29 March 2002

F&M photocopy sender may be DEFRA official

By Nigel Burnham

DEFRA has conceded that one of its officials may be behind the posting of photocopies of confidential foot-and-mouth valuation forms to Northumberland farmers and local newspapers

Farmers in the region believe someone is trying to split the farming community by exposing differing levels of valuations between neighbouring farms.

But the farmers have attacked DEFRA, which they are considering suing for breach of confidence rather than turn on each other.

Hill farmer Malcolm Corbett said he was "outraged" when he received a photocopy of another farmers F&M valuation form posted anonymously to his farm in Otterburn.

The form revealed the name, address and holding number of the farmer who had lost his livestock to the virus, along with the name of the independent auctioneer who had valued his stock and the prices he had received for individual animals.

Mr Corbett, who was the NFU Northumberland county chairman during the F&M epidemic, immediately contacted the Newcastle Disease Emergency Control Centre, which confirmed it was investigating similar leaks of confidential information.

Mr Corbett, who also reported the leak to the legal department of the NFU in London, said: "I do not know why I have been targeted in this way. It is absolutely disgraceful. I wonder how many other farmers have received a similar letter through the post, and what the sender thinks they will achieve."

NFU legal experts say it could be possible for farmers whose details have been leaked to sue the government for breach of confidence and that the person responsible for the leak could be fined or dismissed.

"Nothing has been decided yet but I have been told that farmers could take legal action against DEFRA if they can prove that the leak came from the control centre in Newcastle," said Mr Corbett.

Hexham MP Peter Atkinson said he had raised the matter with junior DEFRA minister Lord Whitty, who told him: "I can assure you that my department regards this as a matter of the utmost seriousness and is investigating it urgently." &#42