17 August 2001

Very reluctant millionaires

By Johann Tasker

ROBERT Robinson was home on his Northumberland farm when he first saw the news. It was in The Sunday Times next to a picture of the Queen Mother smiling as she celebrated her 101st birthday. The five-word headline leapt off the front page. "Cull makes 37 farmers millionaires," it said.

The National Beef Association chairman needed little prompting to read on. "At least 37 farmers have been made compensation millionaires after their livestock were slaughtered in the foot and mouth cull," claimed the paper. "They have all received cheques for more than £1m – with the largest being for £4.2m – an amount which has shocked ministers…"

The story made miserable reading. But Mr Robinsons dismay quickly turned to anger. He said later: "When headline stories that some large and well-established pedigree breeders have received seven figure compulsory purchase payments for the enforced slaughter of their animals are suddenly splashed across the national papers you have to wonder whether something sinister is afoot."

Such feelings are understandable. An increasing number of front-page stories in a variety of newspapers has led many people to believe that ministers are trying to divert attention away from their handling of the crisis. It may sound far-fetched, but the theory is that government spin-doctors are trying to discredit farmers and destroy the industry.

A leaked memo obtained by The Daily Telegraph last month suggested it was costing over £100,000 to clean up each infected farm. Tony Blair felt the cost was unacceptable, the memo said. Within days, the Prime Minister had halted the clean-up operation amid suggestions that farmers were ripping off taxpayers.

One week later, The Independent reported claims that farmers were colluding to boost compensation rates for their livestock. DEFRA minister Margaret Beckett had been tipped off about the matter during a visit to Yorkshire, said the paper. Overnight, the system of fixed compensation for livestock was abolished.

Then, a fortnight ago, Independent on Sunday reported that farmers were being offered diseased animals so they could deliberately infect livestock and claim compensation. The story was nothing new – FARMERS WEEKLY reported similar claims two months ago. On this occasion, however, another inquiry was ordered as anti-farmer feeling swept the broadsheets.

The government has since admitted that clean-up costs on farms are nearer £30,000 rather than the much-touted £100,000. An inquiry into excessive compensation claims has revealed nothing. The police have yet to find evidence that farmers deliberately infected livestock. But allegations based on flimsy evidence are often as easy to believe as they are difficult to disprove.

Much to learn

Ministers may well be "shocked" at the level of foot-and-mouth compensation. But such a reaction shows they have learned little about farming during Labours four years in power when rural issues have dominated the headlines. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of agriculture would know that pedigree livestock are worth far more than the price of a frappuccino in a trendy Islington restaurant.

NFU president Ben Gill said: "Some of these animals were pedigree stock, with bloodlines built up over generations. They were worth tens of thousands of pounds each. Farmers breeding stock is their biggest asset. Farmers did not pull a figure out of the air- the animals were independently valued."

The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee will now investigate compensation payments. But Mr Gill insists farmers have nothing to worry about. "Farmers have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "They are understandably hurt and insulted that they are being presented in this derogatory manner."

DEFRA denied leaking the £4.2m figure, insisting somewhat bizarrely that details of compensation paid to individual farmers are freely available to anyone who asks. But Tory agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo said he didnt believe the story came from within the industry. "The timing does look a bit strange. I doubt if it was leaked by the farmers."

Growing political and public criticism of compensation has only fuelled suspicion among farmers that more anti-farming stories may appear in the Sunday papers this weekend. But Michael Hart, chairman of the Small and Family Farms Alliance, said it was about time journalists started to demand some real answers from the government on the cause and handling of the outbreak.

"What is never reported to the same extent are the constant stories that the government is behind the spread of foot-and-mouth, and that it is driving or steering the disease. We never hear the about the reports among the farming community of the standard government-issue white overalls and disposable gloves being found blowing around the countryside in infected areas."

Back on his Northumberland farm, Mr Robinson is convinced that Downing Street must correct inflamed and inaccurate press reports. If the Millbank spin-machine makes no effort to put the record straight then farmers will feel justified in thinking the government is hatching long-term plans to discredit them and then destroy their industry, he said. &#42

GOVERNMENT SPIN?

Allegation A leaked "memo" suggests clean-up costs in England and Wales are an "unacceptable" £104,000/farm compared to £30,000 in Scotland (July 19).

Result Tony Blair secretly halts the clean-up operation and orders an inquiry into costs amid suggestions that farmers are ripping off taxpayers.

Allegation Farmers and valuers are colluding to boost compensation rates for livestock, suggest ministers following a "tip-off" about "excessive valuations" (July 25).

Result The system of fixed compensation for slaughtered livestock is abolished and another inquiry ordered. Ministers say the scheme had inflated the cost of reimbursing farmers.

Allegation Farmers are being offered infected livestock, claims a Sunday newspaper sympathetic to New Labour (July 30).

Result Margaret Beckett orders an inquiry into claims that farmers are deliberately infecting their animals so they can claim compensation.

Allegation "Whitehall sources" reveal that 37 farmers received over £1m in foot-and-mouth compensation, including one farmer who was paid £4.2m (Aug 5).

Result Junior farm minister Elliot Morley says it will be the "last time" farmers can expect such payments and promises a major independent inquiry into foot-and-mouth.