THE Northern Echo seems almost endlessly to be calling for open, independent inquiries. How did Richard Neale, the gynaecologist disgraced in Canada, come to be botching operations in North Yorkshire? How did Operation Lancet drag on so bitterly and inconclusively?

Yesterday came two more pertinent calls. Have we learned the lessons from last year's foot-and-mouth outbreak, which devastated the countryside and blighted so many lives? What is the truth of the Mittal affair which has blackened the Government's reputation to such an extent that people now view it as no better than the last Tory administration?

The demand for open inquiries shows how far our institutions have slipped in public esteem. Where once the public respected the medical profession and the police, it now openly questions them. People don't believe officialdom has the rigour to come up with answers on its own and there is an increasingly belief that all politicians are only in it for themselves.

The problem with public inquiries is that they are time-consuming and very expensive. And once one is granted, campaigners will soon find another cause clbre that requires examination - almost certainly if Tony Blair turned over Mittal for independent analysis, his accusers would soon find another 'scandal' with which to besmirch his name.

Perhaps we have all become too cynical. We should occasionally remind ourselves that standards in public life in this country are actually very high - in the corruption league, our politicians and policemen lag far behind even our Continental cousins.

Yet, part of the reason for this cynicism is the feeling of double standards. Even putting Lancet to one side, if your company had been bedevilled by incidents like public urinations, collapsed trials and forgotten speeding tickets, wouldn't you expect some comeback on the management? If your boss was as vague about a major contract as Mr Blair has been with the facts of the Mittal affair, wouldn't you expect him to be criticised? If your boss was as indecisive as the Government was over foot-and-mouth, wouldn't you expect some changes? If your boss employed someone as demonstrably incompetent as Mr Neale, wouldn't you expect him to be for the high jump?

If we are to begin to restore faith in public life, if we are to restore the countryside's confidence in officialdom, if we are to restore voters to the polling booths, the public needs open and independent answers to these questions. At the moment, there are no bodies in place to provide them, and so independent inquiries, for all their flaws, are the only way forward.