DEFRA is set to be sued for up to £40m by a group of farmers who were put out of business during the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, Farmers Weekly can reveal.
The legal action is on an unprecedented scale in farming.
"The stakes are high and the potential political impact of this case is immense if it makes the High Court," said lawyer Alex Megaw, who is acting on behalf of 62 former swill feeders.
"Any ministers and senior civil servants directly concerned with the disease outbreak, could be called to give evidence," said Mr Megaw of Manchester-based legal firm Pannone LLP.
Mr Megaw claimed that his clients have strong evidence of negligence on which to mount this case.
The proceedings will be issued to the government tomorrow (19 January) claiming damages resulting from the alleged negligence of a government vet - Jim Dring.
The vet allowed Bobby Waugh's, Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall, to continue trading in 2001, even though after his inspection he admitted that the feeding techniques were clearly deficient.
"Mr Dring was trained to spot potential disease risks," said Mr Megaw.
But when he visited Mr Waugh's farm, on 24 January 2001, it is claimed he ignored, missed or failed to appreciate, the significance of factors that then led to the 2001 F&M outbreak.
The vet had both the opportunity and the reason to shut the farm down before the disease took hold, he claimed.
Just 10 days later, Burnside's pigs developed F&M and the disease engulfed British agriculture.
The government blamed the outbreak on the entire swill feeding industry, banning it on 24 May 2001 without compensating the 62 farmers who lost their livelihoods.
"The 62 swill producers who have instructed me, operated according to the strictest of regulations," said Mr Megaw.
The farmers have led a six-year struggle to clear their names and to be compensated for their losses.
The group had been waiting for the result of an inquiry into the government's handling of the crisis by the Parliamentary Ombudsman which they had been led to believe would vindicate them.
But it has been delayed a number of times amid controversy (see related links).
Leading the six-year campaign for compensation is Lynda Davies, who ran a swill handling business in Bury, Lancashire. She spoke of her relief that legal action was a step closer. "We have been waiting in good faith for the Ombudsman's report into government maladministration over F&M. But we have been told it has been delayed again.
"We now have no choice but to go to court," said Mrs Davies.
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