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HEADING FOR SHOWDOWN ON FMD CLEAN-UP BILLS

Campaigners demanding the settlement of foot and mouth clean-up bills totalling millions of pounds are heading for a showdown meeting with Defra Minister Ben Bradshaw. Members of the Forum for Private Business (FPB) emerged from a tense meeting earlier this week with high-ranking Defra officials frustrated at a lack of progress.

The FPB believes that contracts worth £50 million are still owed to more than 100 firms across the country. But Rick Hopkins, spokesman for the FPB in the South West, said important questions posed at the meeting went unanswered.

"Among other things we wanted to know were the value of the invoices that are still outstanding and the amount of original claims that have yet to be settled," he said. "But we got what we were expecting in that Defra didn't answer the questions we posed."

Mr Hopkins said it was hard to know how many businesses in the Westcountry were affected although the total amount owed to local firms was likely to run into millions of pounds.

Part of the problem, he said, was that some businesses were suffering in silence because they did not want to go public and jeopardise any settlement.

Pressures were also increasing on those involved, Mr Hopkins said, because deferred VAT payments were now being demanded by HM Customs despite the fact that another Government department had paid them.

"There are many edges to this sword," he said. "There is the principle of the matter and the moral principle but it has got to the stage where many businesses are being forced to go under."

More than 1,200 contractors were used by Defra during the 2001 crisis which devastated the Westcountry farming industry. They were mainly used to help dispose of carcasses and carry out the intensive clean-up of farm buildings and equipment.

Last summer, a National Audit Office report said contracts worth £72 million still had not been paid. Forensic accountants were also examining the invoices filed by more than 100 contractors. A spokeswoman for Defra said the amount outstanding was "nothing like" the £50 million quoted by the FPB.

"The ones that haven't been paid are ones we have been disputing," she said. "This is public money and the forensic accountants have looked through all these things and while they have substantiated some things, on others they have had to go back to contractors to ask for substantiation. Some have been settled through mediation, however some are going to litigation."

So far, she said, five companies were taking the department to the High Court over unpaid contracts.

The spokeswoman also rejected arguments that the department would also have to pay interest on the contracts because they were paid late because the work - and its value - was being disputed.

Meanwhile, the FPB is ramping up the pressure on the department and is set to quiz Mr Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, on the issue at a meeting later this month. Any Westcountry farmers or contractors still owed money by Defra can join the campaign at www.fpb.co.uk


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RESIDENTS TO RECEIVE ASH MOOR PIT UPDATE


09:00 - 24 October 2003  People living near Ash Moor animal burial pit, which was constructed during the foot and mouth crisis, are to be updated on its future at a public meeting next Friday. Last week Devon County Council agreed terms with the Department for Food and Rural Affairs for the long awaited restoration of the 10-acre site.

Under the agreement Defra will retain ownership of the site for the next five years. Wildlife and habitats destroyed during its construction will also be reintroduced on to the land which had been earmarked for 500,000 animal carcasses.

Conditions for the restoration include the removal of any roads or structures constructed for the pits and the reversion of the site to its former use as an agricultural holding.

In order to keep residents up to date with developments on the site, Petrockstowe Parish Council has organised the meeting alongside local campaign group, Stop The Ash Moor Pit.

The county council's lead negotiator on Ash Moor, assistant environment director David Andrew, will make a presentation on the restoration of the pits.

Devon county councillor John Clatworthy, chairman of the development control committee, said: "Last week's agreement was very welcome news, and this meeting will provide a valuable opportunity to update local people."

Local councillor for the area, Coun John Rawlinson, who represents Torrington Rural, said: "This upsetting episode has taken its toll on local people and I am delighted the end is in sight.

"I hope as many as possible come to the meeting to find out the latest information."

The meeting starts at 7pm on October 31 at Baxter Hall in Petrockstowe