Search for Truth conference in London on Wednesday 13th June 2001

 

This conference was held at Queen Elizabeth II Centre London from 10 am to 5.30 pm (although it actually finished at 6.40pm) on Wednesday 13 June 2001.  Its purpose was to secure an effective public enquiry into the FMD epidemic, an evaluation of the evidence to date and a forum to stimulate action to bring about more rational management of the outbreak.

 

We listened to several speakers who gave presentations on - amongst other matters - the legal, the scientific and the media overview of the crisis.  Some of the presentations were of necessity quite abbreviated and, as I have no scientific/veterinary background, my note-taking on these was less than effective.  However, I have contacted Dr Sumption for any further information he might be able to provide and I will report this to you just as soon as it becomes available.  Similarly I understand that Elm Farm are producing their own report and I will circulate this just as soon as I receive it.

 

The conference was opened by the Chairman, Lawrence Woodward, Director of EFRC, who outlined the proposed programme for the day and the aims and aspirations behind the conference.  There was initially to have been a presentation by Dr Peter Midmore who is an agricultural economist, the appointed Professor of Rural Studies at the University of Wales, but he was unable to attend.  Instead a report provided by him was read out by Lawrence, the general gist of which was that it is too early and impractical to actually provide a report into the consequential shortfall which has arisen as a result of the policy adopted by the Government to combat FMD and we cannot therefore yet determine by how much this will exceed compensation payouts.

 

We then heard a presentation by Jeremy Roe, a barrister who is not currently practising but is instead the owner of Downe Cottages, North Devon.  He started by telling us that the tourist industry is worth #64 billion annually to the national economy and the pre-Easter losses were set at #5 billion.  Jeremy believes that this is a gross underestimate and the Government's response - one of profound incompetence - is wholly responsible for this.  He believes that there is a case of negligence to be answered by the Government on the following basis:

 

General

 

Failure to plan

Delay

Confusion

Decision not to vaccinate

Inadequate response

 

Ultra Vires

 

Contiguous Culls

Disposal by burning

 

Negligence - specific to tourist industry/rural economy:

 

Advising people not to go to countryside

Blanket closure of footpaths

Advising attractions to close

 

The damage to the Tourist Industry and Rural Economy is:

 

Direct

Immediate

Foreseeable

 

#5 billion losses are probably underestimated since they do not take into account the:

 

cash flow cycle

typically heavy borrowing

impact on future years

damage to image

 

Government has rejected any responsibility for these losses - they actually have no option because of the scale of them. Their policy was quite a deliberate one in its bid to erode enthusiasm and energy

 

ACTION FOOT AND MOUTH believes those damages have legal remedies and they are committed to delivering these (they have 450 members already).  Their demands are:

 

To stop the cull of healthy animals (and the disposal problems)

Re-open footpaths

Force Government to provide aid

Stop this happening again

 

To achieve this it is not necessary to go to the House of Lords, but we need complete advice from respected lawyers that we have a good case and we need to convince Government that we have the economic resources to take them on as well as demonstrate that we are sufficiently well organised to do so.

 

Potential Grounds

 

Negligence

Nuisance

Judicial Review

European Legislation

 

We Need

 

Funding

Organisation

Competence

Will

 

There then followed a presentation on the political response by Magnus Linklater, columnist for the 'Times' and 'Scotland on Sunday'

 

Magnus started by saying how frustrating it was that there were still so many "gaps" in the information available to journalists as to why certain polices were adopted but what was interesting is how early on the headlines reflected that the main concern was the impact of FMD on a general election.  Perhaps the policy adopted was one rather more forced on us as a result of suggestions from the US that a very tough line would be taken if FMD broke out in Europe.  What is clear is the unwillingness of the policymakers to listen to an alternative view, indeed a civil servant told Magnus "you do realise Dr Sumption has recanted".

 

Nick Brown is said to have been unhappy about some aspects of the killing policy and indeed the whole policy adopted flies in the face of the Phillips report on BSE which encouraged, above all else, openness.  The policy makers downgraded science by not listening to the views of the experts and from this we can trace how the pendulum swung from away from science to MAFF/Farmers.

 

Within MAFF there are lots of little empires and one of the untouchables is the SVS.  Brian Bender is committed to making MAFF more open but the Chief Scientists group remains excluded from this.  There is inherent opposition to vaccination within the SVS which is encouraged and supported by AHI Pirbright who are pure poison vis a vis vaccination.

 

Magnus went on to explain how he had first hand experience of the relationship between King and the epidemiological groups and at this stage Blair was listening to no-one but King with the balance of evidence he wanted to see very much provided by Anderson.  We then come to a question of egos, battles for turf were more important than quality of advice - more to do with trade/economics/NFU than science.  Richard Lutwyche of the RBST asked if the 3km cull was Jim Scudamore's idea - Magnus replied that the extension of this into the contiguous cull appeared to come from the epidemiology model.  Jim Scudamore opposed this, but King overruled this on the airwaves in effect making policy on the hoof!

 

There then followed a presentation by Dr Keith Sumption, Lecturer in International Animal Health, Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh and I am afraid that that title might well be longer than anything else I can report on this at the moment!  However Dr Sumption did immediately stagger us by telling us that there is "an outbreak of FMD in the borders every winter".  He then reassured us that this was a paper outbreak, a simulation carried out by his students which had at its heart sheep movements - an idea of how seriously they view this risk in respect of the spread of the virus.  He then described a country in Asia which is suffering to a huge extent from the Pan Asian strain of FMD and, although he stopped short of naming it, it was obvious to all there that he was talking about the People's Republic of China.  Dr Sumption went on to say that movement controls had effectively brought the virus spread down to a ratio of 1:1 by mid March and in weeks 3-4 there began an "organisation" of the science.  Who wrote the terms or reference he enquired and why was there no peer reference? 

 

We then heard a presentation on the role and actions of the Farming Unions during the Foot and Mouth epidemic by Oliver Dowding, Chairman of NFU Organic Farming Committee.  This was effectively a presentation of the role and actions of the NFU although Oliver was at pains to stress that he was not speaking for the senior leadership of the Union.  Nonetheless he really only presented that which we have heard so many times already, i.e. the public and farmers resistance to vaccination and the consumption/purchase of vaccinated meat and dairy products..  The dissatisfaction of the NFU with the answers to the 52 questions.  However, I understand that "off the record" Oliver is considerably more in tune with our aims and indeed, despite a ferocious reaction to his presentation by, amongst others, Jonathan Miller, he remained for the rest of the conference and was seen to take copious notes! (Rather more copious than mine I fear)

 

Helen Browning, owner of Eastbrook Farm and Chair of the Soil Association then outlined Market and Consumer Response amongst which she advised that polls on public resistance to vaccinated meat and dairy products had been consistently running at around 25%

 

There then followed a special brief presentation by Barry Wilson a journalist based in France who writes for, amongst others, British Dairying.  Barry is known for his strong anti NFU sentiments and indeed he didn't disappoint, questioning in effect the reasoning behind every decision taken by them.  He asked how they could possibly claim to know that vaccination wouldn't work when they thereafter needed to ask MAFF 52 questions regarding it!  He said that Nestles opposition to vaccination had nothing to do with vaccination per se, but everything to do with political in-fighting between the UK company and the parent company, Vevey of Switzerland, i.e. any more problems in Britain and Vevey would close them down.

 

Just before lunch we had a 5 minute reviver.  Jonathan Miller delivered an uncompromising report on the media response - full text available here

 

This provoked an interesting - to the onlookers at least - spat between Jonathan and Andrew Veitch of Channel 4 (though Jonathan did say that although had omitted to include Channel 4 in his role of honour in his presentation he had done so in his written piece) and a journalist from the Guardian.

 

After lunch there was to have been a presentation by Richard Rowe entitled "Vets on the Ground" but unfortunately Richard was unable to make it and we moved on instead to:

 

"The Veterinary Dilemma" presented by Bob Michell, Professor Comparative Medicine at the University of London and member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Council.  Bob told us at a very early stage in his presentation that the RCVS had voted unanimously for a Public Inquiry on the basis of the Northumberland Report AFTER the disease is over.  He also told us some chilling facts, such as that there have already been 5 to 10 times as many animals slaughtered as in the 67 outbreak and yet there are fewer actual cases (a probably reason for this is that the virus has affected sheep rather than cattle as in 67).  He also queried how much anticipatory culling had been carried out in advance of positive results.  Prof Michell also said that the key issues in this outbreak were/should have been the clinical examination of sheep and cattle, the cessation of animal movements and the control of the epidemic taking due consideration of the impact on the rest of the rural economy.

 

Following Prof Michell we then had two presentations from our overseas visitors.  The first "Vaccination, the Dutch approach and EU attitudes" was delivered by Dr Simon Barteling, Consultant on Production of Veterinary Vaccines and Control of FMD.  Dr Barteling detailed for us his experiences in bringing the South African outbreak under control and how vaccination has proved so effective in limited the number of cases as it has done in Holland, indeed he said that the Dutch could have kept their outbreaks to single figures had vaccination been carried out even earlier.  Dr Barteling favours limited rather than mass vaccination, but does not see a case for the slaughter of animals post vaccination.  He also hinted very strongly that both Germany and France had "tidied up" outbreaks of their own.  The Germans by giving official test results which were slightly at variants with reality and the French by the implementation of vaccination (though without official notification of same).  I have to confess that I started to wander a little on this presentation since, although Dr Barteling's English is excellent, it is naturally quite hesitant and the nature of his presentation both necessarily brief and highly technical.  I can endeavour to find out a little more on it if anyone should require me to.

Dr Barteling was followed by Dr Paul Sutmoller, Animal Health Consultant and veterinarian; Dr Sutmoller is a graduate of the Rijksuniversiteit in Utrecht, The Netherlands.  He worked for more than 35 years as a virologist and epidemiologist on the prevention, control an eradication of foot and mouth disease in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Here again, although Dr Sutmoller's presentation was fascinating, I am afraid I do not have the technical/scientific expertise to have taken down representative notes of what was again a very brief and highly technical presentation.  I can only try to obtain fuller notes of this presentation as well if anyone should particularly require them.

 

Following these two gentleman we had a presentation entitled "Events on the Ground" and this featured presentations from Tom Lowther from Cumbria, Toby Tennant from Scotland, Alayne Addy from Devon and the Forest of Dean group as represented by Carole Youngs and Janet Bayley.  Tom and Toby spoke most eloquently about their own personal situations and how they had both been on the receiving end of MAFF incompetence and Alayne of her many, at times highly convoluted, efforts to save Devon farmers from the contiguous cull - nearly all successfully to date (well in excess of 100).  Carole and Janet also gave us graphic descriptions of their efforts in the Forest of Dean area.

 

We then came to a presentation by William Neville, partner at law with Burgess and Salmon in Bristol entitled "The Legal Issues".  William gave a very clear presentation on the options available with regard to recourse to law/public inquiry and at the same time advised us not to confuse justice with the law!  He said there were five key considerations:

 

1.  Was there ever a legal basis to the contiguous cull

2.  There is a need to create a clear definition between adjoining and contiguous

3.  Why were clear EU procedures not followed - why did the UK policy exceed these

4.  Why were farmers put under such appalling pressure to give into contiguous cull

5.  Why were decision makers (slaughter/policy) allowed to overrule professionals (ie vets) on ground.

 

William identified the options available and the pros and cons attached to them:

 

Public Inquiry

 

This is the strongest option available to us and would be held under the Tribunals and Inquiries Act.  It is also the most expensive remedy, it could be very protracted, doesn't provide compensation but is great for recrimination.

 

Tackling Problem at Source via OIE

 

This has to be the way ahead, but there is no redress, it only addresses the future.

 

Informal Complaint to MAFF/DEFRA

 

A definite pro of this approach is that it is cheap, a con that we cannot know how it will be applied and it is unlikely to be of help to any other business than farming

 

Parliamentary Ombudsman

 

Pro:

Open to all political parties

Has power to recommend

Can provide for compensation

It is cheap

It might pervade into areas of policy which Courts might otherwise decline

 

Con:

The Ombudsman decides what he will investigate and this will take time

 

Negligence Claim against Government

 

Pro: 

Best route for compensation

 

Con:

This is strictly limited to operational neglect, MAFF policy unlikely to be affected

It is costly

It is very slow (approx. 18 months)

The outcome is very uncertain since this method of approach goes to the heart of law -v- justice

 

Judicial Review

 

This is the process of challenging Government decision-making in Court and on this basis we could challenge:

 

Contiguous Cull

The decision not to vaccinate

The proposed cull of healthy animals found to have antibodies

 

This only bites if decisions of Government can be shown to be irrational, i.e. clearly and widely wrong, and against this we have to consider that there are still conflicting veterinary views and realistically recognise that Government "supporters" (i.e. policy makers) will all be fighting "tooth and nail" to protect their territory.

 

The best time for this approach has probably past since William considered that mid-May was the optimum time (a view shared by Jeremy Roe).

 

A great advantage of this approach is speed since a review can be carried out in as little as a week.

 

Since the meeting had already overrun by more than an hour there was just time for a few questions at the end and a request to sign agreement to the following letter being sent to Tony Blair:

 

 

CALL FOR A PUBLIC INQUIRY

 

Dear Prime Minister

 

We, the undersigned, come from all walks of life, including farming, tourism, the research community, the media, the legal and veterinary professions, environmental and community activity - yet we share a common bond as citizens deeply concerned by our country's management of the current Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) epidemic.

This week marks the start of a new Government and the beginning of a new relationship between food production, environment and rural livelihood under a new Ministry

We therefore urge you, not only to end and sweep aside the misguided approaches of the past months, but also to ensure that we all learn from our mistakes and make certain that the destructive and harrowing events that have accompanied this outbreak of FMD never happens again.

It is our belief that only a full and open public inquiry will enable all parts of our society to fully comprehend and learn from this outbreak and profound distress that has visited our countryside and rural communities in the past months.

We have all thought deeply about this epidemic and how it has been handled.  We have met together and surveyed some of its economic, political, scientific, legal, animal welfare and human aspects and have concluded that there is an overwhelming case for a detailed and public examination of these issues.

Our call is not concerned with seeking to apportion blame nor highlighting mistakes to embarrass or pillory any person, institution, department or government.  It is a call for transparency, a search for information that is openly presented and evaluated, so that all of us can learn and take steps to ensure that we never again find ourselves in this position.

Finally this epidemic has been massively traumatic for many individuals, families and communities and indeed for the country as a whole.  We believe that such an inquiry would help mitigate that trauma and thereby make a significant contribution to rebuilding and revitalising rural communities and economies.

We urge you to establish a full and open public inquiry into the FMD outbreak, its management and its consequences.

Yours sincerely