It is almost six years to the day since an act of alleged negligence was committed at Bobby Waugh’s Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall, when a state vet passed the unit fit to continue trading. So why has the action taken this long to bring and why is there a rush to launch the action now?
The need to get to court is that to wait any longer, the swill feeders would fall foul of a legal rule called the Statute Bar. This prohibits legal action being launched more than six years after an alleged transgression. The farmers concerned are left with no option but to act now as they risk running out of time.
So why have they left it so late? The 62 farmers have been waiting for a report by the Parliamentary Ombudsman into the government’s alleged maladministration of the swill feeding ban and the hastily convened and concluded consultation that preceded it.
When the inquiry began in October 2003, the hope was that it would uncover vital information that would strengthen the case for compensation. The swill feeders opted to delay launching their legal claim until the inquiry reported.
A senior investigative officer, Neil Armstrong, began the process of uncovering information. But in September 2004 the investigation was broadened following Farmers Weekly’s disclosure of Jim Dring’s statement and the unearthing of the video showing the appalling conditions at Burnside Farm.
Despite assurances by Mr Armstrong that he would see the inquiry through, he left the investigation later that month. Progress slowed until a new officer, Christine Corrigan, took up the case.
She was joined by John Donnelly – a former police chief superintendent. During the course of his investigations Mr Donnelly named a group of senior officials at DEFRA involved in the consultation on banning swill feeding.
Ms Corrigan declared a possible conflict of interest claiming to be “a close personal friend” of one member of the group. But, given the delays already incurred, the farmers put their faith in Ms Corrigan’s professionalism and asked her to continue.
Then in February 2006, almost two and a half years after the investigation began, the Ombudsman said a report, detailing draft conclusions would be published “in two to three weeks’ time”. It did not materialise.
As 2006 progressed two further publication dates came and went with no explanation. The farmers began to fear that the release would fall beyond the six-year Statute Bar. The latest prediction of a publication date is Easter 2007.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman’s Office has declined to comment.
THE LEGAL TEAM