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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 17:37 GMT
Questions remain over foot-and-mouth
Paul and Michael Burn, who have restored cattle to their Northumberland farm
Farms are slowly returning to normal after the crisis
Opposition parties have stepped up calls for a public inquiry into the foot-and-mouth epidemic, as the UK is officially declared free of the disease.

Foot-and-mouth facts
Confirmed cases: 2,030
Cattle slaughtered: 595,000
Sheep slaughtered: 3,306,000
Pigs slaughtered: 142,000
Other animals slaughtered: 4,000
Total animals slaughtered: 4,047,000
Countryside Agency puts cost to UK farming at up to 2.4bn
Cost to tourism estimated at between 2bn and 3bn
Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives say a full public inquiry is the only way ministers and officials can be properly held to account for their handling of the 11-month crisis.

But Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that the three separate inquiries currently under way were sufficient and were independent of government.

"The Conservative Party is just desperate to get across the impression that the entire thing was in some way the fault of ministers," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

'Long, dark shadow'

Britain was officially declared free of foot-and-mouth at midnight on Monday.

The government's mishandling of the disaster has cost the economy billions of pounds

Peter Ainsworth, shadow DEFRA secretary
The National Farmers' Union said the lifting of restrictions would remove a "long, dark shadow" from the countryside, even though it will be some months before Britain can trade fully with the rest of the world.

But shadow environment secretary, Peter Ainsworth, said: "The government's mishandling of the disaster has cost the economy billions of pounds, led to the slaughter of millions of healthy animals and brought many rural businesses to the verge of ruin."

He said many questions still needed to be answered including:

  • Were warning signs ignored by ministers?

  • What caused the delay in implementing the movement ban?

  • Why was there apparently no contingency plan?

  • What caused the delay in slaughter and burial?

  • Was it necessary to slaughter millions of healthy animals?

  • Why was the army not brought in sooner?

  • On what basis were decisions taken regarding vaccination?

In the absence of a full independent public inquiry, there was a danger that these questions would go unanswered, Mr Ainsworth said.

He also called for tighter restrictions on meat imports, which have been linked with the arrival of animal diseases in the UK.

"The sad fact is that, as things stand today, we could import foot-and-mouth again tomorrow," he added.

'Stark contrast'

Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman Malcolm Bruce said wide variations in the interpretation of government guidelines in England and Wales had led to unacceptable delays in implementing policy.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak will not be properly examined until a public inquiry is held

Malcolm Bruce, Lib Dem agriculture spokesman

This "contrasted starkly with Scotland", Mr Bruce said, where shorter lines of communication and a universal approach meant a smaller number of problems with few, if any, serious delays.

"The foot-and-mouth outbreak will not be properly examined until a public inquiry is held where those farmers, vets and contractors affected can give their evidence freely and in public," Mr Bruce said.

Human rights

Meanwhile, peers have warned the government of their deep concerns over plans to give ministers tough new powers to slaughter farm animals suspected of carrying disease.

The Animal Health Bill had an unopposed Second Reading in the House of Lords on Monday - but it is set for a rougher ride when it reaches its committee stage.

Conservative Agriculture front bench spokesman Baroness Byford said: "The Bill is considered by many to take all rights of appeal from farmers.

"While the Government maintain the Bill does not contravene human rights, we have been informed differently," she said.

Farming Minister Lord Whitty said the new powers contained in the bill were needed as some farmers' refusal to allow the slaughter of their stock worsened the spread of foot-and-mouth.

Many farmers have been critical of the government's handling the foot-and-mouth crisis and say far more should have been done to stop the disease spreading.

There were more than 2,000 cases in Britain in the 2001 outbreak and nearly six million animals have been destroyed.

The cost to farming - leaving aside any damage to tourism - stands at more than 2bn.

Agriculture Minister Elliot Morley
"This is very good news for farmers"
NE England Chamber of Commerce's Terry Robson
"We are looking for sustained assistance"
UK Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett
"It is in the interests of everybody in the UK to get the answers"
See also:

14 Jan 02 | UK Politics
New slaughter plans under fire
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