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WITHHELD' MEMO SPARKS ANGER

09:00 - 13 March 2004

The admission by Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett that a crucial piece of evidence was withheld from the Anderson Inquiry into foot and mouth disease has sparked anger among farming leaders and MPs. They said the withholding of a memo in which Government vet Jim Dring admitted he could possibly have prevented the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 underlined the need for a full inquiry into the crisis.

David Hill, who was chairman of the Devon branch of the National Farmers' Union at the time of the epidemic, said yesterday: "I find it extraordinary that anything was withheld from the Anderson Inquiry that was germane to that inquiry."

Mr Hill said that Prof Iain Anderson, who chaired the inquiry, was a "punctilious man" who had given people every opportunity to say what they wanted to.

Mr Hill said: "He was encouraging people to say things. All the time these little stones were being turned over and it transpires there was this enormous rock with an open invitation to look under it, but somebody decided there was no need to look under that rock.

"The only word that comes to mind is negligent. It was negligent not to take that information into account. I am not a great conspiracy theory man. I think it was negligent."

Angela Browning, the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, said: "If they had what was called for, and that was a proper public inquiry, such as we had for BSE, then there would have been no picking and choosing over what was available to the chairman of the committee. This makes you wonder what else was withheld."

Mrs Browning pointed out that the Government were the only people who could decide to hold another inquiry and she added: "I think they will do everything they can to keep it down the list of priorities of what they are doing.

"They will say they have had three inquiries, but these were all inadequate because they were not comprehensive."

Mrs Browning suggested that the admission that Mr Dring's memo had been withheld could open the way for fresh compensation claims from those who lost out because of foot and mouth disease.

Peter Jinman, a past president of the British Veterinary Association, said the memo should have been presented to the inquiry.

"It is up to the inquiry to decide whether something is material," he said.

"All evidence should have been presented to the inquiry. Anything that could influence that and assist with it is in the interests of us all to be put to the inquiry. Then they can decide what the weight of the evidence is and whether it would have any effect, I think that is the key.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we all wish things had been done differently and in the future we hope they will have learned all the lessons, as we did with the report into the 1968 outbreak of foot and mouth disease."

Robert Persey, who farms at Broadhembury near Honiton in East Devon, said: "I think Margaret Beckett has some serious explaining to do. Each revelation exposes more questions."


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VET 'CUT CORNERS' INSPECTING FARM

09:00 - 13 March 2004

The Government vet responsible for inspecting the farm at the centre of the 2001 foot and mouth disaster was forced to "cut corners" because of staff shortages in the State Veterinary Service, it emerged last night.

The WMN can today reveal further details of the contents of a report by Government vet Jim Dring into his inspections of Bobby Waugh's Northumberland pig farm where the 2001 outbreak is thought to have started.

Last week the WMN revealed Mr Dring's admission that he could have prevented the outbreak if his inspection of Waugh's farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall had been "more rigorous".

The Government's decision to withhold his report from the Anderson Inquiry into the 2001 disaster has prompted renewed calls for a full public inquiry into the outbreak.

Mr Dring's full report paints a worrying picture of overstretched staff within the State Veterinary Service (SVS).

He details concerns about animal welfare at Waugh's farm the summer before the foot and mouth outbreak, but concedes that he did not record his concerns or pass them on to his managers because of pressures of time.

His report suggests that local SVS resources were "depleted" because of secondments to deal with an outbreak of "classical swine fever" in East Anglia and a veterinary officer vacancy.

Explaining the lack of records on visits to Waugh's farm in 2000, Mr Dring said: "Contrary to normal working practice, no such official record was made. The reason for this has to do with local staff depletion creating too much work and too little time to do it in. The inevitable, if regrettable, result of such depletion is, subject to opportunity, the cutting of corners."

Mr Dring visited Waugh's farm on 24 January - almost a month before the outbreak was confirmed - and he is confident that he did not "miss" clinical signs of the disease in its pigs as they were very unlikely to have been incubating the virus at that time.

The visit was carried out in order to renew Waugh's licence to feed swill to pigs. But Mr Dring admits that he paid only "scant" attention to Waugh's swill feeding operation, concentrating instead on animal welfare.

The revelations will put even more pressure on ministers to explain why they withheld Mr Dring's report from the Anderson Inquiry. It also raises serious questions about the resourcing of the SVS, which is on the front line of the battle to protect the UK from infectious animal diseases like foot and mouth.

Chief Vet Jim Scudamore later said the most likely cause of the 2001 outbreak was the feeding of unprocessed swill containing infected meat to pigs at Waugh's farm. Waugh was convicted in 2002 of five counts of failing to report foot and mouth, banned from keeping livestock for 15 years and ordered to wear an electronic tag for three months.

A Defra spokesman last night insisted that the SVS had had sufficient vets to carry out its duties at the time. He said that the Anderson Inquiry had been provided with full details of staffing levels for previous years.

He added: "We had enough veterinary resources in the field to deal adequately with welfare and other inspections over the period in question."

Colin Breed, Lib-Dem MP for South East Cornwall, and a member of the Commons rural affairs committee, said Mr Dring's report raised a number of concerns that should have been considered by the Anderson Inquiry. Mr Breed, whose committee carried out an inquiry into veterinary services last year, said it was not clear that long-term SVS funding problems were rectified.

"Far from the Government addressing the situation, many of us feel we are just as vulnerable as we were three years ago," he said. "In fact there is a real concern that matters have got worse. The Government have tried to utilise more private vets, but they are finding that opportunities in large animal practices are less and less attractive."

Mr Breed said that the Government's failure to disclose Mr Dring's memo would further weaken public confidence in official inquiries, adding: "This is an astounding document to come to light at this stage. It is exactly the sort of thing that should have been looked at by any inquiry into the lessons to be learned. The fact that it was withheld undermines the credibility of Government inquiries in the eyes of the public. They seem to be able to just sift out embarrassing evidence so that they get a report that will suit their purposes."

Angela Browning, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, is to challenge ministers next week over the decision to withhold Mr Dring's report from the official inquiries into the events of 2001. She said: "We were all very concerned about the form of these inquiries at the time - none of them overlapped and there were gaps inbetween them. These latest revelations do nothing to ease those fears. If we had had a proper independent public inquiry with access to all Government papers then this would have come out long ago and we could have learned the lessons."

Mr Dring's report was addressed to the "lessons learned" inquiry chaired by Dr Iain Anderson. But Defra has acknowledged that Mr Dring's report was withheld from the inquiry. A spokesman called the document an "aide memoir" that could have prejudiced Waugh's trial. He said departmental lawyers and officials had decided after Waugh's conviction that the report was "not material" to the inquiry. But he insisted that the "issues surrounding" inspections at Waugh's farm had been discussed at a meeting between Dr Anderson and Mr Dring's bosses.

Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman Andrew George said there was now a clear need for an independent inquiry into the issues raised by Mr Dring's report, adding that its conclusions could prompt a flood of claims for compensation from rural businesses. He added: "Mrs Beckett has been very cagey on this issue - we are having to drag information out of her."