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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 18:57 GMT
Disease victims launch damages claim
A farmer herds his sheep
Campaigners say farmers are still suffering
Victims of the foot-and-mouth epidemic have launched a compensation claim against the UK Government which could run to billions of pounds.

The UK Rural Business Campaign (UKRBC) says the government issued contradictory advice to farmers and rural firms with disastrous results.

It also maintains the government was over-zealous in telling people to stay away from the countryside, leaving thousands of rural businesses on the verge of financial ruin.

Many farmers and businesses are struggling to survive this winter

Ian Mitchell UK Rural Business Campaign
Lawyers for the group filed a letter with the Treasury Solicitor on Monday asking for full disclosure of documents from the now defunct Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) and its successor the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The move is expected to precede a full class action against the government.

UKRBC members were due to meet MPs on Monday, to tell them about the "continuing and corrosive" human cost of the disease.

Struggling businesses

Campaign members were expected to ask for guarantees that the Animal Health Bill, which reaches committee stage on Tuesday, will not infringe human rights or the interests of rural businesses.

Among the victims expected to meet MPs was a woman who found her farmer son about to commit suicide with a shotgun after months with no income.

Ian Mitchell, chairman of the campaign, said: "Many farmers and businesses are struggling to survive this winter.

"They have endured contradictory government advice and countless bungled decisions from it and its agencies."

He said discussions with ministers have produced nothing and legal action is "now the only way to get justice for thousands of rural businesses".

Fundamental rights

Peter Ainsworth MP, shadow secretary of state for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: "Just as the government failed to get a grip on the original outbreak and allowed it to spread out of control, they have utterly failed to understand the continuing impact across many parts of rural Britain."

Stephen Alexander, of Class Law Solicitors, which is supporting the campaign, said members were worried about the Animal Health Bill because it would "empower officials to kill animals suspected of carrying a disease without right of appeal".

He said the move was "the most serious infringement" of the fundamental legal rights citizens enjoy.

"The people in this country are unaware of the serious consequences it poses to their freedom."

The BBC's Wyre Davies
"Only now is business picking up"
UK Rural Business Campaign Chairman, Ian Mitchell
"Our opinion is, businesses should have received proper compensation"
See also:

02 Nov 01 | England
Foot-and-mouth fears fade
29 Oct 01 | England
Minister defends disease strategy
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