Bungling on foot and mouth was the worst, says Hague Animal health

November 13, 2001 The Daily Telegraph (London) by Michael Kallenbach
THE Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis was the worst case of bureaucratic bungling that William Hague had come across, he told MPs last night.

The former Conservative leader, making his first speech as a backbencher for nearly nine years, was speaking during the second reading debate of the Animal Health Bill.

He asked: "Is it any wonder that the agricultural community are hostile to greater powers for Government departments of which their daily experience is so deeply disappointing?" Mr Hague, the MP for Richmond, North Yorkshire, repeated his call for a public inquiry into the crisis and for real "bio-security" measures to combat importation of infected meat.

He spoke of his own constituency, with 39 cases of the disease, which had been one of the "hardest hit areas in the foot and mouth crisis".

But the stoicism of local farmers had been tested to the limit by bungling by Government officials. "Still today, the administration of the Leeds office of Defra is hardly an advertisement for smooth competence," he said.

He told of movement licences, delayed for weeks, "often lost, often duplicated . . . frequently full of errors".

The debate was opened by Margaret Beckett, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, who said she was convinced that it was important to introduce tough new powers to tackle any further cases of foot and mouth.

"We are trying to get ahead of circumstances in which we might find ourselves," she said.

The Bill provides powers to enter farms for culling, vaccination or testing on a precautionary basis to prevent the spread of foot and mouth.

It allows for a possible vaccination programme and, controversially, reduces the automatic compensation for farmers to three quarters of a slaughtered animal's market value, with the other 25 per cent dependent on farmers' compliance with disease control measures.

The Government also wants to speed the eradication of scrapie from the national sheep flock. Mrs Beckett said the new measure would give ministers powers to speed the process of developing a disease-resistant flock by excluding susceptible breeds from breeding programmes and culling or castrating others.

Peter Ainsworth, the Tory rural affairs spokesman, criticised the Bill as "badly targeted, badly drafted and badly motivated".

He welcomed the proposals on scrapie but said they would require close scrutiny to ensure protection of certain rare breeds.

He said the Bill was evidence that the Government had not learnt any lessons from its handling of the foot and mouth crisis. "The natural and cowardly instinct of this Government, whenever anything goes wrong, is to look around to blame somebody else, but I have rarely seen anything as low or contemptible as the Government's attempt to blame foot and mouth on the farming community."

Like Mr Hague, Mr Ainsworth criticised the Government for refusing to hold a public inquiry into foot and mouth.

Mark Todd (Lab, Derbyshire South) said MPs would need evidence of improvements in the way Maff, the predecessor to Defra, handled outbreaks, before providing tough new powers.

Malcolm Bruce, the Lib Dem agriculture spokesman, said the new legislation risked the possibility of further alienating farmers.

"It beggars belief that we cannot manage the way through the rest of this outbreak without taking draconian powers. We believe that these are very substantial powers, taken in a hurry, which really behoves ministers to justify."

David Borrow (Lab, Ribble Valley) said that rushing legislation through without much consultation risked "fanning the flames of opposition within the rural community".

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