Opinion - Western Morning News

All of the arrogance, the ignorance and the sheer hypocrisy of the Government during the foot and mouth crisis was epitamised in one sentence from Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett.

Her curt dismissal of the findings of the Devon County Council foot and mouth inquiry make it clear that Mrs. Beckett is completely out of touch with the very people she purports to represent in the Cabinet and must resign.

She said "The report of the committee of Devon County councillors clearly provides a local perspective and reflects local views and conclusions. I am afraid I do not accept those conclusions."

Aside from being a gross insult to Professor Ian Mercer, who chaired the Devon Inquiry, and totally dismissive of many expert witnesses who gave evidence to the hearing, her statement is also abject nonsense.

The Devon inquiry was only "local" in the sense that it was held in Exeter. The matters under discussion - from the likely source of the foot and mouth outbreak to the way it was spread and the impact on farmers, the tourist industry and other rural businesses - accurately reflected the situation nationally.

And Devon only opted to stage its own inquiry, at some expense and with an enormous amount of effort on the part of council staff and others, because the Governments consistently refused to hold a proper inquiry itself. For what Mrs. Beckett and the Prime Minister Tony Blair - must take full responsibility.

Not only that the Government flatly refused to take part in the Devon inquiry and answer the legitimate and important questions which Professor Mercer and his team wanted to put. Only after the inquiry did they issue a statement and belatedly admit to certain errors in the way the foot and mouth cull was conducted in Devon.

Not surprisingly the Devon inquiry came up with some conclusions that were unpalatable for the Government. It highlighted the mismanagement of the crisis, the horrors of the contiguous cull, the long-term economic impact on much of the rural economy and the need to take sensible precautions to stop anything like this ever happening again.

In fact many of its findings have been accepted by other Ministers within Mrs. Beckett's department. Lord Whitty and Elliot Morley both made tacit admissions of mistakes that were made in the Government''s handling of the crisis when they gave evidence to the EU in quiry into the fmd outbreak that is currently under way in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Yet Mrs. Beckett, as combative, unbending and unwilling to listen as ever, sticks to the discredited old line. She refuses to accpet that anything whatsoever of use came out the the Devon inquiry and declares it a mere "local issue".

Mrs. Beckett has been in the job for less than a year. Her department has been in existence for the same short period. But when it was set up, from the wreckage of the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, rural people were prepared to give it - and her as its new boss - a chance, Her time is now up. Country people are not quick to judge. But they will not be taken for fools. And the evidence has been stacking up against Mrs. Beckett virtually since her first speech in her role as Secretary of State.

She has lectured farmers about accepting change - when the vast majority have been adapting and diversifying in an attempt to stay afloat for years.

She has snubbed invitations to visit rural areas - even though she could have learned a great deal about the problems faced by those people who her department is suppoed to serve.

She told country people there was "no problem " with disposing of unwanted fridges in the countryside - as the mountain grows ever higher and the search for a solution remain elusive.

Worst of all she never really connected with rural Britain, in any meaningful way since her very first day in the job. Farmers felt badly served by Nick Brown, the last Agriculture Minister, but at least he listened, tried to understand their difficulties and, initially at least appear to offer some hope.

Mrs. Becket looks like the wrong person in the wrong job with no interest and no answers for the countryside. Her dismissal of the hard work of the Devon foot and mouth inquiry just about puts the lid on it. She has to go