Tourism 'hit hardest' by farm disease

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Britain's tourism industry suffered nine times more severely than agriculture from the foot and mouth crisis, partly because farmers ripped off taxpayers, a parliamentary inquiry has concluded.

Britain's tourism industry suffered nine times more severely than agriculture from the foot and mouth crisis, partly because farmers ripped off taxpayers, a parliamentary inquiry has concluded.

The inquiry – by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee – concludes that tourist enterprises, which received no compensation for damage done when the Government needlessly closed the countryside, lost up to £5.4bn as a result of the epidemic.

By contrast, farmers – whose negligence, the committee's report says, was largely responsible for spreading the disease – lost a total of only £600m after compensation. And the report demonstrates that most farmers who lost their animals managed to secure inflated payments.

The inquiry is the fourth in little over a year to savage the Government's handling of the epidemic and to vindicate The Independent on Sunday's campaigning coverage of it. Following last year's reports by the Royal Society, the National Audit Office and the Anderson inquiry into the crisis, it adds its weight to an almost unprecedented volume of condemnation of official incompetence.

It concludes that the countryside should not have been closed, that carcasses should not have been burnt on mass pyres, and that there should have been a policy for vaccinating animals against the disease – all issues raised by this newspaper, virtually alone, at the time.

The inquiry reports that in 78 per cent of the cases, the disease "resulted from local spread between premises within 3km of each other". Much of this was caused by farmers failing to take simple hygiene precautions.

Yet compensation, the report shows, ran out of control, to reach £1.4bn. The amount paid for slaughtered animals rose to three times what their market value had been before the epidemic broke out. Farmers were allowed to choose their own valuers, who in turn were paid a percentage of their valuations.

In an attempt to control this, the now-defunct Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food introduced "generous" standard rates for compensation, expecting that "at least 70 per cent" of farmers would accept them. But in the end, only 4 per cent did so. The rest used them as "a floor for valuations", holding out for more.

Another scheme, which paid out £200m to slaughter animals for "welfare reasons" – when, for example, they could not be moved from fields that ran out of grass – was even more abused, the report shows. It was so swamped with claims from farmers with "modest and no welfare problems" that animals that were genuinely in trouble had to wait, and the scheme "failed in its purpose of alleviating animal suffering".

The report also discloses that landowners charged six times the going rate for land for burial pits.

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