5 April 2002

F&M committees soft on witnesses

Euro-MPs investigating last years foot-and-

mouth crisis held their first two full sessions

in Brussels last week. Their aim is to learn

the lessons and recommend improvements.

But, as Europe editor Philip Clarke

explains, the key witnesses got off lightly

THE European Parliaments temporary committee into foot-and-mouth, set up to assess the EUs and UKs handling of the crisis, has been heralded as the next best thing to a full public inquiry.

Despite its inability to legislate, or even compel witnesses to attend, it is at least independent and is holding every meeting in the full glare of the media.

But after the first two days of deliberation, doubts are emerging as to its likely effectiveness.

It was as if the three star witnesses, former UK farm minister Nick Brown, EU food safety commissioner, David Byrne, and UK chief vet, Jim Scudamore, had met in private beforehand to confirm their stories.

There was little to suggest that the authorities handling of the crisis had been anything other than a total triumph.

Extra resources had been mobilised on a scale that exceeded the UKs involvement in the Gulf War, boasted Mr Brown. Swill feeding of pigs had been banned almost at once. Not one, but three computer models had been used. And culling had been stepped up to overtake and contain the disease successfully.

There was much sympathy among the MEPs for the UK.

German rapporteur to the committee, Wolfgang Kreissi-Dorfler, said he was relieved it had happened in the UK and not Germany. With 27 regional Lander, the federal authorities would never have coped.

The meeting only got a bit feisty when Conservative MEP Robert Sturdy asked why the UK government had refused to hold a public inquiry? Why Mr Brown had lost his job at the height of the crisis? Why Tony Blair had to assume personal responsibility? And why the army was not called in sooner?

These were easily fended off by the affable Mr Brown. There had been a public hearing, he insisted, in the form of a select committee inquiry; government reshuffles were quite the norm after a landslide election victory; Mr Blair had taken charge because so many departments were involved; and army vets had been requisitioned at an early stage.

At one point Mr Byrne did concede that certain welfare aspects "left a lot to be desired". And Mr Scudamore admitted that the three-day delay from the discovery of the first case to the imposition of the total movement ban had made things worse. But generally the British government did a pretty good job.

That is far from the experience of those at the sharp end – the farmers, slaughterers and hauliers.

The inexcusable lack of controls at airports, the lamentable delays in calling on the armys expertise in logistical management, the horrendous welfare abuses by over-stretched slaughtermen, the unacceptable hold-ups in removing week-old rotting carcasses from farms for disposal. Sitting in the plush surroundings of the European Parliaments debating chamber, it was all too easy to forget these harsh realities.

Part of the problem was that the hearings did not mount up to much of a cross-examination. The MEPs – all 30 of them – took it in turns to ask one question each and Messrs Brown, Byrne and Scudamore responded with well-rehearsed platitudes. There were few follow-up questions, no serious attempts to force the main players to admit mistakes were made.

The MEPs will continue to take evidence for most of this year and will then make recommendations. But judging by this first performance, the temporary committee would seem to be a very poor "next best thing" to holding a proper public inquiry. &#42