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PLAGUE COVER UP WAS WRONG


09:00 - 25 March 2004 

Farms Minister Lord Whitty has admitted the Government had been wrong to cover up a controversial report - exclusively revealed in the Western Morning News - in which a state vet said he could have prevented the foot and mouth disaster.

Lord Whitty told peers that the report written by the Government vet Jim Dring should have been submitted to the "lessons learned" inquiry into the disaster chaired by Dr Iain Anderson.

His admission yesterday led Baroness Byford, Conservative agriculture spokesman in the Lords, to call for procedures to be put in place to ensure there could be no repeat of the "disgraceful" handling of Mr Dring's report. And Lord Livsey, the Lib-Dem agriculture spokesman in the Lords, called for an inquiry into the handling of the report.

Mr Dring concluded that the foot and mouth 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". He also highlighted staff shortages in the State Veterinary Service.

Lord Whitty acknowledged that the report had been intended for consideration by Dr Anderson. He said it had been withheld by officials at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs after "understandable" legal advice that it could prejudice the prosecution case against Waugh on whose farm the outbreak is thought to have started.

But he said that ministers would have reversed the decision if they had known about the report. He said its "wider significance" meant it should have been seen by the inquiry.

He added: "It is clear from the cover note and from what Mr Dring has said that Mr Dring did want his personal statement to go to the inquiry.

"What is now clear is that Dr Anderson should have received that (report) - he would not have put it in the public domain - and that had ministers been informed of that decision they would have taken a different decision, because it is important that Dr Anderson should have been able to make his own judgement on what was in Mr Dring's letter."

Lord Whitty said Dr Anderson had seen Mr Dring's "contemporaneous notes" regarding his dealings with Waugh's farm. Although the incident was "regrettable" he said Dr Anderson had made it clear that Mr Dring's report would not have changed his conclusions.

But he was unable to guarantee to peers that other information had not been withheld. He said: "As to other information, there was some information that was summarised because it was based on confidential material, but 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 would qualify that by saying that until two or three weeks ago I was not aware of Mr Dring's letter either. Nevertheless I do think it was rather a special circumstance relating to what was probably the most important legal proceedings arising from foot and mouth."

Lord Livsey said: "The title of Dr Anderson's report was 'lessons learned'. What lessons has Defra learned as a result of this alleged sleight of hand? Isn't the best action now to hold a very brief inquiry into this matter, because foot and mouth is clearly far too important a matter to be left on the shelf.

Lord Whitty said the measures put in place to prevent a repeat of the events of 2001 were "effective". And he said that staff shortages at the State Veterinary Service were "not as drastic as sometimes alleged".