Foot-and-mouth special feature.
Foot-and-mouth 10 years on: Sir Ben Gill looks back
SIR Ben Gill, then president of the NFU, looks back on a time when he dominated the national news agenda and we ask what lessons have been learnt a decade on.
NEWSNIGHT opens with footage of Tony Blair in animated conversation with Ben Gill outside Downing Street. “One of these men is running the country,” begins Jeremy Paxman’s voiceover. “The other is the Prime Minister.”
The ‘classic clip’, recollected with obvious pride by the former NFU president, is a reminder of just how much influence he wielded in 2001.
He takes credit for persuading Mr Blair that his initial promises to deliver ‘any resources we wanted’ were not being delivered, as bureaucrats arguing about budgets got in the way.
“Over the first three weeks, we were getting angrier and angrier as things weren’t happening. I went in to see Blair and he was horrified that what he had promised had not been delivered. He told us to come back in 48 hours and he would guarantee things would be done. He stayed true to his word,” Sir Ben said when he spoke to FG earlier this month.
Sir Ben’s subsequent role in backing and promoting the FMD cull strategy and in dissuading Mr Blair from pursuing a vaccination policy are well documented, including in articles elsewhere on this website.
He even claims to have caused ‘uproar’ in the Commons’ and across the countryside by personally persuading the Government to ‘close all the footpaths’ because he believed the risk of the disease being spread by the public warranted it. “MPs were livid and the local authorities were saying: “What are doing letting Gill run the country?”” he said.
As well as being hugely influential within Government, his regular media appearances turned him into one of country’s most familiar faces during the crisis. The relentlessness of those months took its toll.
“It was exhausting,” he recalled. “On a number of occasions I would go back to the flat after Newsnight at midnight and be in the car at 530am to talk to GMTV,” he said.
But his influence, and in particular his autocratic style of leadership, made him a divisive figure. Agriculture Minister Nick Brown described Sir Ben as one of the ‘big heroes’ of 2001 and praised the way he got the views of his members, ‘the working farmers’, so effectively across to Government. Former NFU colleagues also pay tribute to the tireless way he fought for his members.
But others, including the Soil Association, which bitterly opposed him over vaccination, and the NFU’s South West regional director of the time, Anthony Gibson, accuse him of ignoring the views of many farmers and driving his own personal agenda in 2001.
Sir Ben acknowledged that it was ‘impossible’ for him to hold farmer meetings to consult members directly on policy, which meant decisions had to be based more on his own views and of his senior staff than might otherwise have been the case.
But he insisted that on the occasions when he did meet farmers, for example in Devon where the contiguous cull was extremely controversial, they were ‘100 per cent behind me’.
He describes the Government response to the outbreak as ‘woefully inadequate’ but defends the roles of the two main politicians, Tony Blair Nick Brown. “Nick tried his hardest and was extremely frustrated but it wasn’t his fault. It was the administration’s fault. Civil servants got bogged down in bureaucracy and the messages coming up to Ministers were not admitting the reality on the ground.”
He admitted that the scale of the decisions he took in 2001, particularly ‘weighed heavy’ on his mind but he insisted that 10 years on he still believed they were the right ones.
“The people who were vociferous in favour of vaccination thought I didn’t give a damn and made all sorts of claims that I didn’t understand the subject,” he said.
“But I spent a lot of time talking to scientists. Had we vaccinated far more animals would have been slaughtered.
“It was a horrible decision we had to make. There were inevitably animals slaughtered that needn’t have been but you have to be hard to be kind. It is a fact that we stamped out disease.”