£600m foot and mouth fiasco
By Charles Clover
Taxpayers will have to pay an extra £600 million towards the costs of the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, according to the European Commission, because of concerns about the way the epidemic was handled.
The commission has decided to disqualify nearly two thirds of Britain's claim for £948 million from the emergency "pot" which Brussels holds to pay for major animal disease epidemics.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed last night that it would be receiving just £349 million.
The other £600 million will fall on the taxpayer. The commission's concerns are believed to centre on the Government's failure to control the compensation paid for animals killed and the cost of clean-ups.
About 10 million animals died during the outbreak, which cost £8 billion.
The commission is also believed to have had concerns about the cost of the contiguous cull, which led to the deaths of millions of healthy animals.
A report by the European Court of Auditors criticised Britain for its slow reaction to the outbreak and its failure to stop all animal movements immediately. Member states normally receive 60 per cent of the eligible costs of controlling an outbreak from community funds.
Neil Parish, the Conservative agriculture spokesman in the European Parliament, called on Margaret Becket, the Rural Affairs Secretary, to make a Commons statement to apologise for the debacle.
He said: "It is no surprise to hear that the commission believes the outbreak was totally mismanaged by the Government."
Mr Parish said it would be "totally unacceptable" if the Treasury now sought to claw back the money by penalising the farming industry and rural community.
Anthony Gibson, director of the National Farmers' Union in the South-West, said many farmers believed the contiguous cull had had more to do with "clearing the decks" for the 2001 General Election than with disease control.
He said: "There is a temptation to indulge in schadenfreude, but it is potentially quite damaging for all of us, because the Government will no doubt be looking to make economies elsewhere to make good the £600 million lost through their ineptitude."
A Defra spokesman said: "We have got £349 million - that is about one third of the claim, but it is much higher than was originally proposed by the European Commission, which wanted to pay just 23 per cent."
18 December 2002: EU blames Government over foot and mouth crisis