Fighting the farmers

From the Yorkshire Post Nov 1

THE Government has proved notoriously reluctant to allow its handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis to be subjected to independent, public scrutiny. Even so, this has not prevented Ministers from admitting that an investigation is necessary, albeit one on their terms. So why, having initiated its own inquiry, is the Government pre-empting its findings by rushing ahead with a new Bill aimed at preventing the spread of farm infections? After all, with no cases of foot-and-mouth for a month, it might have been thought that the opportunity had now arrived for a period of calm reflection rather than an unseemly rush into ill-thought-out legislation.

Farmers, however, will have their own suspicions as to why Ministers are so keen to get the Animal Health (Amendment) Bill on to the Statute Book. With its provision for Government vets to destroy a farmer's animals regardless of his objections, the Bill will be seen as one more indication of the intention of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to marginalise farmers' concerns and treat them as if they themselves were part of the problem. Indeed, with Animal Health Minister Elliott Morley speaking yesterday of farmers being principally responsible for the spread of foot-and-mouth, without offering the slightest evidence, farmers could be forgiven for thinking that the Government is seeking any excuse for a crackdown on an industry which it believes has given it nothing but trouble.

In refusing to allow farmers the opportunity to challenge such crucial decisions, the Government is setting itself up as the sole arbiter of how to fight agricultural diseases. Yet the record of Defra and its predecessor, Maff, is hardly one of infallibility. In fact, according to the foot-and-mouth inquiry ordered by Devon County Council, the Government's handling of the crisis was "lamentable", with Maff's performance an object lesson in incompetence and insensitivity. Ministers, incidentally, showed their contempt for this public investigation by refusing to participate in it.

The Government that claims to know best in all matters of veterinary science is the same one, it should be remembered, that spent the past four years testing the brains of cows when it thought it was examining sheep. If this error had not been spotted, it is possible that Defra would have ord-ered the cull of the the entire national sheep flock. With a track record of failure on such a mammoth scale, it defies belief that Ministers are now giving themselves sweeping new powers that will allow them to have the last word on matters of animal health.