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Government gives itself `power to panic' - report.

Byline: By Jennifer Mackenzie

The Government had no power to slaughter the majority of the seven million animals in the foot-and-mouth contiguous cull in 2001, according to a new damning report by two law professors.

Professors David Campbell and Robert Lee from Cardiff University's Law School have published the assessment in the wake of the Government's passing of the Animal Health Act 2002 which they say now gives the Secretary of State a complete discretion to kill any animal believed necessary to eradicate an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

"During the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001, the Government engaged in ultra vires (beyond its power) action on a huge scale, for it had no power to slaughter the majority of the seven million animals it nevertheless did slaughter in the course of the contiguous cull," says their report.

"By passing the 2002 Act, the Government has effectively acknowledged that this was so, for the Act seeks to make precisely that which was ultra vires in the past legal in the future, in complete disregard of the compelling reasons for the previous withholding of such powers."

They add that rather than reviewing any flaws in this policy, the Government is avoiding any lessons to be learned by giving itself the power to repeat its mistakes.

"It is legislation which intentionally gives a power to panic," they say in the report which has been published in Public Law.

The contiguous cull was not authorised in the previous legislation establishing the regime for the control of livestock diseases - the Animal Health Act 1981, they point out. "Devised by a new, hastily convened scientific group, with no relevant epidemiological, agricultural, or, indeed, regulatory experience, it was the product of abstract mathematical modelling which took no heed of concrete information about the likelihood of transmission of the disease beyond the original suspicion of infection," the professors conclude.

The new Animal Health Act suffered a number of defeats in the House of Lords which if they had been successful would have obliged the Government to recognise the need for a complete re-examination of livestock rearing practices to bring the risk of foot-and-mouth within the parameters of realistic disease control policy.

Suzanne Greenhill, whose husband Peter is chairman of Mitchells Auction Company in Cockermouth, was heavily involved with the farming industry during the epidemic. She was particularly concerned at the cull of flocks hefted to particular fells, including the Herdwick, and made great efforts to stress their importance to the Government.

Mrs Greenhill said: "What was happening during foot-and-mouth was just an abuse of power and you have to question why did they need this new Animal Health Bill?

"Under European legislation healthy animals are not supposed to be killed without good reason. We had so many vets who had never seen foot-and-mouth and they weren't taking blood tests. By mid September something like 720,000 blood tests had been taken and only 335 animals out of that number were actually positive."
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Sep 4, 2003
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