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DEFRA 'IN THE CLEAR' OVER VET'S REPORT 11:00 - 22 April 2004

Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett last night insisted there had been "no intention to mislead" the official inquiry into foot and mouth when the Government withheld a report in which a state vet said he could have prevented the disaster.

In a letter to the Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman, Andrew George, Mrs Beckett said an internal investigation had cleared officials of deliberately misleading the "lessons learned" inquiry, chaired by Dr Iain Anderson, when they blocked the submission of a report by government vet Jim Dring.

But Mr George said an independent investigation into the affair was still needed to "restore trust" in battered rural communities.

The internal investigation was ordered by Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw and Sir Brian Bender, the permanent secretary at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, after the WMN revealed the existence of Mr Dring's report last month.

Mr Dring concluded that the foot and mouth crisis "would never have come about" if his inspection of Bobby Waugh's Northumberland pig farm in the weeks leading up to the outbreak had been "more rigorous".

But although his report was addressed to the Anderson Inquiry it was blocked by Defra officials.

Mrs Beckett said the internal investigation had cleared both ministers and officials of wrongdoing.

She said the investigation had concluded that there was "no intention on the part of officials to mislead the lessons learned inquiry".

And she added that there was "nothing to be gained from an independent investigation".

Mrs Beckett said Mr Dring's "statement" had been blocked by officials on the basis of legal advice that it could prejudice Waugh's trial on foot and mouth related charges.

"The issue was not referred to ministers," she added.

Mrs Beckett said that the "factual information" contained in Mr Dring's report was "covered" in other material submitted to the inquiry, which became known as the Lessons Learned Inquiry.

She added: "Both Dr Anderson and I believe it would have been preferable if Mr Dring's statement had been passed to the inquiry.

"Nonetheless, Dr Anderson has publicly stated that Jim Dring's statement would not have changed any of the conclusions or recommendations in his inquiry's report."

However Mr George, MP for St Ives, said that public confidence had been so damaged by the handling of Mr Dring's report that an independent investigation was now needed.

"In the end this is all about trust," he said. "A large section of the farming community simply do not trust the Government on this.

"When they hear that everyone has been cleared by an internal investigation the reaction of many will be: 'They're bound to say that'.

"I would like to be able to say that ministers are honourable and can be trusted at all times.

"But the way that the truth has had to be dragged out of them on this issue does not inspire confidence.

"This was something that had potentially massive implications and probably the only way to clear it up properly is to have a narrow, independent investigation into what went on."

Mr George said he was also surprised by the change in Mrs Beckett's attitude towards Mr Dring's report.

When the report was initially revealed, Mrs Beckett appeared to suggest that it had never been intended for the Anderson Inquiry, dismissing it as private "musings" and "notes he made for himself".

Mr George added: "If you compare their dismissal of the issue when it was first raised to what they are saying now, there does seem to be some inconsistency there and people are bound to ask: 'why should we trust you now?'"