FMD leak could cost £billionsSource: FWi By Jonathan Riley
THE GOVERNMENT could face compensation claims running into billions of pounds from those who suffered an economic loss due to the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.
Legal experts believe there may be grounds for legal action after a FARMERS WEEKLY article (News, Mar 5) shed new light on the events leading up to the outbreak.
The article revealed the contents of a signed statement by the vet who inspected the Waugh brothers' Burnside Farm, Northumberland, only 10 days before F&M was introduced.
The farm was the site of the first case of F&M in the 2001 UK outbreak.
In the signed statement, State Veterinary Service vet Jim Dring wrote:
"At a time when illicit feeding practices were clearly in train, and had been for some time, I inspected this [sic] premises with a view to renewing the Waughs' Article 26 licence."
"Had this inspection been more rigorous than it was, had the licence not been renewed, or renewed only subject to radical revision of the Waugh's patently deficient feeding technique, then this awful 2001 F&M epidemic would never have come about."
Lawyers now believe that this statement could pave the way for legal action.
Tim Russ, a rural law specialist who played a central role in pressing for the public inquiry into F&M, said: "If it can be established that someone acting as a government agent behaved improperly, for example if that agent was negligent, then this could provide a foundation on which to base legal action."
"Consequential losses were not covered by the compensation paid out," said Mr Russ, of West Country-based law firm Clarke Wilmott Clarke.
"That would mean [60,000] people under Form D restrictions, who didn't receive any compensation, but who suffered considerably, could have a claim for compensation if this statement stood up to scrutiny in court."
"The government could lose a hell of a lot of money if this statement is proved to be an admission of negligence on the part of an agent of the government."
"But whoever embarks on the fight against the government had better have a stomach for a fight, a very good lawyer and deep pockets. The government would fight this right to the House of Lords," Mr Russ added.
Richard Lissack QC, who also worked on the case for a public inquiry, confirmed that in the light of the FARMERS WEEKLY article and Mr Dring's submission he had been approached formally to consider whether there was a proper claim in law for economic losses caused by F&M.
"I will be considering the new evidence," said Mr Lissack.
But he added: "We need a client to come forward to represent. The figures at stake here – that have been suggested to me – could be in the order of £11bn."
BECKETT ADMITS VET'S REPORT WAS WITHHELD
09:00 - 12 March 2004
Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett was under mounting pressure to order a public inquiry into the 2001 foot and mouth disaster yesterday, after she admitted that a vital report had been "withheld" from the original investigation.
Speaking in the Commons yesterday Mrs Beckett acknowledged that the report, in which the Government vet Jim Dring admitted he could have prevented the outbreak, was kept secret from the chairman of the Anderson Inquiry into the disaster.
Lib-Dem MP John Burnett described the decision to withhold the document as "a disgrace".
Mr Burnett, whose Torridge and West Devon constituency was one of the worst affected in the country during the crisis, said: "This is a key part of the explanation for the genesis of the crisis - there could not be a more relevant piece of evidence for any inquiry into the lessons to be learned. It is an absolute disgrace that this was not brought to the attention of the Anderson Inquiry and I'm afraid it smacks of a cover-up."
Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman Andrew George said there was now a clear case for an independent inquiry into both the report's findings and the decision by officials at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to cover it up.
Mr George, MP for St Ives, challenged Mrs Beckett in the Commons yesterday to make a full statement on the affair.
"Will you confirm that Mr Dring would, by his own admission, have prevented the devastating foot and mouth outbreak had his inspection of Burnside Farm in Northumberland been more rigorous?" he asked.
"Do you accept that this vital evidence was withheld from Dr Anderson's inquiry into the lessons from that particular outbreak?
"And do you agree that this narrow but crucial issue should be properly investigated through an independent inquiry?"
Shadow Rural Affairs Secretary Theresa May has already called for a public inquiry into the events of 2001, following the revelations.
Mr Dring's report concluded that the foot and mouth disaster "would never have come about" if his inspection of Bobby Waugh's Northumberland pig farm had been "more rigorous". The 2001 disaster is thought to have been sparked by the feeding of untreated swill to pigs on Waugh's farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall.
Mr Dring visited the farm just days before the outbreak when he granted Waugh a renewed swill feeding licence. His report said that "illicit swill feeding practices were clearly in train, and had been for some time" at the farm.
Mrs Beckett yesterday admitted that the document had been "withheld" from the Anderson Inquiry. But she insisted that the "issues behind the memo" were discussed with Dr Iain Anderson who chaired the investigation.
Although Mr Dring's report was addressed to the Anderson Inquiry, Mrs Beckett described it as "notes he made for himself". A Defra spokesman told the WMN this week that departmental lawyers had decided Mr Dring's comments were "not material" to the inquiry.
And Mrs Beckett said yesterday that it would be wrong to blame Mr Dring, or any other Government official, for the disaster.
She added: "I think it would be wholly wrong and very unfair to Mr Dring to suggest that in some way he is responsible.
"He is not responsible; it is the person who employed standards which helped to foster such an outbreak who is responsible.
"Mr Dring has done no more than I think any one of us might do in musing over, examining his conscience if you like, to say 'Oh dear is there more I could have done?'
"That's what any reasonable human being should do; the idea of him being held guilty because he has done it is frankly very unfair."
Mr George told the WMN that he was not seeking to blame Mr Dring but to ensure that the lessons identified in his report were learned and to establish why it had apparently been covered up.
"I would congratulate Mr Dring on being so honest about the possible cause of the outbreak," he said. "But we need someone to take an independent look at his concerns, in respect of inspections of pig farms in that area, and into what happened to them.
"You cannot have a lessons learned inquiry if a crucial piece of information has been kept away from the chairman."
There will be no respite for ministers next week when backbench MPs have called a debate on the pig swill ban that followed the 2001 outbreak. Swill feeders are preparing a High Court case for Government compensation and are expected to use Mr Dring's report as evidence that it was regulatory failings, rather than problems with swill feeding per se that sparked the crisis.
Angela Browning, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, is expected to raise the contents of Mr Dring's report during next week's debate.
Tory MP Boris Johnson, who has called the debate, yesterday described the swill ban as an "ill-thought-out, vexatious and bossy piece of legislation".
Environment Minister Elliot Morley expressed "sympathy" for the swill feeding industry, but said there were "major risks" associated with it.
MPs ADD VOICES TO CALLS FOR FULL PUBLIC INQUIRY09:00 - 12 March 2004
Westcountry politicians yesterday added their voices to renewed calls for a full public inquiry into the foot and mouth crisis in the wake of the leaked Government vet's report. Opposition MPs and MEPs told the WMN that Jim Dring's document - in which he admitted that a "more rigorous" inspection of the pig farm where the 2001 outbreak started could have prevented the disaster - raised questions which could only be answered by a completely open investigation.
Neil Parish, Conservative MEP for the South West, said: "My position all along has been that there should have been a full public judicial inquiry in the UK where we could cross-examine witnesses.
"It has always been a travesty of justice that there has not been one. In the light of this evidence we should look at it again."
Lib-Dem MP Nick Harvey, whose North Devon constituency was badly hit by the crisis, agreed that only a full public inquiry could uncover the truth about how the epidemic was handled.
"We have still never really had some of the key issues investigated properly," he said. "I think this serves to remind us how unsatisfactory the Government's response to the whole thing was."
He added: "To withhold the expert testimony of the vet on the spot at the point of outbreak just seems to be a dereliction of duty."
Angela Browning, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, said: "I would support the call for a full public inquiry - but I do not think there is a hope in hell of the Government agreeing to it.
"We have still not got to the bottom of the start of foot and mouth so that lessons can be learned. We have never had a definitive answer about the product of the swill and where it came from."
BECKETT TO BE QUIZZED OVER VET'S ADMISSION10:28 - 11 March 2004
Margaret Beckett could face Parliamentary questions today Thu Mar 11 over a Government vet's admission that he could have prevented the 2001 foot and mouth disaster.
Opposition MPs intend to ask the Rural Affairs Secretary why a report by North East vet Jim Dring was not sent to the official Anderson Inquiry into the devastating outbreak.
In the document, first published by the WMN last week, Mr Dring says the crisis "would never have come about" if his inspection of a Northumberland farm just weeks before the first outbreak had been "more rigorous".
Both Tory and Lib-Dem politicians yesterdayWed Mar 10 pledged to raise questions in the House of Commons about why Mr Dring's report was not made public.
Andrew George, Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman and MP for St Ives, said: "The fact is this report was available to the department. That it was not made available to the Anderson Inquiry is deeply scandalous. It seems to me very much the focus of what the inquiry was all about."
Shadow Rural Affairs Secretary Theresa May said she would call for Mr Dring's report to be published in full to ensure "the truth is not buried".
She hopes to quiz Mrs Beckett today when ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) take questions.
But because the subject is not one of the pre-determined questions listed for discussion, this will depend on the Speaker allowing her to raise the issue.
Mrs May said: "The discovery of Mr Dring's report raises serious questions about the Government's handling of the outbreak and the validity of the subsequent investigations. We must know why this information was not made available at the time and, more importantly, why it was not shown to the Anderson Inquiry.
"It is essential that the Government publishes the report in full - otherwise people will suggest that there was some kind of cover-up taking place.
"If it is true that Government officials were negligent in failing to spot the obvious signs of the disease, then those who suffered financially as a result will naturally be demanding compensation.
"I will be submitting a number of written Parliamentary questions to the Minister, demanding answers.It is essential for all concerned that the truth is not buried."
Mr Dring inspected Burnside Farm in Northumberland, which was run by pig farmer Bobby Waugh and his brother, in January 2001 - just weeks before vets discovered the first outbreak of foot and mouth disease there.
Defra has said that the document produced by Mr Dring - only two pages of which have been seen by the WMN - was a "personal statement" prepared in case it was needed as a submission to the Anderson Inquiry. In the event, the Government decided that it was "not material" to the inquiry.
The department is refusing to make the full report public because it contains "personal, confidential information", some of which "might be considered defamatory".
FOOT AND MOUTH DISASTER COMES BACK TO HAUNT TONY BLAIRWMN 09:00 - 10 March 2004&
Foot and mouth came back to haunt Tony Blair last night as it emerged vital evidence may have been withheld from the official inquiry into the 2001 disaster.
The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed that a report, which implicates the failings of a Government vet, had never been sent to the official Anderson Inquiry.
Details of the report were first published by the WMN last week. In it the Government vet Jim Dring says the 2001 disaster "would never have come about" if his inspection of Burnside Farm, Northumberland, just days before the outbreak started, had been "more rigorous".
Yesterday, a Defra spokesman said the report had been an "aide memoire" produced by Mr Dring for his own purposes.
He said the Government had decided that the document was "not material" to the inquiry by Dr Iain Anderson into the lessons to be learned from the disaster.
Defra said that the "issues surrounding" Mr Dring's inspection of Waugh's farm were discussed by Dr Anderson and Mr Dring's bosses. But the report was never released to him.
The revelation has re-ignited the row about Mr Blair's refusal to hold a public inquiry into the disaster.
Last night, the Shadow Rural Affairs Secretary Theresa May said ministers needed to provide clear answers as to why the report had apparently been suppressed.
Mrs May said: "We are very concerned that it has taken so long for the existence of this report to come to light.
"It appears that there may have been a cover-up to conceal official incompetence and we need to know at what level that took place and why."
Mrs May said that the report had wide-ranging implications, both for the lessons to be learned from the disaster and on the issue of compensation for the thousands of rural businesses affected by the crisis.
A Defra spokesman last night told the WMN that Mr Dring's memo had been prepared as "a personal statement in case it was needed in a submission to the Anderson Inquiry".
He said Mr Dring had never asked for it to be submitted to the inquiry and was "not concerned" that it had not been. Instead it was sent to Mr Dring's managers and Defra lawyers.
The report was not submitted to the Anderson Inquiry initially because it could have been "prejudicial" to the trial of pig farmer Bobby Waugh, the owner of Burnside Farm, who faced a number of foot and mouth related charges in May 2002.
Submissions to the Anderson Inquiry closed at the end of March 2002. Waugh was convicted on 30 May, 2002 and the Anderson Inquiry report was published two months later.
The Defra spokesman added: "While it would have been possible for the department to submit further information after this date it was not felt that Mr Dring's personal statement was material to the inquiry."
Mr Dring's report noted that "illicit feeding practices were clearly in train and had been for some time" at Burnside Farm.
However Defra yesterday said he had been right to renew Waugh's swill feeding licence.
The foot and mouth crisis is thought to have been sparked by the feeding of untreated swill infected with the virus at Waugh's farm.
But a Defra spokesman said: "Line managers are content that Jim Dring did all that can reasonably be expected of an inspecting officer and he was correct in re-licensing the plant on the basis of his inspection.
"At the time of the inspection, when he was accompanied by an officer from Northumberland Trading Standards, neither officer observed material evidence that would lead them to conclude that a licence to feed swill should not continue and no animal health or welfare offences were observed."
The Defra spokesman also said that the department would continue to block the full publication of Mr Dring's report, only the conclusions of which have been obtained by the WMN.
He said that it contained "personal, confidential information", some of which "might be considered defamatory".
He added: "It contains a number of conclusions drawn from speculative hindsight."
Dr Anderson, who conducted the "lessons learned" inquiry behind closed doors, did not appear to be aware of Mr Dring's views.
In the notes of a discussion with the Chief Vet Jim Scudamore, Dr Anderson asked "what, if anything" had been observed during the inspection of Waugh's farm in January 2001.
Dr Scudamore replied that "no matter what level of disarray was observed on an inspection, inspectors were not empowered to tackle poorly run farms per se unless there had been a breach of animal welfare or other regulations".