DEFRA (aka the Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Activities) now has an opportunity to demonstrate that it has changed its spots.
It has long been vilified as one of the most intrusive and inefficient arms of government. Its insatiable bureaucratic demands, and the inability of its different sections to coordinate and share information, mean that farmers are subjected to repeated inspections and duplicated veterinary visits.
Despite all this data collection, DEFRA has proved itself unable to operate efficiently. In 2006, because of its chaotic office structures, it was months late in distributing the payments due to farmers; at one point, it admitted having 400,000 tasks left to complete. Most farmers were forced to borrow money from (and pay interest to) their banks in order to cover the shortfall.
Farmers have complained bitterly at the extra paperwork imposed by DEFRA's implementation of the animal passport scheme. Now, at last, there is a chance to show that all the pain has been worthwhile. DEFRA should have, at its fingertips, all the information it needs to nip the foot-and-mouth outbreak in the bud. It should be able to trace the exact movements of every single animal that has been affected. It should be able to identify every single animal with which the affected herd has come into contact. And it should be able to do this more or less instantly. If not, all the effort that has gone into the passport scheme has been a waste of time and money.
This time, there is no excuse. In 2001, decisions were made by the Blair government which, as ever, framed policy first and thought about it later. It failed to consult the reports prepared (at great expense) after the 1967 foot-and-mouth epidemic and therefore learned nothing from that experience. Now DEFRA has the animal passport information to hand, while lessons learned from the 2001 epidemic are comfortably within living bureaucratic memory.
If DEFRA fails to deal with the outbreak effectively, the minister in charge (Hilary Benn) should resign. There should also be a wholesale clear-out of the higher echelons of DEFRA. Gordon Brown should make it clear that he expects an exemplary response. Failure should not be tolerated. However unpleasant this crisis may be, our new government should see it as an opportunity to break with the past. It must ensure that the civil service does its job effectively; it must force it to face up to its responsibilities.