UK Government Seeks to gag FarmerBy Nic Outterside< size=3>
GOVERNMENT officials are trying to gag Tyneside farmer Bobby Waugh with the Official Secrets Act.
The controversial move came after he accused them of making him the scapegoat for the foot and mouth disease epidemic. But Mr Waugh says he will not be silenced and his supporters claim the Government is using Big Brother tactics to cover-up the real cause of the outbreak.
A week ago Mr Waugh revealed that for 100 days since the disease was linked to his Burnside pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, the Ministry of Agriculture refused to allow him to clean up the premises.
He claimed their blanket refusal had cost him £24,500 in wages, rent and lost income. Mr Waugh also damned 10 animal welfare charges brought against him by Northumberland Trading Standards Offices as "wildly inaccurate".
Now bosses at MAFF (renamed DEFRA - Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - following the General Election) say Mr Waugh can only clean up his farm if he signs the Official Secrets Act.
A 12 page Ministry of Agriculture contract, dated June 4 and leaked to the Chronicle, details the agreement, which could pay Mr Waugh £10,000 in clean-up compensation.
But to begin the clean-up procedure - which almost every other foot and mouth infected farm has been allowed within days of its animals being culled - Mr Waugh must abide by Clause 17 of the contract.
This states: "The supplier undertakes to abide and procure that his employees abide by the provisions of the Official Secrets Act 1911 to 1989.
"The supplier shall keep secret and not disclose any information of a confidential nature obtained by him by reason of the contract, except information which is in the public domain otherwise than by breach of this provision".
The contract is a lifetime gag on Mr Waugh as it states: "The provision of this Condition 17 shall apply during the continuance of this Contract and AFTER ITS TERMINATION howsoever arising."
Although this may still allow Mr Waugh to speak about some aspects of his farm and the foot and mouth crisis, experience has shown that the Government can take a very wide view as what is a breach of the Official Secrets Act. The contract could even prevent him publicly defending the 10 animal welfare charges made by Northumberland Trading Standards.
In recent examples of the power of the Official Secrets Act London Student Julie Ann Davies and writer Tony Geraghty were both arrested in 1999 after what they believed were innocent protests about what they thought wrong with the Government.
But while gagging Mr Waugh the OSA clause allows the Government to say what it likes: "The Minister shall be free to disclose the terms of this Contract and particulars of the Services as he thinks fit." Mr Waugh is now stuck in a Catch 22 situation.
If he signs the contract and then speaks out about what he claims is a Government plot to discredit him, he could be imprisoned like a spy or traitor under the Official Secrets Act.
But, if he refuses to sign it he will lose the valuable clean up compensation and cannot operate his farm.
The Government has consistently blamed Burnside Farm as the "likely source" of the foot and mouth outbreak despite evidence that the disease was present in UK sheep long before it was identified among Mr Waugh's pigs on February 23.
"None of this makes sense," said Mr Waugh. "I have been on the phone to MAFF almost every day since the beginning of March asking when I can clean out my farm. "Each time I have either been fobbed off or told permission cannot be granted for legal reasons. "Yet within days of me speaking out in the Chronicle this contract is sent to me.
"They are trying to gag me, but they will not stop me saying what I believe is the truth."
Mr Waugh is now taking legal advice on how to procede.
Supporters of the Heddon pig farmer have reacted angrily to the news of the Official Secrets Act gag. Animal geneticist Bruce Jobson, who is writing a book on the foot and mouth epidemic, entitled "Waughtergate", said: "This is a sinister Big Brother tactic being used by the Government, because they are afraid that people are believing their patsy is innocent.
"I have investigated this outbreak from day one and there is no way Bobby is the source of the infection.
"They have him over a barrel, because they know he cannot afford not to get his farm cleaned up."
US scientist Dr Patricia Doyle, who has led a Stateside campaign to uncover the real cause of the foot and mouth outbreak, said: "The disease almost certainly started with an accidental release of FMD virus from vaccine trials, possibly as early as October last year.
"Mr Waugh was not the best farmer in the world and FMD conveniently found its way to his farm. "This stinks of a Government cover-up".
Today a DEFRA spokesman said the delay in cleaning out Burnside Farm was due to problems in disposing of 60,000 gallons of pig slurry and wash water. "We had a significant problem of waste disposal," he said.
The spokesman admitted that use of the Official Secrets Act on Mr Waugh, may be viewed as heavy handed.
He said: "We accept that this is an extensive caution, but it is a standard condition which exists in all our contracts. "But the farmers are not being gagged."
But five other farmers contacted by the Chronicle had not received similar contracts. Today a spokesman for the National Pig Association, the union representing Mr Waugh, said they were outraged by the contract and the inclusion of the Official Secrets Act.
"We have told Mr Waugh not to sign it and we are going to fight his case for him," he added. An NFU spokesman said they were not aware of other farmers being forced to sign similar contracts and said they would investigate the matter further. Hexham Tory MP Peter Atkinson said the attempted gagging of Mr Waugh by use of the Official Secrets Act was "sinister".
"It is also bizarre as the Official Secrets Act covers very serious stuff so what are the Government afraid of here," he added. "It reinforces the feeling that they have sometjing to hide."
Mr Atkinson said would be tabling a parliamentary question to DEFRA minister Margaret Beckett demanding to know why Mr Waugh is being asked the sign the Act.