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TORIES PLEDGE TO HOLD FOOT AND MOUTH INQUIRY

11:00 - 14 March 2005

Tory leader Michael Howard is to promise a public inquiry into the origins of the foot and mouth disaster as the Conservatives attempt to bolster their rural support in the run-up to the General Election.

In a move that reflects continuing suspicions of a Government cover-up over the 2001 outbreak, the Conservatives will pledge to hold a full inquiry to establish exactly how the disease entered the country - and how it was able to come into contact with the nation's livestock.

Shadow Agriculture Minister Jim Paice told the WMN that the continuing uncertainty over the origins of the outbreak made it more difficult to ensure that the disaster was never repeated. Four years on from the epidemic, which led to the slaughter of more than six million animals and landed taxpayers with a 3 billion bill, he said there could still be a number of valuable lessons to learn.

"We are still in the extraordinary position of not knowing what started it," he said. "We are saying quite clearly that we would have a public inquiry to ascertain the origins of the epidemic so that we can take every possible measure to try to prevent a repeat."

Westcountry farmers who suffered as a result of the crisis welcomed the Tory decision last night. Layland Branfield, the Dartmoor farmer who was reduced to bitter tears as he saw his livestock slaughtered in 2001, said ministers were still not taking seriously the threat posed by illegal meat imports.

"There are still some answers we need and this inquiry may be a way of getting them," he said. "It may be a pre-election attempt to pick up a few votes in the countryside, but I welcome anything that raises the profile of the illegal meat problem. We need to put more effort into stopping it coming in."

Richard Haddock, whose Kingswear farm was placed under restrictions for much of 2001, said he had no doubt that there had been a "cover-up". Mr Haddock, chairman of the NFU's livestock committee, said: "The Conservatives are quite right to look at where this disease came from. So long as we don't know how it got here and what regulatory failings there might have been we are vulnerable to it happening again."

Mr Paice said the case for a public inquiry had been bolstered by the WMN's revelation that vital documents had been withheld from the official inquiry chaired by Dr Iain Anderson.

The WMN revealed last year that the Anderson Inquiry never received a report in which Government vet Jim Dring said the 2001 disaster "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". Ministers were forced to acknowledge that the report had been withheld by officials.

The WMN later revealed that a video showing shocking conditions on Waugh's farm was also never sent to the inquiry. Both the Lib-Dems and the Tories called for the Anderson inquiry to be reopened to consider the evidence, but ministers refused. Mr Paice also tabled a series of Parliamentary questions in a bid to uncover more details about the origins of the outbreak and to establish whether other material had been withheld.

Mr Paice said: "We are getting nowhere with the questions - they are just being ducked and rebuffed. In the circumstances we now need a proper inquiry."

Ministers insist there is no need for a further inquiry, as an investigation into the origins of the outbreak has already been conducted by former Chief Vet Jim Scudamore. Dr Scudamore concluded that the most likely cause of the outbreak was the use of illegally imported meat in untreated swill at Waugh's farm. Swill feeding has now been banned.

But unlike other major disease outbreaks, such as the 1967 foot and mouth epidemic or the 2000 outbreak of classical swine fever, the origins of the 2001 crisis have never been established beyond doubt.

Ian Johnson, South West spokesman for the National Farmers' Union, said he would prefer to see politicians of all hues move on. "I am unable to see any virtue whatsoever in the Conservatives' apparent manifesto pledge to hold a public inquiry four years after the event," he said. "Surely, far more relevant than a bit of very belated political point scoring over the foot and mouth outbreak is what those who aspire to govern us for the next five years are proposing to do about this scourge. If the past is anything to go by, not a lot, as successive governments of both hues have failed spectacularly to grasp the nettle."