Years ago, in what was then Bombay (now Mumbai), when walking down a main street on my way to a meeting, I was stopped in my tracks by a speedy, large white van. There was no danger - I was on the pavement as the van drove by. The only thing that hit me was the message, in large black letters, on the side of the van:


That was all it said: the message-makers and sign-writers apparently saw no need to explain further. Smoking is hazardous to health; long live motherhood and apple pie, look both ways before you cross the road, and delay breeds corruption. The message seemed to speak for itself: it was either self-evident, or so completely familiar that there was no need to explain.

I have been powerfully reminded of this proposition, DELAY BREEDS CORRUPTION, in recent exchanges with the MHRA about the ‘Seroxat/Placebo Suicides’. For over six months, the MHRA bent over backwards not to tell the truth, managing to be thoroughly deceitful but without telling outright lies. The delays were an integral part of the deceipt.

That is the point that is missed completely in the MHRA formal response to our  complaint about the pattern of delay in responding to FOI requests about the Seroxat Placebo Suicides. Yes, said the MHRA adjudicator solemnly: her close colleagues had been responsible for "unnecessary delays in dealing with some of the questions raised … for which we apologise sincerely". She thought there were lessons to be learned and claimed the Agency had taken positive steps to this end.

But this is flannel, however sincere. In particular, I feel sure that the MHRA’s "Group Manager, Pharmacovigilance Risk Management, Vigilance Risk Management of Medicines", (Ms Sarah Wark), is in urgent need of further tuition. This was her long delayed and triumphantly bald explanation for dallying for ages before not coming clean:

CM: Please explain why Mr Fletcher's report, dated 8 June 2006, was not sent to me before 3 July, i.e. why there was nearly a month's delay."

SW: "The month’s delay in sending on Mr Fletcher’s report was an oversight on my part."

No lessons whatever are going to be learned until either [a] these people get a grip on their unconscious; and/or [b] they start behaving like scientists rather than apparatchiks dedicated to the avoidance of embarrassment and/or [c] Parliament and its agents (Ombudsmen included) insist on rigorous transparency in government, as an essential antidote to waste, prejudice, incompetence and inefficiency. Meanwhile, the MHRA seems well deserving of public odium and mistrust.

Charles Medawar
26 September 2006