27 July 2001

Blair clean-up snub could

send thousands to wall…

By Alistair Driver

THOUSANDS more farmers than expected face the prospect of being driven out of business unless the government pays to clean up farms hit by foot-and-mouth.

Clean-up operations remain halted on 5800 farms after Tony Blair ordered a far-reaching clampdown on the cost of disease control measures. A leaked government memo said the Prime Minister believed it "unacceptable" that it was costing more than £100,000 to disinfect and prepare each farm in England and Wales for restocking.

In a further blow, the government has slashed payments made under the Livestock Welfare Disposal Scheme (see Business, p.19). It is also reviewing compensation payments for culled livestock amid accusations that farmers have artificially inflated the value of dead animals.

NFU president Ben Gill described the decision to halt all cleansing and disinfection operations while costs are reviewed as a disgrace. But during a top-level meeting on Tuesday (24 July), he and NFU deputy director general Ian Gardiner failed to persuade junior farm minister Lord Whitty not to suspend the clean-up operation.

The NFU believes 5800 farmers have been left with no hope of picking up the pieces after foot-and-mouth. Mr Gardiner warned: "There are elements within the government which want to completely review the process, including the possibility that farmers will have to pay. It would be impossible on the grounds that farmers could not afford to pay."

Mr Gardiner said the move would end up costing the government more as hygiene would be compromised and the chances of disease spread would increase. But he conceded that there may be grounds for farmers having to pay some costs associated with the crisis which the government expects could cost £2bn

The clean-up will continue in Scotland at the governments expense. But NFU Scotland president Jim Walker said: "Foot-and-mouth was brought in to the UK because of the governments failure to control imports. It was not started by farmers and farmers should not be forced into bankruptcy as the government turns its back on the industry."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs insisted that the government wants disinfection prior to restocking to resume as soon as possible. In the meantime, farmers could disinfect farms at their own expense, she added. &#42

The spokeswoman refused to rule out the possibility that farmers will have to pay for secondary cleaning and disinfection. But she played down the prospects. "Nobody is talking in those terms. The government is not obliged to pay for secondary cleaning and disinfecting but there is no indication that farmers will have to pay the price."

The review will examine exactly what is being claimed for in bills presented to government to make sure costing is accurate. Treasury officials are concerned about the cost of the crisis which it claims could cost the government as much as £2bn. An announcement on the progress of the review is expected within days.