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Official vet admits blunders over foot-and-mouth

By Valerie Elliott, Countryside Editor

A Government vet has admitted that his failings led to the world’s worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Jim Dring, in an official document, said he had not carried out a “rigorous inspection” at the pig-swill farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, that was the catalyst for the outbreak. If he had, the outbreak which cost the taxpayer some £8billion, would never have occurred, he confessed.

The admission has renewed demands for compensation from the Government and for a full public inquiry into the outbreak.

Mr Dring, still employed as a vet by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Newcastle, owned up in a report intended for the official inquiry into the outbreak conducted by Iain Anderson. But this intervention was not mentioned in the final report. In an extraordinary development last night it also emerged that Mr Dring’s confession may never have been disclosed to the inquiry fuelling suspicion that the paper may have been suppressed.

A Defra spokesman said that officials had collated observations from many people involved in the outbreak to help to compile a departmental note to the Anderson inquiry about the origins of the outbreak. He was unable to say if Mr Dring’s admission had been included in the departmental note.

Margaret Beckett, Rural Affairs Secretary, is now under pressure from the Conservative and Liberal-Democratic parties to make an emergency statement to the Commons.

There has always remained concern from farmers and members of the public that the Anderson inquiry was conducted behind closed doors, including interviews with Tony Blair, other Cabinet ministers and witnesses.

Mr Dring was the vet who inspected the animals at the unit run by Bobby Waugh and who also granted him a licence to process catering waste into pig swill. In the document, seen by The Times and dated October 5, 2001, just after the country was declared free of the disease, Mr Dring said: “Had this inspection been more rigorous than it was, had the licence not been renewed, or renewed only subject to radical revision of the Waughs’ patently deficient feeding technique, then this awful 2001 FMD epidemic would never have come about.”

A flood of compensation claims against Defra, especially from the 62 pig-swill feeders who lost their businesses after a ban on the practice, is now certain. One bankrupt has already started proceedings and a case is due at the end of the month. Others made complaints, backed by MPs, to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

Mr Dring said last night he was unable to comment further but did not dispute remarks attributed to him in yesterday’s edition of Farmer’s Weekly that he stood by comments in his Anderson evidence, but that documents disclosed were only a small part of his 30-page report.

The extract disclosed however also said: “Whatever their thinking and whatever their behaviour, there must have been a reason ... that seems or seemed valid to the Waughs.

“That such a reason might occur to them but not (until too late) to me, their MAFF inspector, constitutes a failure of the imagination on my part which, allied to the failure of perception noted above, is hard to forgive.”

A Defra spokesman said: “These issues have been raised before on a number of occasions. Jim Dring’s primary role ... was to check the welfare of animals on the farm. And the stock welfare at the time of his last visit prior to the FMD outbreak was satisfactory.”