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HEAT IS ON OVER PLAGUE CONDUCT

09:00 - 05 April 2004

The Government is coming under increasing pressure over its handling of the foot and mouth disaster.

Three years to the month since the Westcountry was reeling from the worst ravages of the epidemic, Ministers are facing intense scrutiny on two fronts.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman has announced an inquiry into the Government's decision to ban the feeding of pigswill as the outbreak spread.

And Tory leader Michael Howard is preparing to turn up the heat on Tony Blair over the Dring report, key notes by a vet at the heart of the crisis never made public in the Lessons Learned foot and mouth inquiry, and which were only finally revealed by the WMN.

Last night, Owen Paterson, Shadow Agriculture Minister, said it was not too late for a full public inquiry to be held to uncover the whole truth about what went on during the outbreak.

"I think there should be a full public and independent inquiry because we are still exposed," he said. "The Northumberland report established to the very square yard where the 1967 outbreak started but the Anderson report failed to do this. We still do not know where this outbreak began and we are vulnerable."

Mr Howard has pledged to vigorously pursue the issue of the Dring report once Parliament reconvenes. In an exclusive interview with the WMN on Thursday, he said he was disturbed by the Government's handling of the report, in which state vet Jim Dring said the 2001 crisis "would never have come about" if his inspection of Bobby Waugh's Northumberland pig farm in the weeks leading up to the outbreak had been "more rigorous".

Mr Howard said the failure to bring the Dring report out into the open for full public scrutiny was typical of the way the Government operates, using denial and cover-up to mask facts it sees as "inconvenient".

The swill ban was first proposed by the then Agriculture Minister Nick Brown in March 2001, and was imposed a few weeks later after a brief period of consultation.

But farmers involved in the trade were offered no compensation. And many have argued that the Government acted improperly in rushing through the ban.

One swill feeder is already threatening High Court action against the Government over the issue.

Now the Parliamentary Ombudsman Ann Abraham has agreed to investigate the decision following complaints from a number of MPs from all parties, including the St Ives MP and Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman Andrew George.

The inquiry is likely to raise a number of awkward questions for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the activities of its predecessor department.

The consultation period on the swill ban lasted for just two weeks - substantially less than the normal three-month consultation for changes in regulations. And those affected claim that the Government misrepresented the outcome of the consultation.

In a statement to MPs in April 2001 Mr Brown said the Government had received "about 150 responses, nearly all of which favoured a ban". But in answer to a Parliamentary question last week, the Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw acknowledged that there had, in fact, been 357 responses to the consultation, of which just 32 per cent were in favour of a ban. Of the remainder, 37 per cent opposed a ban and 31 per cent expressed no clear preference. Mr Bradshaw said that the new total included some late responses, but disgruntled farmers believe Mr Brown may have misled MPs.

They are also unhappy with Government claims about the scale of the swill industry, arguing that the Ministry of Agriculture had cited figures of 80,000 pigs and 50,000 tonnes of food waste, when the true figures were 130,000 pigs and 1.7 million tonnes of food waste. The food waste involved now has to go to landfill at significant extra cost.

At the time Mr Brown argued the case for a swill ban on the grounds that it posed an unacceptable risk of spreading the disease. The feeding of untreated swill, infected with the foot and mouth virus, to pigs at Bobby Waugh's Northumberland Farm is believed to have sparked the 2001 outbreak.

But the Government had previously licenced swill feeders, including Mr Waugh. And Mr Brown did not seek to argue that properly treated swill was unsafe.

Ms Abraham has now agreed to investigate the rationale behind the ban, the handling of the consultation period and the refusal to pay compensation to affected farmers, some of whom had invested thousands of pounds in equipment that was rendered redundant by the ban.

Mr George said it was time the Government stopped "slipping and sliding" around the issue.

He said last night: "People can understand the pressure ministers were under at the time of foot and mouth and the need to be seen taking dramatic measures to reassure the public.

"However, the fact that with the benefit of hindsight the Government has issued no apology or compensation is regrettable."

He filed a complaint on behalf of Cornish farmer Vivian Cock who was caught up by the ban even though he was feeding his pigs on fish waste from Newlyn, rather than on catering waste that might contain foot and mouth.

Mr Cock told last night how the ban on swill feeding had forced him out of business.

After spending 100,000 on new equipment to start his pigswill enterprise in March 2000 at New Bridge, near Penzance in West Cornwall, the ban left him having to pay a mountain of debts through mortgaging his home and forcing him to work into his late sixties. He said: "I lost everything - I couldn't sell the equipment because no one else was allowed to carry on either. It was devastating."