News: Major blasts Blair on foot and mouth
JUST weeks after it was set up, any hope that the new Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might improve the Government's woeful handling of foot and mouth is fading rapidly.
The disease itself is certainly not in retreat; cases have continued to be reported over the past few months at a steady rate of up to five a day, and even more just recently. Meanwhile, relations between farmers and ministers seem, if anything, to be even worse than they were in the bad old days of Maff. Defra's unilateral decision on Monday to scrap the standardised compensation scheme for culled livestock, on the ground that it was being abused by farmers, can only deepen the distrust between the two sides still further.
The continuing spread of the disease and the bad relations are not, of course, unconnected. Whenever the Government has been criticised for its failure to get a grip on the outbreak, it has responded by denigrating the farmers. But while some farmers may indeed have exaggerated their compensation claims and clean-up costs, it was up to ministers to see that the schemes they produced were fair and workable. In Scotland, where the devolved administration has been in charge, costs seem to have been kept under control. Why was the same not done in England? And what is going to be done now about cleaning up infected farms and paying for culled animals?
It is the Government that is in charge of these matters, and it is quite clear that they are not working as they should. Writing on this page, John Major adds his name to the growing list of those demanding that, at the end of this epidemic, there must be a proper public inquiry into all that has happened. By now, that must surely be obvious to everyone. Yet ministers, led by the Prime Minister, still refuse to accept as much. They seem incapable of understanding that this makes the Government look only as if it has a lot to hide, and that this, in turn, can only further undermine confidence in its efforts to fight the disease. Nor will casting the farmers as scapegoats for everything that goes wrong help get the epidemic under control. Unless the Government can find a way of working with the farmers, rather than against them, as increasingly seems to be the case, foot and mouth could well last beyond Christmas.