Foot-and-mouth inquiries to be heard in private

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The Independent Online

The launch of three independent inquiries into the foot-and-mouth crisis on Thursday was overshadowed by the decision to hear the evidence behind closed doors. The Government's handling of the outbreak, including its decision not to vaccinate animals, is to be subject to an independent inquiry chaired by a prominent businessman and designed to "draw lessons" from the handling of the crisis.

The launch of three independent inquiries into the foot-and-mouth crisis on Thursday was overshadowed by the decision to hear the evidence behind closed doors. The Government's handling of the outbreak, including its decision not to vaccinate animals, is to be subject to an independent inquiry chaired by a prominent businessman and designed to "draw lessons" from the handling of the crisis.

Claims that farmers deliberately infected their livestock to gain generous compensation payments will be investigated in a second inquiry by the Royal Society, Britain's most eminent scientific body. This will review scientific issues about the way the virus began and spread.

A third inquiry into the future of farming, including animal welfare, will be held by a policy commission on farming and food headed by Sir Don Curry, a farmer and former head of the Meat and Livestock Commission. But the three inquiries, designed to help Governments tackle similar crises, fell short of the full public inquiry called for by farmers.

Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, yesterday broke off her caravan holiday in France to announce the investigations which would lead to a "fuller public understanding" of the outbreak and would be swifter and cheaper than a public inquiry.

But opposition MPs reacted angrily when they heard evidence would be given in private and the Prime Minister would be unlikely to testify before the "lessons learned" inquiry, headed by Dr Iain Anderson, chairman of BT Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats plan to take the government to judicial review if the evidence given to the inquiry is not made public. The inquiries will not have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence on oath.

There are now 10 ongoing inquiries into the epidemic, including an investigation by the National Audit Office, which will probe allegations that farmers have profited from compensation and clean-up fees during the crisis.

Tim Yeo, the Tory Agriculture spokesman, said it was "absurd" to mount so many investigations rather than one public inquiry which could take evidence from the Prime Minister. "If the Prime Minister fails to give evidence he is copping out," said Mr Yeo. "It will suggest he is ducking responsibility for a crisis he claimed responsibility for. Anything less than a full inquiry is inadequate."

Ben Gill, President of the National Farmers Union, said the inquiries should vaccination. "Vaccination is one of those areas where society and the bulk of the farming population are disappointed that we have not had the tool appropriate to solve this problem," he said.

Elliott Morley, the Agriculture minister, said vaccination would be looked at by government "coolly, calmly and on a scientific basis".

He said the government has still not ruled out using vaccinations for tackling the crisis alongside a cull and said he favoured allowing vaccinated animals to enter the food chain for human consumption.

"We have learnt a lot," he added. "I don't think there is any doubt that contingencies in future will be very different. There is no doubt that they will have to return to the issue of vaccination."

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