Gummer is urged to resign over slaughtered hens

Click to follow
EGG PRODUCERS called for John Gummer, the Minister of Agriculture, to resign yesterday after a scathing report by the parliamentary ombudsman on comp ensation paid to an egg farmer whose flock was slaughtered.

James Atkinson was one of hundreds of farmers damaged by the scare which blew up in December 1988, when the then health minister, Edwina Currie, said most of Britain's egg production was infected by salmonella.

In an attempt to maintain confidence in the egg market, a policy of mass slaughter of infected flocks began. Mr Atkinson's birds were destroyed in March 1989 at his farm at Crowland, near Peterborough, by order of the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) after a low level of infection was found.

He was suffering depression at the time, brought on by the shock. According to the report by William Reid, the ombudsman, Mr Atkinson was told he would get pounds 28,185 compensation and had only 14 days to lodge an appeal. He felt the amount was far too low, but he needed the money.

The ministry said that if he lodged an appeal for more, a settlement could take up to three years. 'He was broken by the way he was treated,' Sir Richard Body, MP for Holland with Boston, who took the complaint to the ombudsman, said.

Ministers had secretly decided to compensate egg farmers for only 60 per cent of the value of their slaughtered flocks, even though the majority of the birds destroyed were not diseased. It was estimated that the level of infection was about 8 per cent.

Under the Animal Health Act 1981 the ministry was obliged to pay full compensation for any disease-free animal slaughtered. But ministers, anxious to avoid a runaway bill for compensation, picked the 60 per cent figure as the minimum they could get away with. Their policy, according to the ombudsman's report, was to keep this figure secret.

The ombudsman said: 'I strongly criticise MAFF for failing to discharge their obligation to devise and implement a (compensation) scheme which complied with the requirements of the legislation.'

In the autumn of 1990, after much criticism, the ministry began compensating farmers more fairly, paying them the full value for the proportion of their flocks found to be disease free.

The ministry has now agreed to pay Mr Atkinson an extra pounds 24,990, which represents fair compensation plus interest. And yesterday Mr Gummer told the Commons he would be compensating an extra 121 farmers similarly affected - the bill would come to about pounds 600,000.

Mr Atkinson did not wish to comment. Andy Oatley, chairman of the UK Egg Producers' Association, said: 'The grief, hardship and devastation caused by the slaughter policy was bad enough. That the ministry should also have cheated egg producers out of their rightful compensation is a matter over which Mr Gummer should resign.'

The ministry recently announced that it would abandon slaughtering because so few birds were infected with salmonella and the risk of the bacteria getting into eggs was extremely low. More than 3 million birds have been destroyed and more than pounds 5m paid in compensation.