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Monday, 18 February, 2002, 08:45 GMT
Farmers challenge disease inquiry
dead sheep
More than four million animals were culled
Farmers and businessmen are mounting a legal challenge against the government's refusal to hold a public inquiry into the foot -and-mouth crisis.

A total of 13 farmers, hoteliers and vets will claim in the High Court on Monday that ministers broke the law by deciding against a public inquiry into the handling of last year's outbreak.

They do not believe the three separate official inquiries already announced go far enough in learning the lessons of foot-and-mouth.

These proceedings are being held in private, although submissions and conclusions are being published.

The attempt to declare the decision unlawful is being supported in court by media organisations, including the BBC.

'Too costly'

Lawyers for those taking the court action will challenge the claim of Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett that a public inquiry would have taken too long and cost too much.

People don't understand the horrors that the countryside went through

Robert Persey - pig farmer

Those seeking the judicial review want an inquiry that will compel witnesses to give evidence under oath.

Among them is Guy Thomas Everard, who told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was not satisfied the government enquiries would get to the truth.

He said: "They are being held partly in private - we're not going to hear the evidence being given by government ministers and government officials. On the other hand these officials will be able to hear evidence by people like myself.

"So they can comment on what I have said - I won't know what they have said and I won't be able to comment on what they have said."

'Modest sums'

The four-day hearing coincides with the first anniversary of the start of the crisis when a vet reported suspected symptoms of foot-and-mouth amongst pigs at an Essex abattoir.

The origins of the disease were later traced to Northumberland.

If judges agree the decision not to hold a public inquiry was illegal, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will have to reconsider its position.

One of the solicitors in the case, Tim Russ, said: "There are an enormous number of public inquiries that are over in a few months and cost modest sums, so we dispute the government's arguments against holding one.

"The judges cannot order Margaret Beckett to have a public inquiry but they can say her earlier decision was illegal."

'Agony and abuse'

Pig farmer Robert Persey, from Honiton, Devon, who lost tens of thousands of pounds due to the outbreak, said: "People don't understand the horrors that the countryside went through, the personal agony and the abuse by government officials.

Farmers demand a public inquiry be held
"We have to get to the bottom of it, we cannot let it happen again."

The barrister leading their fight, Richard Lissack QC, has previously dealt with such high-profile cases as the Bristol Royal Infirmary inquiry.

For Defra, Lord Goldsmith QC, the Attorney General, will appear in person in a rare move for the government's chief legal adviser.

The Policy Commission into the Future of Farming and Food, one of the three inquiries, reported back last month.

The two other inquiries are due to report back this summer.

Iain Anderson will chair an inquiry which will make recommendations on the way authorities should react to future animal disease epidemics.

A scientific review will be carried out by the Royal Society, chaired by Sir Brian Follett.

The BBC's Tim Hirsch
"It was cost and speed that was the argument"
Farmer, Guy Thomas Everard
"I'm not satisfied that the government enquiries are going to get to the truth"
See also:

17 Jan 02 | Foot and mouth
Foot-and-mouth epidemic
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