Well, goodbye Dolly

And Daisy. And Porky too. All thanks to Maff, the political wing of the National Farmers' Union
Special report: foot and mouth disease

Nick Cohen http://politics.guardian.co.uk/Print/0,3858,4167250,00.html
Sunday April 8, 2001
The Observer

'What should be done with Maff?' cried Ian Willmore, media coordinator for Friends of the Earth. ' What should be done with Maff? Maff should be shot in the head, dumped in a trench, fried to a cinder, sprinkled with quicklime and buried with a stake through its heart, that's what should be done with Maff ...and you can quote me on that if you want.'

In normal circumstances quotation would be all but pointless. Willmore would be a voice from the green fringe, which could be dismissed by those whose opinions matter with the killer condemnatory sentence: 'No one takes him seriously.' Not this time, I think. The foot and mouth epidemic has had the cheering effect of shifting the fringe to the mainstream.

I've never found New Labour politicians and advisers as furious or as willing to talk to Leftie hacks. Undoubtedly the anger has been caused in part by the postponement of elections. But it is elevated by a less partisan contempt for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and a determination that it should share the fate of millions of beasts. 'We've learned the hard way that the department which gave us BSE is the last organisation you want on your side in a crisis,' said one.

The official line is that the fall in the daily count of new cases shows that the slaughter programme is 'beginning to bite'. No one wants to contradict guarded optimism in public. In private, however, many worry about spread rather than numbers. There may be fewer outbreaks but they are popping up all over the country - in Shropshire, Cornwall, and the Peak District. This does not look like an emergency which has been contained. Above all, the strength of the disease in Cumbria terrifies officials. 'I don't know if we can stop it sweeping across to the Humber, however many animals we slaughter,' said one member of the Downing Street crisis team. 'We may have to think about vaccination again.'

Opposition to vaccination is the ruling passion of the National Farmers' Union and Maff (the NFU's political wing). If their dogma is overturned both will be humiliated and Maff may die of shame and be replaced by a Ministry for Rural Affairs. Sticking to slaughter until the last cow dies in the last ditch suits their interests, but administrative convenience may not be enough to save Maff when New Labour's confrontation with the Ministry has been so disillusioning.

The party came to power as modernisers. In agriculture, as in so much else, 'modernity' meant more of the same. A party adviser described Maff as a dumping ground for civil servants. The wages were lower, the chances of moving on to a better job in Whitehall non-existent. A posting to Maff was the bureaucratic equivalent of a Politburo order to take up duties at a Mongolian power station or - to mix continents, and quite possibly metaphors as well - to check in for an indefinite stay at the Hotel California. 'It was a secretive, depressed place,' he said, 'very suspicious of change, very defensive. New Ministers and new permanent secretaries can't stop the treacle layer of senior civil servants trapping new ideas.'

Jack Cunningham, the first Labour Agriculture Minister, at least tried to change the privileges granted to the NFU by the Tories. He also noticed that while his office was a 10 feet square coop without a desk, senior civil servants were housed in some splendour. Cunningham made a fuss and the stories about 'Junket Jack', which were to help finish his career, duly appeared. The Civil Service can be vicious when crossed. 'Expect articles about how Nick Brown failed to heed the sound advice of righteous officials to surface within days,' my new friend predicted.

Back-covering briefers will have to work hard. The suicidally honest Michael Meacher blurted out last week that there will be an inquiry when the mess is finally cleared up and was reprimanded for telling the truth. When it comes, as it will, the investigators must ask: why a Maff inspector missed the initial outbreak? Why animal movements were allowed for four days after foot and mouth was discovered? When did Maff officials warn Ministers that trouble was coming? Why were misleading figures on detection and slaughter rates fed to Downing Street? How rigorous was Maff in cracking down on the 'black sheep' smuggling market of subsidy-fiddling farmers? And why was the conclusion that the Army and epidemiologists should be called in at once, which had been reached by the inquiries into the 1967-68 outbreak, ignored?

The last question has provoked many accusations in the past few days. But exiles from Maff argue that it should be rephrased. 'Someone should look at all the contingency plans from '68 to the present day,' said one, 'and try to spot the differences. My hunch is that there won't be any.'

Maff has been stuck with a slaughter policy since the 1920s when it overrode the protests of small farmers, who saw no need for animals with a minor illness to be massacred, in the interests of big farmers, who wanted to eliminate a disease which reduced auction prices. My colleague Anthony Browne was referred to a study from the 1950s by the Maff press office when he asked if slaughter was the best policy. It was as if all the modern advances in vaccination had never happened. Macedonia and Albania vaccinated successfully to stop the spread of the disease in 1996. But it has not been considered here for fear it would jeopardise a livestock export market worth a paltry 570 million.

Dissent has its risks. The Elm Farm Research Centre, a Berkshire agricultural charity, had to promise vets anonymity when it asked them to discuss the merits of vaccination. Public exposure would threaten their careers. The slaughtermen in the NFU, meanwhile, are presented as the sole representatives of farmers (just as the Countryside Alliance is presented as sole representative of the countryside) though only 53,000 of the 180,000 farmers in England and Wales are members.

Farmers' organisations who favour vaccination are shut out. Mike Hart of the Small and Family Farmers Alliance told me how he and other small farming groups had tried to get past Maff and into see Blair to argue against mass slaughter. They gave up after 'hitting the proverbial brick wall'. What we are witnessing is the sanctification of a dubious slaughter policy with little concern for the public interest.

Stephen Tindale, who was Meacher's political adviser at the Department of the Environment until earlier this year, is not surprised. He remembered the Government receiving pathetic complaints from farm workers afflicted with depression, lassitude and chronic muscular pains - the effects, they maintained of organo-phosphate sheep dips. Maff officials dismissed their claims. No one knew if the sheep dip was the culprit, they said, but the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh was on the case. The Institute duly reported that a link between exposure to sheep dip and 'chronic peripheral neuropathy' [damage to the nervous system] was 'suggested' by its research. Whitehall's Committee on Toxicity preferred to bin the report and uphold the reputation of the agri-chemical industry.

They may have been right to do so, I'm not qualified to judge. I do know that a majority of supposedly sovereign consumers do not want GM foods, but public opinion did not stop Maff and Lord Sainsbury bowing to the wishes of the GM conglomerates regardless. Witnesses at Maff meetings described the insouciance of officials as they discussed the slow elimination of organic farming by GM crop contamination.

As with sheep dips and organic food, so with foot and mouth. Many have criticised postponing elections and wrecking the tourist industry for the sake of livestock exports, and counted the price in pounds and votes. Fewer have looked at what I can only call the spiritual consequences. For hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, rambling is an escape from regimentation. They have lost the right to roam. They are being told that the slaughter of Herdwick sheep will transform the open fells of the Lake District into a scrubland no one who has loved Wordsworth or followed a Wainwright guide will recognise - and that the Peak District could follow.

The absence of a public outcry about restrictions on freedom of movement is a sign of deference which is on a par with the ability of Virgin Train directors to appear in public without bodyguards. A more assertive citizenry would wonder why it is that Albania and Macedonia can vaccinate their way out of foot and mouth when we can't.

They might conclude that although the Balkans are afflicted by war, poverty and ethnic cleansing, they have one great advantage over Britain. They don't have Maff.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001