Farm virus inquiries 'saved time'

BBC News

Six million animals were culled

The government's decision to hold three private inquiries into last year's foot-and-mouth epidemic was based on the urgent need to deal with any sudden renewed outbreak, the High Court has heard. "It would be cold comfort to the government and the people of this country if we were faced with a further outbreak this winter," said Lord Goldsmith QC, the Attorney General.

A report some time in the future after a full-blown public inquiry would contain "barren and empty promises" against such an event, he argued.

And the cost to the tax-payer of a public inquiry, perhaps running into tens of millions of pounds, could well have been spent on the rural community or other projects, he said.

Government accused

Lord Goldsmith was contesting a move by farmers for a judicial review of the decision by Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett not to hold a public inquiry into the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Eight farmers, two vets and five other individuals have accused the government of "forsaking thoroughness in the interests of speed and efficiency".

They say that the current "Lessons Learned" inquiry being held by former prime ministerial adviser Iain Anderson is "tainted" because information received from ministers and senior officials will not be fully published.

Earlier, the judges had heard argument on the public's "right to know" from Desmond Browne QC.

Mr Browne said Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, relating to freedom of expression, indicated that postponement of publication of information - for instance, until a private inquiry had reported - was a breach of that right.

"If you don't publish the evidence and the public has to wait for months, you have a crisis in public confidence in addition to the existing crisis," he said.

Mr Browne also pointed out that it was a fallacy to assume a public inquiry would necessarily be slower or more expensive.

He said the court should not be scared by the "bogey" images of another BSE or Bloody Sunday inquiry, involving massive lawyers' fees.

The hearing was adjourned until Wednesday.