Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    So far Hertfordshire has been spared from the ravages of foot and mouth disease. A suspected case in Harpenden mercifully proved to be a false alarm.

    But given that it has spread to France and Holland and is clearly not yet under control in the UK, we cannot be complacent.

    The relevant authorities need to be prepared and above all to learn the lessons of other counties where it has got a grip.

    Why has this disease got out of control in so many areas? The underlying reason I fear is that the government was determined to play down the whole issue for electoral reasons. That is why the Prime Minister left it to his subordinates and even persuaded Nick Brown, the Minister for Agriculture, (who otherwise deserves praise for his personal role) to claim it was all under control.

    As is normal in any major crisis, the Prime Minister should have taken personal control and chaired a daily ?war cabinet? to knock ministerial heads together and drive decisions forward. On the basis of ten years ministerial experience I am convinced that that is the only way to get speedy agreement between all the competing Departments in Whitehall. The delays in deploying the army, recruiting extra vets, authorising slaughter, etc. all spring from this lack of firm Prime Ministerial grip and attempts to downplay the crisis. It might also have prevented the conflicting messages about whether or not people should cancel rural holidays. Tony Blair seems to be saying ?do go to the countryside, but keep off the grass?.

    The other problem has been a failure to delegate decisions to the people on the ground. Paradoxically if there is firm control at the top it is easier to delegate than when each Department is controlling its own domain.

    I am told by MPs in Cumbria that everyone on the spot can see contractors? diggers, bulldozers and other equipment lying idle. It could have been used to bury cattle immediately they were slaughtered. Instead the carcases have lain in the fields while MAFF and the Minister of Defence have been haggling for weeks about who would pay to bring in the troops to do this job.

    So the lesson for Hertfordshire is clear. We need to establish a local task force of all the relevant bodies ready to act if, heaven forbid, the disease spreads here. It should include County Council and District Councils liaising with local MAFF officials, police, etc. They should identify all the resources locally that we may need to deploy ? vets, territorial units, contractors, etc. The County Council acted promptly to close footpaths as a wise precaution and has done some initial contingency work. But all the organisations who would need to work on this should come together now.

    Experience shows that when you plan ahead for a problem, it rarely becomes a crisis.