The Government must hold a full public inquiry into foot-and-mouth

Click to follow
The Independent Online

From the chaos that has emerged out of the foot-and-mouth crisis in the past year, we can say only one thing with confidence: that the average person in Britain has little idea what is going on. Just one example. How can spraying a farm in Northumberland, to disinfect it from the danger of foot-and-mouth, cost three times as much as the same operation a few miles further north, across the Scottish border?

From the chaos that has emerged out of the foot-and-mouth crisis in the past year, we can say only one thing with confidence: that the average person in Britain has little idea what is going on. Just one example. How can spraying a farm in Northumberland, to disinfect it from the danger of foot-and-mouth, cost three times as much as the same operation a few miles further north, across the Scottish border?

The average clean-up payment for each affected farm in England and Wales is around £100,000; the comparable figure in Scotland is £30,000. A leaked memo this week revealed the unhappiness in Downing Street about the costs incurred, not least because equivalent clean-ups in Europe cost far less – sometimes 10 times less.

The Prince of Wales was right yesterday to suggest not only that the problems of the foot-and-mouth epidemic are not solved, but also that the future of the countryside is "one of the most crucial issues of our time''. When addressing the foot-and-mouth issues, hard facts are needed in order to assess the problems, and to identify where things have gone wrong. At the moment, hard facts remain in woefully short supply.

A public inquiry should seek to analyse the problem, and find answers to the most important questions. How did the epidemic spread so fast? Was the culling justified? Did compensation work? And, above all, what lessons can be learnt for the future?

Until now, soundbites and the announcement of new "initiatives" have too often taken precedence over the search for a workable strategy. The clean-up operation looks set to cost a total of around £800m. The Government, on the one hand, is unhappy that, in the words of the Agriculture minister, Lord Whitty, it is "being taken for a ride". Farmers are equally indignant that, as the National Farmers' Union puts it, they have been left "in limbo". It seems extraordinary that, at this late stage, the Government has suddenly woken up to the fact that it has not been able to "estimate and organise the financial implications accurately". As reported in The Independent today, the Government has now ordered an investigation into the suspicions of possible cull fraud.

Almost 9,000 farms across Britain have been hit by the foot-and-mouth epidemic, which has in recent months been quietly forgotten, even while it continued to rumble on – out of sight, out of mind. One new case was confirmed in Wales this week, the latest of a cluster of cases there.

The disease has already resulted in a cull of 3.5 million animals; there are now suggestions that, if it runs on into the autumn, then colder weather – and the need to take animals into barns – could make the problems worse once more. Meanwhile, the Government has introduced new measures in Yorkshire for "intensive biosecurity" – a range of cumbersome licensing procedures – following an outbreak that threatens some of the country's largest pig herds.

The Conservative leader, William Hague, was perhaps overstating the case with his accusations of Government "mismanagement and incompetence". Those charges are not yet proven. Mr Hague is right, however, to call for a public inquiry into the handling of the crisis.

As we saw with the BSE crisis, the temptation for governments to sweep the problems away is both dangerous and pointless. The Government demonstrated with its attempted sacking of Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson, two backbenchers who know how to ask difficult questions, that it is unenthusiastic, at best, about public scrutiny. That attitude must finally change. The foot-and-mouth crisis would be a good place to start.

Comments