Foot-and-Mouth Response 'Deficiencies' Highlighted

By Russell Fallis, Scottish Press Association

Scotland's public services watchdog today highlighted "serious deficiencies" in the way the Executive responded to concerns over its culling policy during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001.

Three women whose animals were killed amid efforts to halt the spread of the highly infectious animal disease complained to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, Professor Alice Brown, who has now issued her findings in a 92-page report.

She says there are no grounds to question the legality of any of the decisions to cull and despite "some procedural shortcomings" mainly relating to the serving of notices, the killings were then properly carried out.

But her report, which uses pseudonyms so as not to identify complainants, criticises how the then Department of Rural Affairs dealt with complaints and other correspondence.

She describes as "unsatisfactory and fallible" the system for dealing with correspondence, which allowed around 600 letters to ministers to be overlooked for a number of weeks.

In one case Professor Brown has also urged the Executive to apologise to 'Mrs Green' for failing to explain disinfection measures after killing her pet goat following the discovery of foot-and-mouth on a farm, with fields completely surrounding her home.

Mrs Green is believed to be Elizabeth Walls, of Mouswald, Dumfries and Galloway, who was not available for comment tonight.

On April 5, 2001, Ms Walls' goat Misty, was given a lethal injection against her wishes.

In today's report Professor Brown accepts the vet's explanation that he had killed the goat away from its owner while she was distracted by police officers to spare the animal undue distress.

She also found "no evidence" to support an allegation that an agricultural officer "abused and assaulted" the owner's daughter, named as 'Ms Gold' - thought to be Kirsten McBride.

But she said an examination of correspondence by the two women had revealed "a complete breakdown in the system for responding to letters sent to ministers", after it took 31 weeks for the Department of Rural Affairs to reply to their complaints.

A senior official was due to give a "thorough" reply but took ill, the report states, and the complaint appeared to have been overlooked until another officer spotted other unanswered letters.

"Even in the circumstances of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, to take so long to reply to a complaint is unacceptable, particularly given the nature of the events described and the initial concern with which Departmental officials viewed its contents."

It was also "unacceptable" that the owner's requests for information on what disinfection precautions she should take after the goat had been killed went unanswered.

The Department of Rural Affairs eventually explained that normal preliminary disinfecting precautions were not taken after the cull as the risk of contamination after this was relatively low - despite having forcibly killed the goat due to infection concerns.

"To the layperson these two views appear incompatible, and clearly if the decision not to disinfect had been taken, Mrs Green should have been told of it and of the reasons for it," Professor Brown says.

"I recommend that the Department now apologise to Mrs Green for this omission."

She also urges officials at what is now the Environment and Rural Affairs Department to offer to resume talks with Mrs Walls to provide compensation, including a consolatory payment "to take into account the added distress that these delays caused after the loss of her family's goat".

The Executive has accepted these recommendations, the report states, and has a review of the Environment and Rural Affairs Department's complaints handling process has also been launched.