Down on the Farm

Private Eye January 2002

It is obviously good news that the Royal Society of Veterinary Surgeons has decided to take no disciplinary action over the wholesale breaches of the law committed by so many vets during last year's foot and mouth epidemic.

This was their willingness to collaborate with the Maffia in its illegal contiguous cull policy, requiring them to condemn millions of healthy animals to death by signing illegal "form A" notices in contravention of the animal health act 1981. Just because it was government policy to commit criminal acts on an unprecedented scale, the RCVS has ruled that it would be quite improper to punish vets merely for flouting their professional code of conduct in collaborating with the Maffia.

How different was the conduct of Peter Vaughan, a Herefordshire sheep farmer who, when the epidemic began last February was in the middle of a 24 hour operation with his shepherd, lambing his large flock of ewes. Each morning he was turning the new born lambs and their mothers out to pasture, before going to bed to snatch three or four hours' sleep before relieving his shepherd for the next stint. What made it worse was that his father had just had a heart attack and another farmer worker had just gone to hospital with broken ribs.

All this meant that when, at 5pm on the evening of Friday 23rd February, a complete ban was announced on all animal movements, to take immediate effect, Mr Vaughan was not sitting dutifully by his radio to attend to the Maffia's every word. In fact he was visiting his father in hospital, before returning to resume work in the lambing shed. His wife Janet brought him some food and a change of clothes, and he did not get to bed until 6am on Saturday morning, before getting up to move the latest batch of 300 ewes and lambs to his other holding nearby.

The following Wednesday he was visited by a Herefordshire trading standards official, Timothy Thorn. Having received an anonymous tip-off, Mr Thorn wished to confirm that Mr Vaughan had committed a criminal act by moving those sheep on Saturday morning, more than 12 hours after the Maffia had announced its ban to parliament. Mr Vaughan said he had been so busy he had only heard about the ban on Monday. But this, Mr Thorn considered, was no excuse for such blatant infringement of the law, and the council immediately put in train criminal proceedings against Mr Vaughan.

Just before Christmas, nine months later, this horrifying case of mass-criminality finally came before District Judge Phillip Browning in Hereford magistrates' court. He heard the council's barrister Andrew Davies claiming it was Mr Vaughan's duty to have known about the movement ban put into force on Friday evening. After all foot-and-mouth had been making headline news. Mr Vaughan had a radio. He should have been listening in by the hour for the latest instructions from the ministry.

The Judge listened politely, heard Mr Vaughan's own explanation as to why he had not been bent over his radio set that Friday, when he had one or two other matters on his mind, and ruled that Mr Vaughan should be given an absolute discharge. The prosecution's costs of £2,581 should be paid by the ratepayers of Herefordshire.

How can we expect guardians of the public good to carry out their solemn duty to enforce the law, if judges behave so irresponsibly? It is good to know that, even on the judicial bench, commonsense is not yet finally dead.