STILL HIDING BEHIND THE SECRETS AND LIES


09:00 - 14 March 2003

The catalogue of official criticism levelled at the Government for its incompetent handling of the foot and mouth crisis grows larger, almost by the month. The latest report into the way the fight against the £8 billion rural disaster was managed concludes that the now disbanded Ministry of Agriculture was guilty of a "serious misjudgement" about the likelihood of an outbreak. It also found that Ministers made mistakes in the way they tried to bring the disease under control and failed to take into account the degree to which tourism would be adversely affected. But the overall impact of the Commons Public Accounts Committee findings barely scratches the surface of the magnitude of mismanagement, neglect and cover-up that characterised the Government's entire response to the foot and mouth disaster.

The slings of arrows of this report - just like those from the European Parliament, the independent experts and other interested organisations - will no doubt bounce off the thick hides of the guilty Ministers with little or no ill-effect.

True, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was dismantled as a sacrifice once foot and mouth was over, in order to satisfy the need for a scapegoat. And Nick Brown, an honest and hard-working Agriculture Minister who had the ill-luck to be heading Maff at the time of the crisis, lost his job. Yet Defra, which has proved itself no more effective a champion of British farming, has been formed in place of Maff.

As far as New Labour is concerned, foot and mouth is dead and buried; the blundering, bungling and cover-ups that went on are old news and no one outside of the few thousand farmers and tourist business operators who were affected gives a stuff. How convenient.

The fact that the Government refused point-blank to agree to a public inquiry - even though Environment Minister Michael Meacher acknowledged at the height of the crisis that one would have to be held - can now be seen for the cynical political ploy that it always was. And the fact that Ministers successfully persuaded a court not to force an inquiry despite pleas for a judicial review - supported financially by the Western Morning News and others - is once more exposed as a massive missed opportunity to get at the truth.

Without a full, open and accountable inquiry, with the power to call senior Ministers - right up to the Prime Minister - and demand answers from them, the true scale of the secrets, lies, deceit and errors surrounding the handling of the foot and mouth crisis will never be known. All the inquiries that were held have been either restricted by the sphere of interest of the committee involved, like this one which concentrates only on the financial implications, or hamstrung by a lack of real teeth and proper access to those who made all the fateful decisions.

As a result the most serious accusation - that Tony Blair hastened the cull of thousands of healthy animals in order to end the disaster in time for the election - never had the airing it deserved and the true motives behind some of the most damaging and heart-breaking actions taken during the crisis have never been tested. That is, and will remain, unforgivable, particularly for a party said to be committed to "open government".

But the Government is clearly unmoved by this report, or its significance. Being accused of making a "serious misjudgement" over a crisis that passed more than two years ago holds little terror for Ministers, particularly when the department coming in for the attack has long since been wound up. It's rather like being savaged by the famous "dead sheep" - as in Dennis Healey's unforgettable Parliamentary put-down of Geoffrey Howe. The timing of this report - on the eve of a war with Iraq - virtually guarantees it will be buried... as has so much about the Government's desperately flawed conduct, throughout the disaster.

Yet there are serious lessons to be learned from these diluted findings, and worrying indications that little heed is being paid to them, just as the lessons following the 1967/68 foot and mouth outbreak were ignored with catastrophic results. Worst of all, the politicians who made, at best, crass errors of judgement and, at worst, calculated political decisions which destroyed people's lives, are getting off scot-free. And that's bad for democracy itself.