From The North Devon Journal

12 April 2002

Quietly and with virtually no nation-wide publicity - which is just the way the Government likes it - more details about New Labour's handling of the foot and mouth crisis are emerging.

The inquiry under way in Brussels and Strasbourg - at which British officials, veterinary officers and, crucially, Ministers have been called to give evidence - is slowly teasing out the truth. But it is getting next to no national exposure and, quite clearly, the Government is getting off the hook.

Recent evidence has, quite understandably, been overshadowed by the Queen Mother's funeral. But the WMN reported on Tuesday the evidence of Lord Whitty, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Elliot Morley, Animal Health Minister. Today we publish further evidence from vet Alan Richardson.

The evidence of the two Ministers will have been of little comfort to the farmers who suffered such serious losses during the outbreak. The arrogance that characterised so much of the Government's approach to those affected was still apparent, as was Ministers' failure to understand that this was so much more than an economic crisis to those farmers who lost their stock.

Worst of all was Lord Whitty's cheap attack on Exmoor farmer Guy Thomas Everard, who was also giving evidence this week. The Minister said that if every farmer had acted like Mr Thomas Everard and refused the cull, the disease would have spread much more dramatically. That was an unwarranted charge to level at a hardworking farmer who successfully fought to save his animals from the slaughterman because they weren't infected with foot and mouth.

Mr Thomas Everard told the hearing he and his family had been "bullied and intimidated" by MAFF over the cull and had only learned via a media press conference that their animals were due to be killed. When Neil Parrish, the Westcountry Euro MP cross-examining the Ministers, asked if those were the tactics that would be employed if the Animal Health Bill - which gives Ministry vets access to affected farms - were to fail, he got a chilling reply.

Elliot Morley told him that in those circumstances the Government would consider using "emergency powers" overriding the view of the House of Lords, which has stopped the Bill in its tracks because it has caused such widespread alarm across the countryside.

There was more alarming evidence from veterinary surgeon Mr Richardson, who had a role in both last year's outbreak and the one in 1967. He told the hearing that when he visited a Ministry of Agriculture office at the height of the foot and mouth outbreak last year he was appalled to witness overflowing in-trays yet staff going home at 5pm. "Everything was simply going too slowly," he said.

That was, at least, one thing everyone could agree on. Even Lord Whitty admitted that at the height of the outbreak the Government never came close to its target of culling infected animals within 24 hours of confirmation of the disease. He confessed that the contingency plan proved ineffective for an outbreak on this scale and that there was an urgent need to review the plan in case of another foot and mouth crisis.

Mr Richardson went further. In his evidence, reported in today's Western Morning News, he said: "The outbreak should have been run like a military operation. Instead it was handled by administrators who lacked the experience and knowledge."

All of what we have been hearing in Brussels and Strasbourg in recent weeks confirms the concerns of most people caught up in the foot and mouth crisis: that it was badly handled, that there was a lack of real control at the top and that - worst of all - lessons don't appear to have been learned.

But this inquiry, useful as it is, has still not got to the real heart of the matter, which is the part that political considerations, including the timing of the General Election, played in decisions that were taken over foot and mouth.

The suspicion remains that the controversial contiguous cull policy was massively stepped up, resulting in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of animals, to clear the decks for last June's election. That remains a question to be put to the Prime Minister in the full glare of an open, accountable and very public inquiry. So far there is little sign of that happening.