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MPs back farmers in pounds 40m court fight; But Countryside Alliance chief would prefer issue put to rest.

Byline: By Paul James Chief Reporter

RURAL MPs last night gave their backing to the farmers who are suing the Government over its handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

The Journal yesterday reported that 62 former pig swill users forced out of business by the epidemic want pounds 40m - claiming state vet Jim Dring could have done more to prevent foot-and-mouth spreading from the Northumberland farm at the centre of the outbreak.

Six years on from the crisis, which devastated farms across the region, the farmers, who have never been compensated for their loss of earnings, were yesterday supported by two Northumberland MPs.

But Ponteland farmer and regional director of the Countryside Alliance, Richard Dodd, said he would sooner see the issue put to rest than re-run in the courts.

The crisis, which resulted in thousands of animals being culled and the countryside closed off, led to a banning of the use of traditional pig feed, putting the 62 businesses out of action.

Unlike other farmers, the pig swill users were not compensated for their loss of earnings by the Government.

Hexham MP Peter Atkinson yesterday said: "These farmers had well established businesses and provided a useful service in recycling waste from catering units and food manufacturers. As a consequence of FMD, those businesses ended.

"The Government has a bad track record on this. They banned mink farming but said compensation should be paid to mink farmers who lost their livelihoods because of legislation.

"I've never understood why the same didn't apply to the swill farmers. There's a lack of justice for them."

The Association of Swill Users (ASU) lodged a High Court claim on Thursday against the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The papers allege that foot-and-mouth could have been prevented had Mr Dring, a vet working for the Government department then known as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food - later to become Defra - been more stringent in his inspection of the pig fattening business run by Bobby Waugh at Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall.

The case is based on a statement from Mr Dring in which he accepts that if his inspection of the farm had been more rigorous, "this awful 2001 FMD epidemic would never have come about".

Mr Dodd said: "I don't think the Government went out with the intention of screwing the farm ing world, but they're doing that through the normal channels anyway of not paying them.

"There are farmers, including me, still waiting for the 2005 single farm payment.

"What happened happened and sometimes you just have to let it go. But if they think they've got a case, they're entitled to try.

I'd rather they spent pounds 40m finding out exactly what caused foot-and-mouth and making sure it can't happen again."

Berwick MP Alan Beith said: "All those of us who saw the devastation that foot-and-mouth disease caused in Northumberland have been concerned all along that action hadn't been taken when it should have been to deal with the farm from which this epidemic came.

"The vet's statement seems to confirm what we all felt at the time."

Defra has declined to comment on the case until the conclusion of the court case.

CAPTION(S):

GRIM SCENE: Smoke bellowing from a pyre as slaughtered animals were burned at the height of foot-and-mouth.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 20, 2007
Words:553
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