Watchdog set to investigate Maff's 'poaching' of vets

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The Government's financial watchdog is to investigate claims that the Ministry of Agriculture diverted too many vets to the fight against foot-and-mouth, leaving abattoirs and meat factories dangerously exposed to the threat of other diseases.

The National Audit Office is to follow up a complaint from the biggest supplier of vets in the country about salaries of up to £100,000 paid to recruit professionals to the fight against the epidemic.

Jason Aldiss, the managing director of Evill and Jones, the country's biggest private contractor of vets, said the pay offered by the Government "was so good that our people abandoned us".

Abattoirs and meat factories were severely overstretched and in some cases unable to meet the Government's own standards introduced this year to protect the public against diseases such as BSE.

The investigation will assess claims that public health vets were warning the now-defunct Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) on a daily basis that they were haemorrhaging staff during the crisis because of the salaries being offered by the Government.

Andrew Storrar, president of the Veterinary Public Health Association, said: "Public health could have been disturbed by not having the number of people to cover. We were overwhelmed because we could not compete with these salaries. It was farcical."

Downing Street was told about the dangers but vets say their pleas were ignored.

Hundreds of vets saw their salaries double when they signed up to work on a daily rate for the Government, which paid up to £250 a day as well as offering perks including a car, mobile phone and free hotel accommodation.

The Independent has learnt that an official complaint has been made to the inland revenue that some vets recruited from abroad left the country without paying tax.

The Tories accused the Government last night of a "grotesque waste of public money" in supplying vets.

Peter Ainsworth, shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, said: "Seeing them handing out money hand over fist like this is shocking."

Mr Aldiss said: "From 1 April this year we were required to provide 100 per cent supervision of all fresh meat facilities including cutting plants and slaughterhouses. So we recruited 60 vets to ensure compliance. Thirty were subsequently poached by Maff. That left us extremely short-staffed and I known that other contractors were left in the same position and were unable to provide the cover required.

"In future they [Maff and its successor] have to learn lessons from this. We all warned them. They knew what was happening and nobody listened at all."

The Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs, which was created after the demise of Maff, denied that public health had been compromised by its policy of hiring vets on high rates.

It said it had received no complaints from the Meat Hygiene Service which is in charge of enforcing government standards.

Some 600 vets are still being paid the high rates even though there have been no cases of foot-and-mouth for the past month. But the Government is now understood to be looking at introducing fixed-term contracts for vets to save money.