Farmers Guardian 19 April 2002

Stand off in Strasbourg

Fair enough, it was the full blown public inquiry we wanted and should have got. But there were high hopes for the European Parliament's investigation into the foot and mouth outbreak when it was announced in January.

It would be the inquiry that reached the parts the heavily censored UK inquiries could not. Uniquely, Ministers and other key players were to be probed in public and, based at Strasbourg, interference from Westminster was not expected to be a problem.

It has had its moments, such as when Lord Whitty was forced to admit that the 24/48 hour cull target was never reached. But the overall impression is that the inquiry, dragged down by political bickering and administrative chaos, is toothless and highly unlikely to unearth any hidden truths.

Questioning in Strasbourg has for the main part left witnesses unscathed. Then there is this week's four day jaunt to the north of England and Scotland. Farmers had hoped it would give them a real platform to explain what really went on. But just one public meeting was organised, in Gretna in the middle of Thursday afternoon. The invite only system of the other meetings has created only confusion and never going to be suspicion that witnesses have been hand picked.

It is difficult to believe that moves by Labour MEPs to limit the number of public meetings, were not influenced in some way by the Labour Government. But committee members from other parties who have drawn attention to this have not been averse to manipulating the investigation to suit their own ends, either political point scoring has split the committee in two and robbed it of direction. One side only wants to look back and cares about little else than embarrassing the Government. The other won't look back where it can avoid it and is trying to ensure the focus is firmly on the future.

The process is not helped by the sort of organisational prowess last witnessed in the bowels of MAFF headquarters last spring. The secretariat administering the investigation is woefully overworked, while language barriers are hampering communications within the committee.

Farmers are still angry. Time is not healing and the desire to find real answers burns as strongly as ever. But maybe we expected too much from our MEPs. On the other hand, maybe we deserve better.