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09:00 - 08 March 2004

Shadow Agriculture Minister Theresa May has renewed calls for a full public inquiry into the foot and mouth disaster after a government vet's admission that he could have prevented the epidemic was revealed exclusively by the WMN.

Vet Jim Dring, who inspected the Northumberland farm of Bobby Waugh shortly before the pigs there were diagnosed with the first case of the disease, admitted in a document made public for the first time by the WMN on Friday that he had renewed the farmer's feeding licence just ten days before the outbreak, despite misgivings about the way he operated.

He said that had he been more rigorous, the foot and mouth epidemic may have never happened.

It also emerged yesterday, within an EU report, that the Government had failed to incorporate into British law part of an EU Directive which banned pig swill from being transferred between farms prior to the crisis.

Bobby Waugh cooked up swill on a neighbouring farm because he did not have the equipment on his holding, which was illegal under EU law.

Theresa May said: "The Conservatives have consistently demanded a public inquiry into the foot and mouth crisis which resulted in the slaughter of ten million animals and cost the UK billions of pounds. What seems evident from this admission is that signs of the disease were evident for all to see. There is now an urgent need for an investigation into way such damning evidence was not disclosed earlier."

The WMN has long backed calls for a full public inquiry into foot and mouth, and supported a legal bid to force an inquiry through court action.

Mrs May's comments came as a cross-party group of MPs, including Lib-Dem shadow agriculture spokesman and St Ives MP Andrew George, awaited a response expected today to their plea to the Parliamentary Ombudsman that the government be investigated for maladministration after shutting down the 62 swill feeders in the country without compensation.

The MPs, who include Tories William Hague, Liam Fox and Kenneth Clarke, Labour's Michael Meacher, and the Lib-Dem Menzies Campbell, claim the swill feeders - who have licenses to boil up food waste to feed their pigs - were unfairly scapegoated by the Government for the 2001 outbreak.

Robert Persey, who farms at Broadhembury near Honiton in East Devon said: "We should have had a public inquiry into foot and mouth. The Government described the foot and mouth disease as the worst crisis to hit this country since World War II. The DG (Sanco)[European Commission's animal health department] report criticised the Government for failing to implement an EU Directive. If that Directive had been enforced, Bobby Waugh would not have had a swill feeding licence and the UK might not have had foot and mouth disease.

"Not only was it illegal under an EU Directive but it was bonkers from a bio-security perspective. What was Defra thinking of?"

Defra was unable to comment yesterday on this specific issue. It denies that there was a cover-up of Mr Dring's evidence, which was never published in the report of the Andersen inquiry into the disaster, which was held behind closed doors. A spokesman said there was "nothing new in this allegation".

Mr Dring told the inquiry in a written submission seen by the WMN: "A mere ten days before foot and mouth virus was introduced into this pig herd, and at a time when illicit feeding practices were clearly in train, and had been for some time, I inspected this 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 Waughs' patently deficient feeding technique then this awful 2001 foot and mouth epidemic would never have come about."

He added: "Of course hindsight is always 20/20, and between that and total blindness is a long way. All the same, my feeling now, eight months on, is that in January 2001, I tended more towards the former, with consequences that could scarcely have been worse."