Tom Griffith-JonesLand Agent

Rural Practice Surveyor

 

 

 

Specialising in Environmentally-sound Agricultural Estate Management, Green Belt issues, Farm Management, Rural Education, Public Access, Sustainable Agriculture, Renewable Energy Sources and Waste Management, Amenity Tree Planting, Appropriate Technologies, Purchases and Sales, Leases and Sharefarming, Compensation Claims, Traditional Building Techniques, Computing, Litigation.

Satyam eva jayate

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Dr Iain Anderson Stable Cottage

Lessons Learned Inquiry Gaddon Leaze

First Floor Uffculme

9 Whitehall Cullompton

London SW1A 2DD Devon EX15 3DL

E-mail: andersoninquiry@cabinet-office.x.gsi.gov.uk Tel: 01884 841015

E-mail: tomgriffithjones@hotmail.com

 

14th March 2002

 

Dear Dr Anderson,

 

Foot and Mouth Disease Inquiry: Observations

 

You may remember that we met at the conference in Brussels in the middle of December last year. I expressed to you then my reservations about the inquiry that you are chairing. In particular, I explained that I considered that a full judicial public inquiry into the epidemic and its handling was essential, and that I would reserve my detailed submission for that inquiry. You were able to give me some reassurance that your inquiry would be able to obtain answers from anyone whom you wanted to question, and that your report would be published in full, along with most of the evidence submitted to you.

 

Subsequently I attended the public meeting that you held at Okehampton at the end of January, at which you repeated the assurances which you had given to me, and gave further details. You explained that you would not publish the text of your interviews with Government Ministers, because you believed that they would be more frank with you if you did not. This highlights one of the weaknesses of your inquiry, as you are not able to force people to give evidence before you. With the full judicial public inquiry, everyone summoned to appear before it will be obliged to testify under oath and in public, even Ministers, as I understand it. Clearly, this is why they are trying to resist so vigorously the type of inquiry which is so obviously needed. I regret that there has been something dishonest and distasteful about the behaviour of Ministers throughout this epidemic, and it is for that reason that so many of us have expended so much time and effort in ensuring that the whole story is made public. It seems unlikely that you will be able to do this for us.

 

But I am most encouraged by your own approach. You come across as a man of integrity, who genuinely will try to find out what happened and why, within the limits of time, resources and evidence imposed upon you in your mandate from the Prime Minister. I do hope that this is what you are able to achieve.

 

Your inquiry could provide useful interim recommendations as to how any future epidemic is handled, should one occur before the full public inquiry has made its recommendations. On this basis, I am willing to submit to you in outline the issues which I consider should be addressed, from my perspective as someone severely abused by Government officials mishandling this epidemic, and as someone who lives in and makes his living from the countryside. This countryside was so torn apart last year, not by the relatively harmless, albeit highly contagious, viral infection, but by the reaction to it both by MAFF and the Government. There are vital lessons which must be learnt, particularly by MAFF/Defra, and which clearly have not been learnt, despite the damning conclusions of the public inquiry into BSE.

 

Before dealing with these key issues, I will make some more general observations, including some about the meeting in Okehampton, which I consider to be pertinent.

7                The meeting itself started off in an organised way, with your assistant chairing it and setting out the topics to be discussed. But inevitably it developed a dynamic of its own, with various other issues coming up, as they needed to. Unfortunately, we seemed not to cover all the topics originally outlined, and the comments which I was waiting to make, about the disease itself and the means to stop it spreading, in particular vaccination and complementary medicine, were never made. We never reached that topic, and vaccination only came up because Alan Beat raised it specifically. There were still many people wanting to make points when the meeting was brought to a premature close quite promptly at 9 oclock, despite the assurance from your assistant at the start that it would go on longer if necessary. I hope that your meetings in other parts of the country were able to go on for as long as was needed. I appreciate your need not to be exhausted by the process. But you have only arranged, for the whole country, six public meetings, of two hours duration each, in which individuals can make their points. You can expect that the tens of thousands of country people unnecessarily and adversely affected by the Ministrys handling of this epidemic will find that they need much more time than this for their voices to be heard. And it is vital that they are heard, and that they feel that they have been heard and taken note of.

7                One of the most important issues, which has been completely ignored, both by Ministry officials and by Ministers, is the human dimension of the handling of the disease. The doctor sitting near me, who pointed out that MAFF had turned a disease which was not even life-threatening to animals into one which had become life-threatening to humans, through the way they had handled it, was spot on. Such stupidity must never happen again.

7                As somebody not involved in agriculture, you may not be aware of, and even less understand, the very close relationship that a good stockman has with his stock. For those stock all to be slaughtered, particularly when they were perfectly healthy, is a severe emotional blow. I can vouch for this from my own experience. The unnecessary slaughter of our own fine pedigree herd of North Devon cattle, and the pedigree flock of Portland sheep, hit me much harder than ever I had expected. It has driven many farmers to suicide, not just in this epidemic. And now that farmers, in this area at least, are beginning to restock, I have heard of renewed incidents of psychological disturbance amongst them as they resume daily milking, but with completely unknown and alien animals. The old characters and habits, which they knew so well and worked with, have all gone. It will take months to become as familiar with the new herd, and in the meantime, they feel even more keenly the loss of their original herd. Inevitably they will have bought in animals whose behaviour is unhelpful or whose performance is inadequate, and who will have to be moved on in due course, causing further disturbance.

7                All this distress, disturbance and financial loss has not been created by the foot and mouth disease. 15 million animals could not have died from the disease in eight months. It has been the result of inappropriate and ill-considered responses to the disease by Government officials and Ministers. If lessons are really to be learnt from this, then you have a duty to look closely at what happened and why. So I cannot understand the answer which you gave at that meeting that you would not be investigating the actions of individuals. It was individuals behaving inappropriately who caused all the problems. Certainly all the abuses which I suffered myself were caused by mistaken behaviour of inappropriately trained people. If you do not investigate the behaviour of these individuals, then you will have no idea why they behaved in these ways, and will not have learnt the key lessons of this fiasco. In particular, I believe that you should look very closely at the behaviour of Fred Landeg at Page Street, and Stella Bevan at the DVS in Exeter. There is also a man responsible for the purchase of materials at Exeter whose activities are a cause for concern, and I will supply his name in due course.

7                It is the complete nonsense in the way that so many things were handled that makes so many of those of us who were affected by this mishandling frustrated by disingenuous responses from Ministers and officials, and determined to ensure that it never happens that way again. At the meeting it seemed that you were beginning to understand that this nonsense existed. You asked a vet describing a nonsense why the Ministry vet had acted in such a strange way. We have all asked similar questions many, many times in the last year. Unless you come up with coherent and convincing explanations for these, then your efforts will have been a waste of time and money.

7                I was pleased to see your letter in the Western Morning News, dealing with the issue of your return coach trip from Okehampton with Tim Render. I was one of those standing in the hall when you boarded the coach, and saw you sit across the isle from him. Whilst you did no more than acknowledge him as you sat down, it was clear to us that potentially he had privileged access to you during the journey. This would not have been right, and I was reassured by your acceptance of this in your letter. However, I do still have strong reservations about your secretariat being mainly Cabinet office staff, and I will watch that issue with interest.

I will now address the key points relating to the handling of the epidemic, and as a start refer you to the two documents attached, namely my letter of the 5th October 2001 to Professor Ian Mercer of the Devon Inquiry and the document detailing the abuse which I suffered personally during June 2001. In addition, the following issues need to be considered:

1.                    Why is a non-fatal acute viral infection, from which healthy animals readily recover and which research shows is not caught by traditionally-reared hardy breeds, categorised as a notifiable disease and treated in the barbaric way experienced across the country last year?

2.                    Who sanctioned and organised the misinformation of farmers in the neighbourhood of infected premises? Was any thought given to the immense damage to the fabric of the rural communities, which of necessity are very interdependent, that was done by these lies and which continues today and will for many years, unless exposed and admitted?

3.                    Has any apology been given to any of the farmers erroneously maligned by MAFF/Defra officials as being responsible for transferring the disease? One clear example is Rob Norman of Wiveliscombe, Somerset.

4.                    One of the most disturbing results of the mishandling of this epidemic has been the complete breakdown of trust between the farming community and the Government Department charged with assisting it. Furthermore, because of the involvement of the Prime Minister as well, this breakdown now extends to Government ministers and to the whole government system. Whilst there may be minor advantages to the Government in not having a full judicial public inquiry, these are far outweighed by the need to identify errors and admit them, as a first step in rebuilding the trust which is essential for stable civilised society. Only such an inquiry has any chance of achieving this.

5.                    This distrust now extends to the NFU, which the Government fondly and conveniently believes represents the farming community. During the epidemic, it singularly failed to do this at national level. The ideas it peddled were not at all to the benefit of the small family livestock farms which are the backbone of farming in the West Country, and which were the ones hit most hard by Government directives. I know of a number of farmers down here, including clients of mine, who will not be renewing their subscriptions to the NFU when they fall due. Fortunately, our Regional Director, Anthony Gibson, did act for the benefit of his members, and often spoke out against what was being done. But his stand was not in tune with his head office.

6.                    Sadly it has not even been possible to rely on the figures for the number of animals killed. Even up until late January, Defra was insisting that only 4.5 million animals had been killed. Now it has had to admit that the figure is nearly 11 million. How can such a gross error go unnoticed for so long, particularly when so many people were querying the figures, or was it yet another deliberate deceit? Many of us believe that the figure is nearer 15 million. This is one lesson which we would like to learn from you.

7.                    The personal abuse which I experienced was not limited to me, not surprisingly. I have written details of a number of other cases, in hard copy form, which I will submit to you by post. These all need to be investigated closely by you, and the officials at fault identified and questioned.

8.                    Why were proper samples not taken at all infected premises, to confirm or refute the clinical diagnoses, and to provide data from which to learn for future understanding of the disease and its transmission? This opportunity to learn has been completely lost.

9.                    Why has the Government failed to offer appropriate compensation for all the financial damage which its actions have caused? The so-called aid packages are an insult, both in terms of their paucity of support and in their restrictions on how the money should be used. The money which rural businesses have lost would have been theirs to spend as they saw fit, knowing the needs of the business. They do not need some un-businesslike civil servant sitting in London to tell them how to use money in their businesses.

10.                 The farming businesses most severely hit by the Government mishandling are those put on Form D restrictions, but which had no stock killed. Their trading activities were bound hand and foot by the restrictions. They suffered large extra expenses, but were not able to sell anything. Very many of them have suffered huge increases in their borrowings, through no fault of their own. Yet not only has the Government done nothing to help them, but where it did introduce schemes to take their stock, reducing overcrowding and providing an income, it offered derisory sums for their produce. This was in marked contrast to the sums offered where stock were killed, which were, if anything, on the more generous side. I can see no justification for any different valuation approach, and I believe that the law will not either.

11.                 Evidence has been passed to me that some MAFF/Defra offices connived in arrangements, which enabled certain unscrupulous contractors to make large profits from supplying materials at inflated prices for funeral pyres. The suspicion is that these officials also benefited financially. There is another important lesson here, which must be learnt.

12.                 The penultimate point which I wish to make is why civil servants should have behaved in this strange, and to others nonsensical, way. This is something which you must answer. The only suggestion which I can offer is that, through my professional career, I have occasionally had dealings with civil servants. It has been my experience that many like to set up little fiefdoms, where they try to be in control of an area of operation, and will not listen to advice from anybody else. Whether they really believe that they know it all, I dont know. This has happened in MAFF with this epidemic, and it certainly happened with BSE.

13.                 My last point relates to the culture of the civil servants in MAFF. I understand that, within the Civil Service, MAFF comes bottom of the list where status is concerned. I understand that the brightest normally go to the Foreign Office. The least able are put into MAFF. For the future, that must not continue, but changing the name only will not change the culture. It has a deserved reputation as the most user-unfriendly of all government departments. In my own dealings with its staff, I have found a number of them who seem to delight in creating difficulties, rather than in finding ways in which to do what is needed. It is long overdue for that to change.

That concludes my main points, which despite the length of this are not exhaustive. If there is any further information which you want on any of these points, I would be happy to provide it, or to come and see you to discuss it further.

I hope that you are able to come up with some interim recommendations based on your brief inquiry, and that a full judicial inquiry is held as soon as possible. However, I do find it strange that you should see it as part of your duty as Chairman of this inquiry to join the Government in opposing the judicial review of the Ministers decision not to hold that full public inquiry.

Yours sincerely

 

 

Tom Griffith-Jones