Gordon Brown attacked over foot and mouth disease

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been accused of “shabby” and “dishonest” behaviour over his government’s handling of the foot and mouth crisis.

In a vitriolic debate in the House of Commons on Monday (8 October), shadow DEFRA secretary Peter Ainsworth said the government had been negligent in failing to prevent the disease outbreak, and had then refused to accept responsibility.

“The government’s initial reaction to the outbreak was, I am afraid, characteristic,” he said. “The Prime Minister announced that he was taking personal charge and immediately sent his spin machine into overdrive in an attempt to pin the blame on Merial.” That was “shabby and dishonest” and smacked of desperation, he suggested.

“As long ago as 2002, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council stated that some areas of the Pirbright estate were not close to the standard expected of a modern bio-medical facility. It recommended awarding funding for biosecurity at the site.

“What was the reaction from the then Chancellor? In the following two years, funding from DEFRA to the Institute for Animal Health was cut.”

There had been specific warnings from Merial to DEFRA about the poor state of the drains in 2004, yet nothing happened for two years, he added. This failure to act had cost the farming industry hundreds of millions of pounds.

Mr Ainsworth asked DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn if he accepted this was gross negligence and whether compensation would be provided.

In response, Mr Benn said that government had been investing in Pirbright since 2005 and that £31m had already been spent.
“If people thought that the drains were that much of a problem, why was some of that money not spent (on them)? The answer was that, until the state of the drains was drawn to our attention as a result of the HSE investigation (in August 2007), nobody thought that they were in such a condition.”

He added that DEFRA had never been asked to fund the replacing of the drains – that was the responsibility of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

With regard to compensation, Mr Benn referred to the £12.5m in support to English farmers he had just announced.

“We can best support the farming industry to recover from this very difficult time by controlling the disease, winning the confidence of Europe and reopening farm-to-farm movements,” he said. “We must also reopen markets, which we have done.”

On the question of legal obligations, “that is a matter for the courts to determine”, he said.

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