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Foot and Mouth Disease Inquiry

3.4 p.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Whitty: My Lords, at the time there was a concern that the contents of Mr Dring's personal statement, had it received publicity beforehand, could have been prejudicial to Mr Waugh's trial, at which Mr Dring was a witness of fact. Mr Dring contributed to the epidemiological investigations set out in the

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Defra report to the Anderson inquiry and his own notes of his visits to the Waugh farm were submitted to that inquiry.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. How soon after the outbreak had occurred was the decision taken to withhold the evidence from Dr Anderson's inquiry? At what level was that decision taken? Was the Minister advised at the time?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the decision was taken around September/October 2001 when we were submitting papers to the Anderson inquiry. I can give the noble Baroness the exact date. As to the level at which the decision was taken; it was taken by those who were compiling the evidence for the Anderson inquiry on legal advice. Ministers were not informed. As Ministers subsequently have said, had they been informed, they would not have taken the same decision.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that the cover sheet on Mr Dring's 30 page memorandum apparently had been removed when it explicitly stated that it was to "The Anderson Inquiry, Room 207, Ashley House, 2 Monck Street, London SW1P 2BQ"? Dr Anderson's report is entitled, "Lessons Learned". What lessons have Defra learnt as a result of this alleged sleight of hand? Is not the best action now to hold a very brief inquiry into this matter? Clearly, foot and mouth is far too important to be left on the shelf.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is clear from the cover note and from what Mr Dring has said that he wanted his personal statement to go to the inquiry in some form. The legal advice was that it could be prejudicial to the trial of what almost certainly was the starting point of foot and mouth and therefore to any judgment that that court made. In a sense, that was understandable legal advice. Officials acted on that advice. It is clear that that was the process.

What is now clear is that Dr Anderson should have received that. He would not have put it in the public domain. Had Ministers been informed of that decision based on genuine legal advice, they would have taken a different decision. It is important that Dr Anderson should have been able to make his own judgment on what was in Mr Dring's letter. However, it is also important that, now that Dr Anderson has seen the letter, he says that it would not have altered the terms of his recommendation from the inquiry.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, was Dr Anderson aware that he was not receiving this information? Is there any other information that he did not receive that he should have received?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, clearly, Dr Anderson was not aware that that information existed. Of course, he was aware of Mr Dring's involvement and he had sight

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of Mr Dring's contemporaneous notes of his visit to the Waugh farm. Therefore, he was not entirely without information on Mr Dring's views and what he had done.

As to other information, there was some information that was summarised because it was based on confidential material. However, as far as I can ascertain, it does not appear to be the case that other material was withheld for the same reason or for any other reason. However, I shall qualify that. Until two or three weeks ago I was not aware of Mr Dring's letter either. Nevertheless, they were rather special circumstances which related to what were probably the most important legal proceedings arising from the foot and mouth epidemic.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the noble Lord believe that the failure to submit this evidence to Dr Anderson had any effect on the Government's decision to ban swill feeding without compensation for a very small number of pig swill feeders? They were obeying the law by doing exactly what they were told and cooking the swill at the right temperature. They had never created any problems. Does the noble Lord think it is fair that these people should not be compensated?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, at the time the Government were sensible to take the decision to ban swill feed. Indeed, that action has in many respects now been followed by Europe as a whole in the light of the clear evidence that swill feed could have contributed towards or brought the diseased meat into that particular pig farm. In such circumstances it would not be normal practice to compensate because that was a measure was taken for public health or animal health purposes.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, what right or power does some official in Defra have to suppress a communication from Mr Dring to Dr Anderson without the permission or the knowledge either of the author of the document or the person to whom it was addressed?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, officials in Defra and elsewhere are encouraged to take legal advice on how they should proceed in relation to any documentation provided which makes reference to an ongoing legal case. In normal circumstances that would be a sensible and orderly decision, and we would expect officials to take note of that legal advice. Because of the wider significance here, it may be that it should have been referred upwards to senior officials and Ministers, but I would not suggest that officials were acting out of order. They acted in relation to normal instructions. As Members of the House would expect, officials are encouraged to follow legal advice.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that it is regrettable that that decision was taken and that neither officials at Defra nor the

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Minister were informed? Members of the House are deeply concerned about the spread of disease. The one thing that we have tried to bring into being is an animal health Bill that in the future would prevent or restrict the spread of disease very quickly. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that these disgraceful events do not happen again?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I have said that I regret that the letter did not go to Dr Anderson. However, I do not think that it has had any bearing on Dr Anderson's decision. He has made that clear himself. While he feels that he should have seen the letter, he has also said that it would not have changed his decision and recommendations.

Turning to the efficacy of the recommendations, those matters have been debated at considerable length both here and elsewhere. I believe that what has been put in place, along with the contingency plan for dealing with any future outbreak of foot and mouth or similar disease, will prove effective. However, vigilance is required on the part of farmers as well as on the part of enforcers and veterinary advisers.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, regrettable as this incident might be, does not the Minister agree that one of the major problems at the time of the outbreak of food and mouth disease was the very substantial reduction in manpower in the State Veterinary Service? That put everyone under a great deal of pressure. Without wishing to excuse the situation, can the Minister provide some evidence that the shortage of staff in the State Veterinary Service will be attended to?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as the Government's evidence to the Anderson inquiry made clear, the changes made to the manning levels of the State Veterinary Service have not been as drastic as is sometimes alleged in terms of farm visits, although it is true that there have been some shortages. Indeed, Mr Dring's statement refers to certain constraints he faced because of staff shortages. We believe that the State Veterinary Service is staffed at the appropriate level to deal with today's problems, but we also need to call on private vets should this or a similar disease break out again. That is very much a part of our contingency plans for dealing with any future emergencies.