Muck and brass

The foot-and-mouth gravy train must never roll again

A year after the horse bolted with their money, taxpayers may be wryly amused to find the Government moving to close the stable door. Financial mismanagement dogged every stage of last year’s foot-and-mouth outbreak which cost the country an estimated £7 billion. As the Government lost control of the disease and panicked, it paid vastly inflated prices for everything from livestock to burial sites. Vets, valuers, slaughtermen, contractors and farmers all took advantage of the situation, according to the National Audit Office. It is to be hoped that such an epidemic will never happen again, but in case it does, the Government is right to close the loopholes.

A new system of valuing animals destined for slaughter is particularly welcome. The old rules were spectacularly flawed. Valuers received a payment of £500 per day plus 1 per cent of their total valuation of the stock, giving them an obvious incentive to inflate prices. To speed up the cull and encourage farmers to accept it, the Government introduced standard valuations which valued animals generously. Yet a majority of farmers opted to use independent valuers, many of whom treated MAFF’s tariffs as a floor, thus pushing the rates up further and leaving some cattle worth notionally more after the outbreak than they had been before. The new proposals, for flat-rate payments for valuers, are much less open to abuse. The Government will also consult on compulsory standard valuations that would remove the need to value each individual cow or sheep. This would help to speed things up, though it will be important to treat pedigree herds with due care.

It is perhaps understandable that those whose farms were devastated by the disease were tempted to take the Government shilling wherever possible. Others clearly saw no reason not to strike the best deal for their businesses, and declared open season on naive public officials. The lack of a contingency plan meant that officials were frantically scouring the country for suppliers and equipment. Multimillion-pound contracts that would usually take weeks to negotiate were agreed by telephone within hours. The Government on occasion paid five times over the odds for commodities like coal and railway sleepers for funeral pyres.

A private company would have been heavily sanctioned by its shareholders for such naivety, but it would have honoured the deals it had made. The Government has not felt the need for a single head to roll. It is now wrangling with some of the contractors who stepped in to work around the clock. One cleaning company that claims it is owed £9 million has not been paid for a year, and says it will not be so keen to help next time. Some agreements will no doubt be open to interpretation. But a deal is a deal, value for money or not.

In their formal response to the three foot-and-mouth inquiries, ministers may be tempted to cite such abuses to shift the blame. They must resist. The bill for foot-and-mouth would never have been so high had Whitehall acted more quickly to impose a ban on animal movements, had it not consistently underestimated the scale of the outbreak and insisted on controlling everything from the centre. The Government will need to show how its machinery would work better in response to a future outbreak.

Proposals to give vets media training, to use “mass text messaging” and a dial-in message service called “Defra Direct”, do not inspire confidence. During the first most critical weeks of the crisis, MAFF repeatedly failed to react quickly enough to prevent a trail of devastation. If there is ever a next time, there must certainly be tighter financial controls, but also less haste and more speed.

See the Government Proposals