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15bn foot-and-mouth 'lesson'

 
Steve Dube, Western Mail

THE call by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee for farmers to pay the costs of future livestock diseases reopens questions over the Government's role in the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic.

For nearly two years, the Parliamentary Ombudsman has been investigating a charge of maladministration against officials of the former Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries.

The claim is simple, and arises from the statement of Jim Dring, the State Veterinary Officer who renewed the swill-feeding licence at Waughs' pig farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, two weeks before the disease was discovered rampant among the animals there.

Mr Dring admitted that he had not done his job properly and added, "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."

The damning statement was made to the Anderson "Lessons Learned" inquiry, one of three set up by the Government to investigate the epidemic.

But Mr Dring's evidence was never submitted to the hearing and was only published by Defra in March last year, after it was leaked in the Western Morning News.

The Government has consistently refused all appeals for a full public inquiry, where witnesses can be questioned under oath.

Instead those affected by an epidemic that devastated the farming industry, closed vast tracts of the countryside and involved the possibly illegal slaughter of perfectly healthy animals, have to digest and respond to piecemeal recommendations like those of the Public Accounts Committee.

The Western Mail backed the call for a full public inquiry at the time and remains convinced that it is the best way to make sure that we know what went wrong and can take the necessary steps to ensure it never happens again.

There may be more revelations yet to come. But meanwhile, a great deal rests on the Parliamentary Ombudsman's report, whenever that might appear.

Much is at stake and there is a precedent. In 1996 the Parliamentary Ombudsman identified maladministration in a case where a Maff official renewed a swill feeding licence on a farm where conditions should have prevented renewal. The cases are remarkably similar, and if a like adjudication is made in the Waugh case, the Government can expect compensation claims totalling 15bn from across the UK and the European Union.

The Public Accounts Committee insists that the foot-and-mouth epidemic was an intolerable burden on the taxpayer, who should never again have to shoulder the cost of any similar epidemic.

That taxpayer may yet have to pay a whole lot more to meet the costs of a serious administrative error.