Blair is sued for £7billion over foot and mouth

By Mark Townsend

Rural Britain will stun Tony Blair this week by launching a staggering £7billion compensation claim - the biggest in legal history - to recover massive losses sustained in the foot-and-mouth crisis. Ministers and rural officials could be summoned to court within a month to face allegations of negligence over the handling of last year's epidemic.

Lawyers acting on behalf of up to 25,000 claimants will serve the Prime Minister and the Department for the Envoronment, Food and Rural affairs notice of their intent to sue for damages this Friday. London solicitors Clas Law will grant Defra officials 14 days to respond after which they will instruct the High Court to commence proceedings unless the Government responds with a satisfactory settlement.

The audacious legal action could see those who are blamed for failing to control foot-and-mouth disease defending accusations of "negligence and breach of statutory duty." Class Law - recently successful in helping Railtrack shareholders force the Government into a humiliating U-turn over compensating small investors - has put together a fighting fund of £2million to finance what is likely be an expensive, protracted and bitterly-contested case.

Wynne Edwards partner of Class Law, said they were confident of a successful outcome, believing that months spent gathering painstaking evidence has produced a "compelling" case proving Defra acted against the interests of the rural economy.

Ultimately the group litigation order against the Government could, according to Mr Edwards involve up to a million separate cases, creating a collective compensation claim of more than £10billion.

He added that the lawsuit, if successful, would make it the highest compensation payout in British legal history. So far around 25,000 separate claimants are understood to be backing it.

Mr Edwards said: "It is possible to beat the Government as we have seen over the Railtrack decision. "More and more evidence is coming forward every day and it's looking worse and worse for the Government. "Our evidence is compelling and, judging from what we have seen, we feel we have a reasonable prospect of success."

Mr Edwards who was keen to stress that the legal action was not politically motivated, added: "By simply applying one's intellect, it is obvious that the Government should have done more or done it differently." Major organisations backing the action include the Aberdeen Angus Steak House chain and the youth Hostel Association.

Other claimants represent a broad range of interests, from coffee shops to manufacturers of hiking socks. Most of those country areas affected by foot-and-mouth such as Cumbria, North Yorkshire, the Midlands, Scotland and the West Country.

The correspondence to be sent to Mr Blair by Class Law this week sets out in detail their complaints about how the Government dealt with the crisis and explains how damages should be qualified. The action centres on allegations that the Government failed to identify the outbreak when it first occurred, failed to stop animal movements once it became aware of the problem and closed down the countryside without regard to the rural economy.

Class Law, which was instructed to take the case on behalf of the UK Rural Business Campaign, will also demand a series of Defra documents, statements and instructions relating to the epidemic which began in February 2001.

Solicitors believe the documents will substantiate allegations that Defra distributed wrong information about areas closed to the public and the Government contravened human rights legislation by curtailing people's right to enjoyment of their property.

Disquiet has also mounted among those who have been compiling the case over the number of possible witnesses that have been silenced by imposition of the Official Secrets Act. Stephen Alexander, also of Class Law, said: "This has prevented them from giving evidence to assist the claimants. The legal action could prove extremely damaging to the government because in effect it will act as a public inquiry in its actions during the crisis. Mr Alexander added: "The court case will enable many of the issues the Government wish to hide being given a full public airing."

Lawyers acting for claimants believe the Government's determination to avoid such an inquiry might be enough in itself to win a settlement.

Mr Alexander added: "Many of the claimants have been heartened by the U-turn of the Government in respect of Railtrack.

"This shows that if the case is good and the claimants are determined, that the Government would rather settle than face a court hearing."

The claim will also attempt to win damages for those who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by the foot-and-mouth cull.

Mr Edwards added: "We have received reports of lambs having their throats cut with penknives in front of owners.

"The bottom line is that some animals were killed in the wrong manner and were obviously traumatised which in turn has affected many people as well."

The £2milloion fighting fund to cover expenses of a case which could last two years is made up of contributory fees and donations from claimants. Those who sustained losses of under £5,000 as a result of the handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis pay £50, those who lost between £5,000 and £20,000 pay £150 while those whose losses extend above £1m are required to pay £1,250.

The pot has been supplemented by a number of donations ranging from £50 to £10,000. The fighting fund will be used to refund costs of rural businesses should the case fail. Any money left over will be split. And distributed to the worst-affected members of the rural community. Mr Edwards said: "If anyone's business has suffered then they should come forward and contribute a small sum in return for a reasonable chance of recovering their losses." Many businesses had an entire turnover slashed by 100 percent for almost a year.

They are angry that ministers have not taken any responsibility for the alleged mismanagement of a crisis described as bigger and more complex than the United Kingdom's involvement in the Gulf War. The foot-and-mouth epidemic has already cost taxpayers almost £3billion.

The costs of dealing with the epidemic, such as creating pyres for burning carcasses and burying slaughtered animals, has been put at £2.7billion. In addition, farmers have received £275million compensation from the Government for animals that were killed as part of the cull or because of movement restrictions imposed on livestock, making it impossible for them to be sold. Rural businesses are furious that their losses caused by foot-and-mouth have not been similarly reimbursed.

A spokesman for Defra said they could not comment on the legal action until they had received official notification. He added, however, that the Government had already ruled out paying compensation for "consequential losses" as an indirect result of the disease.