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Sunday, 27 May, 2001, 12:38 GMT 13:38 UK

Hague woos rural vote

The Conservative leader William Hague has promised new measures to prevent a repetition of the foot-and-mouth outbreak which has devastated many farming communities.

Speaking in his Richmond constituency in Yorkshire, Mr Hague attacked the government for underestimating the full extent of the crisis.

" The British countryside faces at best a bleak and uncertain future and at worst a slow and painful death "
William Hague

He spoke of the 'Bermuda triangle' of official agriculture ministry figures on the number of foot-and-mouth cases and called for an independent audit of cases.

"The British countryside faces at best a bleak and uncertain future and at worst a slow and painful death," he told the audience in Croft-on-Tees on Sunday.

His speech came as the Labour denied new Tory allegations that it would rig a referendum on the euro to ensure a "yes" vote.

In Yorkshire Mr Hague promised farmers would be helped under a Conservative government through speedy compensation, a reduction in charges for abattoirs and by a renegotiations of the common agricultural policy.

More compensation

He said his party would extend compensation to help farmers with healthy animals unable to move or slaughter livestock.

For the tourism industry, he said a Tory government would launch a promotion campaign.

Public inquiry

Mr Hague accused the prime minister of putting the election before fighting the disease, saying: "When Tony Blair said we were on the home straight, it is clear that he had the election in mind."

He cited Saturday's Daily Telegraph article that claimed that the official Maff statistics of more than 1,600 cases may fall far short of the actual number of nearer 3,000.

He called for a full public inquiry into the foot-and-mouth crisis.

He said the latest outbreak in the Yorkshire Dales around Settle showed the disease had not yet been beaten.

Mr Hague outlined measures to prevent a future outbreak including new controls on meat imports.

But in the event of another crisis he said the army should be in control.

"Many people in the countryside think that their values and traditions are treated with indifference, neglect and contempt," he said.

'Rigging' accusations

Elsewhere, shadow defence secretary Iain Duncan Smith insisted the question for a euro referendum would be set by Mr Blair and phrased in such a way to gain a yes vote to joining the euro.

"Their plans will be to take this country into the euro after the next election by hook or by crook.

"There will be a lot of bullying and a lot of threatening."

But Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers told Sky News that Labour had confidence in the public to decide in a referendum vote on joining the euro.

He said: "I think William Hague is insulting the intelligence of the British people."

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