Even Newer Muckspreader 28/01/02

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A chilling little episode in Devon has blown apart any last pretence that the three 'pseudo-inquiries' set up by Blair to whitewash his government's catastrophic mishandling of foot-and-mouth are, as claimed, 'independent'. Businessman Dr Iain Anderson is the onetime Downing Street apparatchik appointed by the Beloved Leader to chair the so-called 'lessons learned' inquiry, looking into political handling of the crisis.

Stung by the criticism that his inquiry, like the others, was only hearing evidence behind closed doors, Anderson finally plucked up courage to hold a public meeting with some of those involved in the crisis. The hall in Okehampton on January 23 was packed with farmers and local vets. Several vets asked why, when they came across cases of infection, they had to wait up to 24 hours for Maffia officials in Page Street, London, to permit them to slaughter. This defied all experience and scientific sense, which dictated that animals should be killed as soon as disease was identified, to prevent spread.

Anderson asked whether anyone could explain the rationale behind the new policy.

A farmer pointed out that there was someone in the audience peculiarly well qualified to answer. Sittting at the back was Tim Render, a senior Defra official, who at the time of the crisis was regional operations director for Somerset and is now Defra's chief gauleiter in the south-west.

When Mr Render sat tight-lipped, the inquiry secretary, Alun Evans, intervened to say he would not ask Maff for an answer (why not?) and moved on to the next question.

When the meeting was over, Anderson was to be driven back to Gloucester in a coach furnished like a railway carriage, with seats facing over a table. Several farmers were then astonished to see the senior Defra official and the supposedly independent inquiry chairman sitting down opposite each other, preparing to engage in cosy chat during the two hour journey.

As one put it, if Lord Scott, during his arms for Iraq inquiry, had been spotted sharing even a five-minute taxi ride with one of the senior civil servants whose actions he was investigating, there would have been an outcry.

But as a Blair trustie, Dr Anderson can scarcely be expected to interpret the term 'independent' in the same way as a high court judge.

As the county hit harder than any other bar Cumbria, Devon is peculiarly sensitive over official mishandling of the crisis. This was why, last October, its county council ordered a genuine public inquiry, chaired by Professor Ian Mercer, in response to the way Blair's spin doctors had sewn up its three pseudo-inquiries. After public hearings, when many horrifying stories came to light, Mercer produced a report which earned the government a flood of unfavourable media coverage.

But even here the spin machine was soon in action. Another county council, Northumberland, Labour-controlled, was persuaded to rustle up its own inquiry, to give a more congenial gloss on what happened. When it began its deliberations, behind closed doors, local farmers and action groups were astonished to hear their testimony was not wanted.

A submission by Morpeth borough council, describing how a Maffia burial pit and funeral pyre broke every kind of environmental law, was rejected as inadmissible.

Doubtless, with help from local NFU officials, a report will eventually emerge finding that the Maffia did a great job. The spin doctors can then say 'that Devon report was just whingeing from ungrateful farmers, If you really want something objective, look at this one from Northumberland. It's as independent as Dr Anderson's".