As I write, they are discussing rail regulation, in the wake of the Hatfield crash, on Radio 4.But that was last week's disaster. A few minutes earlier they had been talking about this week's disaster: the renewed controversy over BSE triggered by the Phillips report, by the fresh scare in France and by the panic recall of potentially tainted polio vaccine made on Merseyside.

It never rains but it pours. I should point out right away that health secretary Alan Milburn may be a pretty fancy media manipulator, but the need for him to act quickly on the 'inaccurate' safety assurances given by Medeva - the firm which makes the vaccine at Speke - had the effect of blowing out his own speech to the social services conference in Edinburgh the same day.

But what of regulation? On rail the new consensus is that ministers have failed to interfere decisively to reverse the fragmentation of the network under John Major's privatisation.

As everyone now knows, the BSE/CJD affair is also traceable to deregulation of the abattoir industry under Mrs T, with plenty of Tory ministers and officials in Lord Phillips' sights.

Yet medical researchers from the late 1980s complain that it was political interference that forced them to spend funds (which had, of course, been cut) in the wrong direction, thus losing a couple of vital years in understanding BSE.

Tricky, isn't it?

Last week Mrs White and I finally visited the Greenwich Dome (verdict: an honourable failure) and later commiserated with a neighbour who'd designed one of the zones. 'You never had enough time to get it right, ' I suggested.'Oh no, ' he replied, 'we could have done it but for the political interference'.

We're all going to hear more and more of this sort of debate as Britain's fledgling regulation industry finds its feet, just a century after the US started heavy-duty regulation of its unbridled capitalist economy.

NICE, caught between the drugs industry and consumer pressure (did you see that report claiming Aricept really can reverse Alzheimer's? ) is a prime battleground.

But the polio scare at Speke also put the Medicines Control Agency into the frame.The risk is tiny, but we are a little hysterical about risk assessment nowadays. The Observer reported at the weekend that Medeva had a troubled history which horrified hard-bitten US regulators (the Food and Drug Administration has real teeth) when they inspected the plant last year.

Milburn's team says the possibility of BSE-tainted material being found in the vaccine came out of a clear blue sky. I get the impression that ministers are not overwhelmingly impressed by the MCA's performance, that it is seen as over-concerned with what happened in the past and - surprise, surprise - insensitive to consumer concerns, such as mothers with babies who don't want them to get BSE or polio. 'A 1950s attitude', was one phrase I picked up on what we should now clearly label the Political Interference Circuit.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health did play a positive role in bullying the Treasury into accepting the need for a compensation fund for the 80 or so people who have caught variants of CJD and (most of them) died of it. Mr Milburn also argued for the setting up of a trust to administer the fund case-by-case, rather than setting a tariff (more for a 40-year old father of two than for a single teenager).

Despite being awash with cash, the Treasury will always resist what it fears will be an open-ended commitment if the worst fears are realised. But what did Minister Milburn actually say before he bombed his own speech in Edinburgh? He complained that, with only one in three children in care getting a single GCSE, that is a failure of the system. Education is an integral part of care, he said.' Neither a paternalistic state providing safety-net services to a public expected to be grateful, nor a rolled-back state leaving people to sink or swim. . .'An active welfare state is what he has in mind.

Splendid, splendid, and the minister announced large chunks of money to improve education services up to student level. Social services directors who were braced for a squeeze will no doubt be study-