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Programme highlights Tuesday, 10 April, 2001, 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK
Farmers deny FMD illegalities
A farmer herds his flock across a moor
Police are investigating illegal sheep movement claims
West Mercia police have confirmed they've begun a major investigation into compensation fraud and illegal sheep movements connected to the foot and mouth outbreak.

Trading standard officials and representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture are also involved in the inquiry.

The investigation team is based in Worcestershire and a senior officer today said he couldn't comment on whether or not the deliberate spreading of the disease was part of their inquiries.

This will give weight to claims that the farming community has contributed to its own problems.

But it will also irritate farmers profoundly.

Unsubstantiated

Anthony Gibson, regional director for National Farmers Union in the south west, bitterly resents the atmosphere conjured up by such accounts pointing out that as yet there were only unsubstantiated allegations, and very few proven instances of illegal practice.

He told the World at One that politicians and officials had mounted a concerted campaign to divert attention from their own incompetence, and challenged ministers to "put up or shut up" over persistent allegations of wrong-doing.

Agriculture Minister Nick Brown MP
Nick Brown: Livestock can't be moved without a licence
Yet the West Mercia investigation is just the most dramatic result of hundreds of inquiries by trading standards officers.

For several days, ministers have been reminding us of the risks involved in such activities, and the reasons are easy to understand.

The government needs to reassert constantly that it is in control of the outbreak, and that the culling policy is working.

If isolated cases are discovered many miles from existing hot-spots, an explanation has to be offered - and farmers themselves are obvious scapegoats.

Nick Brown stressed in the Commons - and again on Newsnight last night - the need for farmers to stick to the rules.

But also on Newsnight, Nick Cull - who advises the country's trading officers - revealed that Tony Blair had himself expressed an interest last Wednesday in the number of cases being investigated.

Briefings

At about the same time, political correspondents noted a considerable increase in briefings from Downing Street about the problem of illegal sheep movements.

MP's like Gordon Prentice, the Labour member for Pendle in north Lancashire, have been only too keen to take up the cudgel, both in the House and outside.

He told the World at One that evidence of the illegal movement of livestock would suggest a small number of farmers were acting in an "astonishingly stupid way".

Officials have known for some time that sheep are sometimes borrowed so that farmers can fraudulently claim subsidies. If sheep were to be tagged this kind of activity could be stopped, he added.

The result has been the steady stream of stories which - in the eyes of Anthony Gibson from the NFU in the south-west - amounts to an unjustified campaign of disinformation.

The Conservative Agriculture spokesman, Tim Yeo, supports that view.

He told the World at One it was unreasonable for the government to point to illegalities when their handling of the crisis was so inept.

And the reality?

So what are the facts? The World at One contacted a number of Trading Standards Officers in infected areas.

Fifty cases are being investigated in Powys, central Wales. The assistant director of Trading Standards is Idris Jones said the vast majority of farmers were acting responsibly and there was no evidence of illegal practices spreading the disease.

A similar picture emerges in Cumbria - where the spread of the virus has been swifter and more serious than anywhere else in the country.

Phil Ashcroft, head of Trading Standards in the county, said that he could only point to anecdotal evidence of farmers deliberately assisting the spread of the disease.

He said all illegal movements were of concern - but of the 7,500 farms in the county only about 30 incidents that are "worthy of investigation" had been reported.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Labour MP Gordon Prentice
Shocked that farmers could be worsening the crisis
Idris Jones, Trading Standards, Powys
Vast majority of farmers are acting responsibly
Anthony Gibson, NFU Southwest region
Illegalities may have been reported - they haven't been proved
Phil Ashcroft, head of Cumbria Trading Standards
No more than anecdotal evidence for illegal acts
Links to more Programme highlights stories are at the foot of the page.


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