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09:00 - 26 March 2004

A westcountry MP has stepped up calls for an investigation into the Government's decision to withhold vital evidence from the official foot and mouth inquiry. Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman Andrew George said there was still a need for an independent inquiry into the decision to suppress a report in which Government vet Jim Dring claimed he could have prevented the 2001 disaster.

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".

Farms Minister Lord Whitty told peers this week that the Government had been wrong to withhold the report from the "lessons learned" inquiry chaired by Dr Iain Anderson. Lord Whitty described the decision as "regrettable", but said officials had acted in good faith on legal advice that the report should be withheld for fear of prejudicing Waugh's trial. The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs initially claimed that Mr Dring's 12,000-word report was an "aide memoire" that was not intended for the Anderson Inquiry.

But, in an attempt to draw a line under the affair, Lord Whitty conceded that the "wider significance" of the report meant that it should have been submitted to Dr Anderson. He said ministers would have taken a different decision if they had been aware of the decision. But he was unable to say definitively whether other evidence had been withheld from Dr Anderson.

Mr George, MP for St Ives, told the WMN an independent inquiry was now needed into the handling of Mr Dring's report and the implications of its conclusions. "The whole situation is very unsatisfactory," he said. "We have had to drag information out of Defra day by day. We have now had series of admissions: firstly that the report actually exists; secondly that it was intended for the inquiry; and thirdly that it was a mistake not to have forwarded it. Initially Margaret Beckett was dismissing this report as Mr Dring's private 'musings'.

"We now know that it was a detailed submission, which clearly took a significant amount of time to draw up and which could have been one of the most important documents received by the inquiry.

"We now need a short, sharp, independent inquiry into what happened to it and whether the material it contained would have materially affected the findings of Dr Anderson's inquiry. Defra has got away with murder on this and it leaves a very bad taste in the mouths of the many people who suffered tremendously in 2001."