Private Eye

Muckspreader 14/01/04

A landslide defeat for Defra in the high court has blown wide open one of the biggest scandals remaining from the 2001 foot and mouth debacle: the ministry's astonishing refusal to pay hundreds of contractors £100 million still owing for work done to Defra/Maff's instructions when the crisis was at its height. The court ordered Defra to pay JDM Accord £5 million it had been owed for nearly three years, for building the notorious Ash Moor burial pit in Devon, designed to hold 500,000 dead animals and never used. But JDM 's victory has only highlighted the hundreds of other cases where Defra has refused to pay contractors still owed more than £100 million for work carried out to Maff's instructions. Typical has been the nightmare faced by Luke Furse Earthmoving Ltd., a Devon contracting firm run for 25 years by Mr Furse and his wife. Shortly after the crisis hit Devon, the firm responded so efficiently to a call to build one of the county's huge pyres of infected animals that it soon became one of Maff''s major allies. Eventually Furse Earthmoving was responsible for organising and constructing more than 40 pyres. To carry out this dirty, unpleasant, exhausting work, the firm had to expand its normal workforce of 25 to 400.

At every step the company acted under the instructions of Maff officials, keeping a detailed record of invoices, dockets, logged telephone calls and other paperwork amounting to 750,000 items. All payments were agreed, recorded and counter-signed until, when the crisis was finally over, the time came for accounts to be settled. Only then, as months went by, did it gradually emerge that something had gone hideously wrong.

During the six months of the crisis, Maff ordered spending as if there was no tomorrow, knowing that, under EU law, a large part of the bill would eventually be picked up by the European Commission. But as the dust settled, Commission officials began to hint that they were not happy with the way Maff had been throwing money around. Farmers had been paid too much in compensation (since much of the 'cull' had been illegal, this was thought necessary to buy off their protests). Too much had been spent in every direction.

In 2002 and 2003 it gradually became clear that Defra was finding any excuse not to pay the money it owed to hundreds of contractors, including Furse Earthmoving. Invoices for £500,000 and other documents which the firm supplied to Defra were mysteriously 'lost'. Quibbles were raised about the tiniest details of spending. Typical was the way, during the crisis, Maff had ordered that each of the firm's employees must be supplied with two sets of wellies, so that one could be disinfected while the other was in use. But Defra now said this was not necessary. What made the nightmare only more alarming was to discover through the Forum of Private Business that countless other firms were being treated in the same way. Defra's refusal to pay its debts was clearly based on a strategy concerted from the highest level. Only this month, when MPs tried to raise the scandal in the Commons, when one MP raised the Furse case. the minister Alun Michael continued to stonewall. But now, with JDM's court victory, Defra's tactics have been comprehensively ruled as illegal. The day of reckoning for this astonishing official policy of intimidation, bullying and dishonesty has at last arrived.