and was certainly what the French would do. Look how quickly the French banned British beef at the start of the BSE food scare.
Later today Paterson will face more criticism - from his own side - when he makes a statement to the Commons on the food scandal.
So far, the Food Standards Agency has found that the processed food may not be beef but it is safe. That has failed to satisfy the Eurosceptic right wing who are looking for both the smack of firm government and any excuse to bash Europe.
The Sun's leading article today praises Anne McIntosh's "wise" call to buy only British beef while the horsemeat saga lasts and lambasts Paterson for a lack of action: "It's no wonder the hapless Environment Secretary Owen Paterson scoffed at it, mumbling some guff about EU law. Flat-footed Paterson has been behind the curve on this one all the way."
On Friday, in the midst of his EU budget triumph, Cameron announced that Paterson had been summoned to return to London from his North Shropshire constituency to get a grip of the crisis and reassure the public by holding a Saturday summit with the food industry.
This came after the Daily Mail reported that there was confusion surrounding Paterson's whereabouts until it emerged he had spent the day dealing with the scandal over the telephone from Shropshire.
Labour's Mary Creagh, the shadow environment secretary, has been running rings round Paterson. She said: "I'm waiting for the government, the experts, for the scientists to issue proper clear advice for consumers. It's simply not good enough for ministers to sit at their desks and pretend this isn't happening."
There are serious questions facing the government in addition to criticism of Paterson's limp-wristed response to the scandal. The discovery of horse meat in burgers was first made in Irish laboratories. Why was the British testing system so lax? Was it because the tests on retail food had been eased because of Cameron's drive for de-regulation?
The chairman of the Food Standards Agency, the Labour peer Lord Rooker, telephoned Downing Street on Friday to protest that Paterson's department, Defra [the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], took over food labelling in 2010 in a "Whitehall land grab" and promptly slashed the staff from 23 to 12 and cut the budget.
In the light of last year's U-turns over the "pasty tax" and "granny tax", as well as the decision to scrap the 50p top rate of tax, a Commons committee accused the coalition of an "absence of strategic leadership or weak leadership".
Cameron can shoot Paterson but he needs to look more closely at his government's performance.