Muckspreader 21 February 2006 Private EyeNo doubt we must congratulate Professor Neil Ward and his team at Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy on their blistering report Foot And Mouth: Five Years On, reviewing the record of Defra in the five years since it was set up in the wake of the 2001 epidemic. They find that, following the mayhem inflicted on the rural economy during those nightmarish months of the crisis, the interests of farming and the countryside have slipped even further down the government’s agenda. There is no sign that any lessons have been learned from the government’s grotesque mishandling of a crisis which cost the nation an estimated £8 billion. Since then, the plight of Britain’s farmers has only continued to get worse.
It is of course splendid that these learned academics should have come to such conclusions. But readers of this column might be forgiven for a very slight sense of déjà vu. After all, it was this column which gave more comprehensive coverage to the government’s blunders during the foot and mouth debacle than any other paper. No sooner had the disgraced old Maffia been reborn as Defra, under the benign guidance of Margaret Beckett (aka Rosa Klebb), than it was renamed here as the Department for Elimination of Farming and Rural Affairs. And in more than 100 columns since we have tried to show just why that nickname is wholly justified.
The tragedy is that farming, like defence, is one of those issues which have fallen off the bottom not just of the government’s agenda but that of the media as well. National newspapers no longer bother to employ farming correspondents. What is the point, when farming now employs barely one percent of the national workforce; when our farming policy is dictated not in Westminster but in Brussels; and when our newspaper editors have found so many more important matters to fill their pages, such as the doings of minor urban celebrities and Sudoku puzzles?
Yet if any group of town dwellers was treated with the kind of contemptuous incompetence which Rosa and her Defra colleagues routinely display towards the farming community there would be uproar. The conduct of the foot and mouth crisis alone, as we reported at the time, amounted to an act of maladministration without precedent. Upwards of nine million healthy animals were destroyed, wholly unnecessarily, in defiance of all the best scientific advice and at a cost to the nation’s economy equivalent to £320 for every taxpayer in the land. Furthermore, the fact that most of that mass-slaughter was in clear breach of the Animal Health Act 1981 made it the most comprehensive criminal act in our history - for which not a single official was ever prosecuted or called to account.
This weird catastrophe was masterminded for Maff by a small group of computer modellers, led by Professor Roy Anderson and Professor Neil Ferguson, who were without any experience of animal diseases. Yet, as our media now work themselves up into a frenzy about bird flu, who has Defra appointed as one of its chief scientific advisers on the handling of this new animal health crisis? Professor Neil Ferguson. Five years on, as those Newcastle academics so rightly observe, it is clear that Defra has not learned any lessons whatever.