From the PENRITH HERALD

Nick Utting's Speech THERE was a record attendance at the meeting of the Probus Club of Penrith and District, held at the Roundthorn Country House Hotel, Penrith.

The chairman, Mr. W Quick, welcomed 50 members and guests who had come not only to partake of the food and fellowship, but also to listen to the guest speaker, Nick Utting secretary of the National Farmers union of North Cumbria, whose subject was "Foot and Mouth Disaster".

Mr. Utting looked back to 12 months ago when the disease first struck, affecting Northumberland, Essex, Devon and, worst of all in the number of cases, Cumbria. He displayed a map of Cumbria and southern Scotland showing every case up to its maximum spread by midsummer last year. The disease spread with great rapidity across North Cumbria, creating the notorious hotspot of the "Penrith triangle", many farmers having just bought stock from Longtown mart.

'No strategy'

It had been forgotten how quickly infection spreads. There was no plan or strategy to get on top of the spread, he said. No lists were available of vets, slaughterers, hauliers and waggoners. Information from the earlier outbreaks held on file were gathering dust in Whitehall - never having been updated or checked every month as they should have been. Instead of outbreaks being dealt with in 24 hours and neighbours farms within 48 hours, vets initially had to send tests away to London, sometimes taking three to four days to get confirmation for culling the animals. So the horror unfolded and the human trauma with it.

Crisis point was reached - the NFU councils, emergency services and communications all offered help, but MAFF stated that it could cope. The London civil services were imposing their authority, not allowing slaughter and carcasses to be moved. He said the response was disastrously slow. Local MPs could not even get the interest of the politicians, but the press did and soon, nationally and throughout the world, pictures recording the holocaust appeared, belying the claim that "the outbreak is under control!". Eventually, the Prime Minister visited Carlisle on 20th March and was told what was needed.

Mr Utting stated that the influence of a Prime Minister can be a great advantage, especially when there is a general election in the offing. The Civil Service has always been loath to change policy, he said. The "spin doctors" moved in to get political policies. Utting said: "However inept the phrase 'a knight in shining armour' might seem when applied to Brigadier Birtwistle, nevertheless he answered the question 'Can you get things underway, given the authority?' with an unequivocal 'yes'.'

Aftermath

The aftermath, when the Government came under criticism, resulted in the spin merchants attempting to blame farmers for spreading the disease and highlighting the cost of cleaning and sterilising farms. Nobody wanted to hear of farms costing more than £100,000 to clean. However, insisted on "clean, clean and clean again", he said. Milking parlours were taken to pieces and reassembled. Yet far less cleaning was done in Scotland. Later, MAFF changed its attitude, but millions of pounds had been wasted.

In conclusion, Mr. Utting referred to the various inquiries which have taken place and underlined the need for contingency plans and arrangements which are constantly updated so that a quick response is ensured. Pressure is needed to keep plans up-to-date' He is concerned that certain people arrogant in manner still hold positions in government. The phrase "heads must roll" came to mind.

Looking to the future, Mr. Utting, having spent more than 30 years in Cumbrian farming, is passionate about its future being the main fabric industry and closely related with the tourist industry. Regarding farmers, the majority are back, but many have dropped out of dairy and not just because of foot and mouth.

Sons and daughters in many cases do not want to continue but are seekmg opportunities outside farming, he said. This is a matter of great concern. Farmers are not seeing an increase in sheep prices and milk prices have dropped by lp per litre and a further 2p litre drop is forecast. Nothing seems to give promise for the future.

Supermarkets are keen to provide cheap food. Nobody can influence them and they and people down the chain are taking the lion's share. Farmers want a reasonable price in the market but the only financial support comes from the Ministry of Agriculture, now called DEFRA, and from Europe.

Europe favours its farmers. Farmers in Britain do not easily co-operate with each other and control has been given to the supermarkets. The fact that there are farmers' shops and markets only scratches the surface and gives benefit to the few, he said.

Mr Utting has great concerns about the survival of farming as we know it. His talk was warmly applauded by members and guests. Questions and opinions were expressed by knowledgeable listeners, including men whose farms had been affected by the disease.

European rules

They spoke of European regulations which have been imposed, such as NVZs (nitrogen vulnerable zones) and the cost of complying with them; the 20 day rule; and the dilatory response of governments and the civil service in 1-ondon at the outset of the epidemic.

The vote of thanks was given by Ron Wilson, a member of the farming community who had experienced the traumas of the past 12 months. He congratulated Mr. Utting on his survey of the outbreak, the possible causes of its escalation and what the future could well be.

Posted April 6 2002