5th May 2002
FOOT AND MOUTH EPIDEMIC 2001
I refer to my telephone call of last week, when you suggested that I write to you to set out the information which I wish to present to your Inquiry. I understand that the closing date for submissions is past, but that you would still be interested to hear from me. I appreciate that the list of contributors for the hearings at Kendal has already been finalised, but that for the Carlisle hearings it has not. I would be quite willing to come to Carlisle, if it were possible for my contribution to be heard there. Currently I am working in Lancashire, so it would be relatively easy to come up to your hearing. My address for the time being is 12 Maytree Walk, Woodley Park, Skelmersdale, Lancs MN8 6UP, and my telephone number is 0 1 695 5 5 995
I became personally involved in the handling of the epidemic in June last year, having become very disturbed about the Ministry's abusive and incompetent behaviour during the culling around Knowstone, in Devon, the previous month. For reasons which the Ministry has still not explained, the disease broke out in Clayhanger, Devon, on the 1 1'1' June. This outbreak was unexpected, being some twenty miles from the nearest disease. Our youngstock were in the adjoining field to the farm identified as infected, and were also identified as being diseased the following day. Although samples were taken, I have still received no written confirmation that they were infected. The farm is owned by an elderly couple, the Bensons, the wife dying of cancer at the time. She is now dead. Their stock included 6 alpacas, a species theoretically susceptible to the disease, but in practice resistant, and not a transmitter. There has been no case of FMD in alpacas, even where they shared a building with sheep which were infected.
There was no reason for the alpacas to be killed, even if the other animals had been infected, and the Bensons decided that they did not want theirs slaughtered. Acting as their land agent, I informed the Ministry of their decision. Our lawyers became involved, and the legal process was started. Nevertheless, the Ministry decided to evade the proper process of law, and to usurp the Court's duty to decide such cases. After much discussion with me at the farm, they sent in an inexperienced and incompetent policeman, who unlawfully arrested me. Once I had been removed, they bullied and intimidated my Clients until they reluctantly agreed to the unnecessary slaughter of the alpacas.
Three days later they came to the gate at our home farm, on a Saturday afternoon, and tried to kill the stock which we had there. We resisted four and a half hours of bullying and intimidation by Ministry officials, and at one stage I was on the mobile phone to our QC, telling him to get an injunction immediately against the Ministry. Eventually they backed off, and were forced to attempt to obtain an injunction against us in the High Court. They failed to convince the judge, who found in our favour and awarded us costs. That case was MAFF v Upton, otherwise known as the case of Grunty the pig. Grunty is still fit and well, and none of those animals ever contracted the disease.
As a result of this abuse, I have had to become actively involved in the campaign to bring into the open all the issues surrounding this epidemic. I am a founder member, and South West Regional Representative, of the UK Rural Business Campaign, set up to obtain proper compensation from the Government for all those businesses which have lost money as a result of the Government's mishandling of the epidemic. That campaign is reaching a critical point, at which we may have to start the legal process, to obtain disclosure of critical documents. The Government has asked for all extension of time to produce them, and it remains to be seen whether or not it will then comply with our requests.
The key issues which need to be addressed by any inquiry are listed below. I have evidence on each of these which I will put to the full public inquiry when it is held. But I will not burden you with all this evidence, as you have allocated only a couple of weeks for your hearings. A comprehensive inquiry will need to spend well over a year taking evidence and analysing, and it is unfair to expect you to be able to do that.
The key issues are:
1. Should foot and mouth even be a notifiable disease?
- This is a disease which is not life-threatening to animals, but which through its obsessive reaction, the Ministry has turned into one which has become life-threatening to humans. This is nonsensical. Almost all animals recover from FMD. Only the weakest are likely to succumb. And there are remedies which work, most notably in homoeopathic medicine.
- Once there is recognition that there is no need for the senseless mass slaughter which we saw last year, they all the problems which arose from that approach, such as disposal of carcasses, psychological damage to farmers, illegitimacy of the contiguous cull, lack of rapid diagnosis of disease, and the bullying and intimidation of farmers and others by MAFF/Defra officials, all disappear. One of the most encouraging outcomes of the International Conference on the Prevention and Control of Foot and Mouth Disease, held in Brussels last December, which I attended, was that the international bodies which govern the handling of these diseases were all ready and willing to alter their regulations to ensure that nobody ever again went down the same road as we did last year.2. If it does need to be a notifiable disease, then mass slaughter is not an acceptable way to address it.
- Within another group of animals, the humans, I know of no instance where slaughter to eradicate disease has ever been used. If it is not necessary with humans, then it is not necessary for any other animal. There are means of treating this disease, by homeopathy as mentioned above, as well as by vaccination, and even by isolation with only surface treatment of the lesions.
- The human damage caused by the slaughter policy is unacceptable. The phantomexport trade, which it was supposed to save, cannot begin to justify this damage, nor thedamage amounting to many #bn which has been done to the rest of the rural economy, in particular to the tourism businesses, which of necessity ride on the back of agriculture.
3. If it does need to be a notifiable disease, then the rapid diagnosis systems which exist for this disease, in particular the farm gate analysis developed in the USA in conjunction with the FMD Research Centre at Plum Island, must be used so that diagnosis of the disease does not have to rely on the inexperience of vets who, at best, have not seen the disease since 1967, and at worst have never seen it before.
- Despite the vacuous protestations of the NFU and Pirbright, tests do exist which can positively and accurately identify the presence of the disease within hours, without the need to send away samples, and without the needless delays and inaccuracies of that system. Obviously such speed and efficiency is not in the interests of Pirbright, as it would lose what must have been an extremely lucrative contract for analysing many millions of samples.
- There also exist tests to establish whether antibodies in animals are the result of past disease, or of vaccination. Such tests are more accurate than the Elisa tests used by Pirbright to establish whether the disease was present or not, so they should not just be written off.4. In all circumstances of infectious diseases arriving from abroad, we should call upon the best scientific knowledge and experience, not muddle through by trying to rely on the limited range of in-house knowledge within the Ministry.
- Throughout this epidemic, advice was offered by world experts in foot and mouth disease, and studiously ignored by those in Whitehall who thought that they knew better. That must never be allowed to happen again.5. Whenever Ministry officials, or their agents, consider that they need to visit private farms, they must always abide by the laws of this country.
- It is clear from the result of the case which I fought through the Courts on behalf of Rosemary Upton (MAFF v Upton) that the contiguous cull was and is illegal. This is why the Government has tried to bring in the Animal Health Bill, which has nothing whatever to do with animal health. The bullying and intimidation used by Ministry officials and their agents is totally unacceptable. The threatening behaviour which they used might be the norm in Zimbabwe, but is completely out of place here.
6. Actions taken in the field must be guided by local circumstances, NOT directed by mindless bureaucrats from London
- This is another clear ruling from our Court case.
7. All specialist professionals must be used only within the limits of their professional training and experience. Vets trained in animal disease should not be trying to deal with negotiations over access to land, interpretation of statutes and compensation issues.
- There was a shortage of qualified vets throughout most of the epidemic. To try to use them for jobs where anyway they were way out of their depths, through no fault of their own, was absurd and incompetent on the part of management. To expect veterinary technicians to manage competently contracts for work costing many tens of thousands of pounds is asking for the moon, and we didn't get it. This is all the expertise of my profession, that of surveyors, and should be handled by them.
8. It is essential that there is a proper, frequently-updated contingency plan for dealing with any sudden outbreak of a notifiable disease.
- It is clear that, despite the recommendations of the Northumberland Inquiry, no such plan was kept up-to-date. It is also clear that Government administrators are not the people best able to deal with a situation of national emergency, and no more are vets. Such skills reside within the emergency services, and within the armed forces. They are the people who should be called upon immediately there- is an outbreak, and before it becomes an epidemic.
9. Whatever plan is to be implemented, it must have full cognisance of all its ramifications on other businesses which could be affected.
- Clearly the "plan" implemented during this epidemic had no understanding of the intimate link between the tourist industry and agriculture. There is no excuse for such obvious omissions, and the Government must bear the consequences of such negligence. To try to evade doing so, as the Government currently is t 'rig to do, goes against the fundamental provisions of our constitution, and in particular against Magna Carta, the relevant parts of which are still current law.
10. The regulations introduced during such an epidemic should be reasonable, realistic and demonstrably necessary.
- The movement restrictions imposed were, in many cases, plainly absurd. To prohibit movement of stock across a short section of remote road, or over some other minor obstacle, is just pointless and mindless regulation. All that it did was show fanners that they had to take matters into their own hands, which led them to ignoring the dictate of the Ministry. This is a dangerous precedent to set, particularly when allied to the contempt with which the Ministry has come to be held since the start of this epidemic. lt is further evidence of the need for local discretion in all matters. Any regulations rigidly and mindlessly applied undermine the whole principle of regulation.
11. All Government officials and agents have a duty of care to the rural community withinWhich they were operating. They failed to discharge this duty, and in many instances imparted misinformation and thereby fomented dissent. They had no business to behave in this way, and must be held accountable.
- I was amazed at the misunderstandings that existed, even amongst the vets themselves, about the way the disease was spread. It was a crucial issue in our court case, and one which was clearly not even understood by Fred Landeg, the Veterinary Head of Exotic Diseases for the Ministry in London. In their ignorance, vets were misinforming neighbouring farmers about the risks of any outbreak. In particular, they were unreasonably distressing the neighbours of farmers who resisted for good reasons the cull of healthy animals. It is plainly wrong to claim, as Ministers frequently do, that those who resisted the cull were acting irresponsibly. Again, our court case proves that point. The people who were acting irresponsibly were those vets fomenting dissent within that community. Much of that damage remains, in the form of poisoned relationships between neighbours. I know from first-hand experience. The vets have moved on. Nobody knows who they were, so nobody can challenge them to put right the damage. And much of it only came to light many months later. This is not the way that Government has any business to behave, and it must take effective steps to redress this mischief. This must include admission of the problem in general terms, and a public apology of the damage caused. At least this will open the channels for the communities to heal themselves.
These are the main points which I would like to put to your Inquiry, and I have evidence to back them up. You will see that of necessity I have ranged over the whole spectrum of the subjects which you have set yourself to consider. Having had the direct experience thrust upon me by the incompetent behaviour of the Ministry, I make no apology for having made a comprehensive analysis of the problems.
I hope that you will be able to include my contribution in your hearing at Carlisle, and I look forward to hearing further from you.