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PRIVATE EYE 1194 28/9-11/10 . 07.

DOWN ON THE FARM

On Saturday 15 September citizens of the Surrey village of Pyford were baffled to be stopped by police and told they could not return home as they might be shot.

It seemed a Defra cull of local cattle suspected of foot and mouth disease had been botched when cows panicked at being shot at. After four animals escaped police marksmen were combing the area. Eventually the poor creatures were tracked to the local golf course and gunned down.

Only a week earlier Defra's chief vet Debby Reynolds had claimed “I'm satisfied that foot and mouth has been eradicated from the UK in 2007” . This followed lavish praise showered on Ms Reynolds and Defra's staff by Gordon Brown, by Tory leader David Cameron and much of the media for the efficient way they had responded to the escape of FMD virus from the Pirbright site of the Institute of Animal Health.

Mr Brown had been quick to insinuate that this could be blamed on Merial, the private firm that shares the site to make vaccines. On the day Ms Reynolds uttered her boast, a report by the Health & Safety Executive identified the cause of the escape as Pirbright's drainage system, long in need of repair. Blame for the neglect of the drains lay, not with Merial but with the site's owner Defra.

The problem had been drawn to Defra's attention, but since 2005 it had cut Pirbright's budget by a fifth, not leaving enough cash to repair the drains. Part of the reason for this was the £400m bill Defra has run up for the spectacular shambles it made over handing out EU subsidies to farmers. Brussels withheld this sum from the UK government; Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, told Defra it would have to find the money from its existing budget; and Defra slashed its funding accordingly, including to Pirbright. Thus far from being able to claim credit for the way in which the FMD incident was handled, Mr Brown had his own part in the events which led to Pirbright's failure.

The failure was reinforced when, only a week after Ms Reynolds declared the UK FMD-free the virus reappeared in Egham. The EU too was quick to criticise Pirbright's poor biosecurity, threatening to remove its status as the FMD “world reference centre”, while conveniently overlooking the fact that legal responsibility for ensuring Pirbright's biosecurity lies ultimately with the EU's own Food and Veterinary Office.

The reappearance of FMD with the reimposition of the nationwide ban on animal movements has been an unmitigated disaster for the livestock industry, costing farmers an estimated £10m a day. The sole cause of this massive financial loss has been the incompetence of Mr Brown‘s own government (compounded by its continuing refusal to allow the ring vaccination which could stop any spread of the disease dead in its tracks). Yet when Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, was asked on the Today programme if the government was prepared to pay compensation, he explained that there would of course be compensation for any farmer whose animals were slaughtered.

What Benn carefully didn't say was that not a penny of compensation would be available for those thousands of other farmers all over the country who continue to lose £70m a week through the knock-on effect of movement restrictions and the like - thanks entirely to the failure of Mr Brown, Nr Benn and their underlings to do their job properly.

Muckspreader

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