FARMERS in Herefordshire and Worcestershire have been paid £29.5m in foot-and-mouth compensation by the Government.

The highest payment to a single farmer was £1.193m, according to figures released in a written Parliamentary answer.

The smallest payment was for just £6. The average payout to the 519 farmers who lodged a claim was around £58,000.

The cash was paid to compensate farmers whose animals were slaughtered during the outbreak.

Farmers were also compensated for the loss of hay and other materials.

Mid-Worcestershire MP Peter Luff said it would be wrong to suggest farmers were cashing in on the crisis.

"None of these farmers wanted to lose their animals," he added.

"They were taken because the Government said they had to and because they mishandled the outbreak from an early stage.

"The figures could - and should - have been much lower. That would have made both the farmers and the taxpayer much happier.

"The fact is that, for many of these farmers, their herd is all they've got."

The highest amount paid to a single county was £413m to Cumbria. The largest sum received by a single farmer was £4.7m to an individual in Dumfries.

Elwyn Maddy, chairman of the Herefordshire branch of the NFU, said today the whole situation was "very sad".

"I'd imagine this is a satisfactory payout as far as the price per animal is concerned, but the sad thing about this situation is the farmers who kept their stock are the worst off as they couldn't move it around," he said.

"It is just a very sad situation and it's caused a lot of hardship."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Blair has again been forced to defend the decision to hold three separate inquiries into the outbreak, rather than a single public hearing.

During a Commons exchange, West Worcestershire MP Sir Michael Spicer asked: "Why can't we have a proper public inquiry in to the foot-and-mouth disaster? What does the Prime Minister have to hide?"

Mr Blair said: "There are inquiries into the foot-and-mouth outbreak, which will indeed be public. On any basis, those inquiries must look at all the various aspects of the matter.

"I don't believe that a full-dress statutory tribunal costing millions of pounds and probably lasting two or three years would be helpful to the farming industry or the future of farming production."