Government faces compensation bill for foot-and-mouth
The Daily Express Tuesday April 16 2002, p.1.
Exclusive by Mark Townsend
The Government could face a £7 billion compensation bill from thousands of people who suffered losses due to foot-and-mouth.
They are to sue the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for negligence and breach of duty.
Solicitors from Class Law, who are representing the claimants, will grant Defra 14 days to respond with a satisfactory settlement, before instructing the High Court to begin proceedings.
A £2 million fighting fund has been set up to finance what will be the biggest compensation claim in legal history.
So far around 25,000 separate claimants are understood to back the lawsuit. They range from organisations such as the Aberdeen Angus Steak House chain to 21-year-old Kirstin McBride, from Dumfries.
She was arrested over an altercation with a policeman after her pet goat Misty was killed while she was at work.
"It's not about the money, it's about the principle," she said yesterday. "It's vital that everybody is compensated who has lost out."
£7BN LAWSUIT FROM NATION'S HEART
Solitary animal lovers to struggling factory bosses to sad tourism workers join a foot-and-mouth call to arms from far beyond the farmyard.
By Mark Townsend pp.6-7.
Rural Britain will stun Tony Blair this week by launching a staggering £7 billion compensation claim - the biggest in legal history - to recover massive losses sustained in the foot-and-mouth crisis.
Ministers and rural officials could be summoned to court within a month to face claims of negligence over their handling of last year's epidemic.
Lawyers acting on behalf of up to 25,000 claimants will serve the Prime Minister and the Department of Environment , Food and Rural Affairs notice of their intent to sue for damages this Friday.
Solicitors Class Law will grant Defra officials 14 days to respond, after which they will instruct the High Court to commence proceedings unless the Government responds with a satisfactory settlement.
The action could see those who are blamed for failing to control foot-and-mouth disease defending accusations of "negligence and a breach of statutory duty".
Class Law - recently successful in helping Railtrack shareholders force the Government into a humiliating U-turn over compensating small investors - has put together a fighting fund of £2 million to finance what is likely to be an expensive, protracted and bitterly-contested case.
Wynne Edwards, partner of Class Law, said they were confident of a successful outcome, believing that months spent gathering painstaking evidence have produced a "compelling" case proving that Defra acted against the interests of the rural economy.
Ultimately the group litigation order against the Government could, according to Mr Edwards, involve up to a million separate cases, creating a collective claim of more than £10billion.
He added that the lawsuit, if successful, would make it the highest compensation payout in British legal history. So far around 25,000 separate claimants are understood to be backing it.
Mr Edwards said: "It is possible to beat the Government as we have seen over the Railtrack decision.
"More and more evidence is coming forward every day and it's looking worse and worse for the Government.
"Judging from what we have seen, we feel we have a reasonable prospect of success."
Mr Edwards, who was keen to stress that the legal action was not politically motivated, added: "By simply applying one's intellect, it is obvious that the Government should have done more or done it differently."
Major organisations backing the action include the Aberdeen Angus Steak House chain and the Youth Hostel Association.
Other claimants represent a broad range of interests, from coffee shops to manufacturers of hiking socks. Most of those involved come from those country areas affected by foot-and-mouth such as Dumfriesshire, Cumbria, North Yorkshire and the West Country.
The correspondence to be sent to Mr Blair by Class Law this week sets out its complaints about how the Government dealt with the crisis and explains how damages should be quantified.
The case centres on claims that the Government failed to identify the outbreak when it first occurred, failed to stop animal movements once it became aware of the problem and closed down the countryside without regard to the rural economy.
Class Law, which was instructed to take the case on behalf of the UK Rural Business Campaign, will also demand a series of Defra documents, statements and instructions relating to the epidemic which began in February 2001.
Solicitors believe the documents will substantiate allegations that Defra distributed wrong information about areas closed to the public and the Government contravened human rights legislation by curtailing people's right to enjoyment of their property.
Disquiet has also mounted among those who have been compiling the case over the number of possible witnesses that have been silenced by the imposition of the Official Secrets Act. Stephen Alexander, also of Class Law, said: "This has prevented them from giving evidence to assist the claimants.
"The court case will enable many of the issues the Government wish to hide being given a full and public airing."
Lawyers believe the Government's determination to avoid such an inquiry might be enough to win a settlement.
The claim will also attempt to win damages for those who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by the foot-and-mouth animal cull.
Mr Edwards added, "We have received reports of lambs having their throats cut with penknives in front of owners."
The £2 million fighting fund to cover the expenses of a case which could last two years is made up of contributory fees and donations from claimants. Those who sustained losses of under £5,000 as a result of the handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis pay £50, those who lost between £5,000 and £20,000 pay £150 while those whose losses extend above £1million are required to pay £1,250.
The post has been supplemented by a number of donations ranging from £50 to £10,000. The fighting fund will be used to refund costs to rural businesses if the case fails.
Any money left over will be split and distributed to the worst-affected members of the rural community. Mr Edwards said: "If anyone's business has suffered then they should come forward and contribute a small sum in return for a reasonable chance of recovering their losses." Many businesses had their entire turnover slashed by 100 per cent for almost a year.
They are angry that ministers have not taken any responsibility for the alleged mismanagement of a crisis described as bigger and more complex than the United Kingdom's involvement in the Gulf War. The epidemic has already cost taxpayers almost £3 billion.
The costs of dealing with the epidemic, such as creating pyres for burning carcasses and burying slaughtered animals, has been put at £2.7 billion. In addition, farmers have received £257 million compensation from the Government for animals that were killed as part of the cull or because of movement restrictions imposed on livestock, making it impossible for them to be sold. Rural businesses are furious that their losses have not been similarly reimbursed.
A Defra spokesman could not comment on the action until it had official notification. He added the government ruled out compensation for "consequential losses" as an indirect result of the disease.
CASE STUDY 1
Violence sparked by Misty the goat
PHOENIX the calf and Grunty the pig were saved but Misty the goat was not.
One day last April Kirstin McBride returned home from work at Lockerbie station in Dumfriesshire to find her pet goat lying dead in the drive with a plastic bag over her head. A vet and a government official had climbed over a wall, broken into Misty's shed and killed her.
Miss McBride asked under what law her goat had been killed. The police could not tell her. She then became upset and took a knife from the kitchen drawer to kill herself. When a policewoman restrained her, she pummelled the woman with her fists. She was arrested, held in a cell for four fours and charged with offences including assaulting the police.
After several court appearances, Miss McBride was found guilty of assaulting the officers but given an absolute discharge to reflect the "exceptional circumstances".
She said at the time: "I never got over the death of Misty, but I am so glad this is all over now."
She said of her claim, "It's not about the money, it's about the principle. It's vital that everybody is compensated who has lost out."
CASE STUDY 2
Home had to be sold as £1.3m deal crashed
WITHIN days of celebrating one of his most lucrative business deals, Derek House's world was turned upside down.
It was February 2001 and his Carlisle-based printing company had just landed a prized contract to print the region's cattle auction catalogues.
The five-year-deal world £1.3 million had prompted him to invest £330,000 in state-of-the-art printing equipment as well as a recruitment drive. The future was looking bright - until foot-and-mouth struck. Almost immediately, production of the catalogues was shut down and remained so for the year.
Although QIC Print managed to survive, Mr House opted to sell the family home to free much-needed capital.
"The problem was that people all over Cumbria were affected as well and so no one had any money to spend," he said. The businessman believes the Government should have insured itself against the devastation caused by the epidemic. Mr House, 55, is among the tens of thousands of bosses queuing up to sue the Government.
He believes ministers failed to adequately support the region's devastated rural economy when it needed help the most.
"Perhaps they were hoping the small amount of help on offer would satisfy most people, but we couldn't see any large amount of help available for businesses that suffered," he said.
Even modest help was denied for thousands of firms such as food and haulage companies.
CASE STUDY 3
My park lost £40,000 in the disaster
ARCHIE Wight's caravan park suffered disastrous losses when the Government closed surrounding countryside.
Between February and September last year, visitor numbers fell by more than 60 per cent, triggering losses of £40,000. The caravan park in Shawhead, Dumfries, relied on Dutch and German visitors who simply stopped coming.
In a normal year 3,000 guests would stay but last year there were just 900.
"It was a disaster," said Mr Wight, who also rented fields to a farmer. That income disappeared too when the healthy animals were slaughtered.
He is pressing for compensation because the Government failed to help despite promises to the contrary.
"They offered re-training, but if you are on the deck of the Titanic, worrying for your life, you haven't got much time for re-training," he said. "We wanted financial support to help us keep going." He added that Government "panic measures" had destroyed livelihoods.
Expensive lesson for our secretive Government
TONY Blair might like to think that he can wash his hands of the foot-and-mouth fiasco. However 25,000 rural businesses think differently. They have launched a £7 billion compensation claim to recover massive losses sustained during the crisis and blame Government "negligence" and "breach of statutory duty".
Many unanswered questions remain about the way the foot-and-mouth outbreak was handled, such as whether the wholesale slaughter and the effective closing down of the countryside was the right way to tackle the problem. This action certainly led to the loss of income for many rural businesses and those parts affected - such as Dumfries and Galloway and neighbouring Cumbria - are only beginning to recover from the disaster.
The Government has launched three separate and specific investigations but the remit of these has been fudged and their conclusions will not be made public. So far, it has refused to hold a full public inquiry into the matter. In these circumstances the Government can only expect that many of the parties involved will continue to want answers. Now it looks set to find that, by shirking these issues, it could face a much larger bill then if it had been prepared to face up to any shortcomings in the first place. Once again, Labour faces an expensive lesson on the merits of open government.