Christopher Booker's notebook
Like to stay on, after 30 years? That'll be £155 Unpaid bills for Defra's dirty work Farewell to Hale
There has been an alarming sequel to my story two weeks ago about Flo Robinson, the ladies' president of Filey golf club. Although Mrs Robinson has lived in Yorkshire for 67 years, she was born in Canada to English parents and still holds a Canadian passport. An immigration official told her last month, on her return from a day-trip to Amsterdam, that under "new EU rules" she could only remain in the UK for six more months. Eventually I established with the Home Office that Mrs Robinson could have her "indefinite leave to stay" renewed, on payment of £155.
Now several more readers have reported similar experiences. Mrs Raewyn Habergham is a New Zealander who has lived in Yorkshire with her English husband and family for 38 years. Last October she was told by an official at Manchester airport that she could not live in England. Her former passports contained an "indefinite leave to stay" stamp, but under EU rules this can no longer be carried over to new passports.
When Mrs Habergham sought help from the Home Office, she was told she did not qualify for officials' time because this was reserved for "asylum seekers and other foreign nationals". Her only recourse will be to follow Mrs Robinson's example and pay £155 for a new EU-approved "secure visa".
John Hausrath is a US citizen who has lived and worked in the UK since 1970 when he married a Scots girl after serving here in the US Navy. His problems began when he and his wife won a holiday in Turkey in a Sunday Telegraph competition. On returning to Gatwick at midnight, he was quizzed by an increasingly impatient official as to why he was the only non-UK citizen on the flight. His passport was eventually stamped with a two-month visitor's visa, and he was told that, if he wished to remain in the UK, he would have to sort it out with the Home Office. Since his home, work, children and grandchildren are all in the UK, this came as a shock.
Back home in Thurso, Mr Hausrath downloaded the relevant forms from the Home Office website and found that, under those same EU rules, it would now cost him £155 to get the relevant visa (free to asylum seekers). When he had gathered the documentation to prove that he has lived here for 34 years, he was initially told it might take 12 weeks for his paperwork to be processed (long enough to have him declared an illegal immigrant). Fortunately his permission to stay has now arrived. But it is apparent that, in contrast to EU citizens (or asylum seekers), the UK is no longer particularly keen to welcome anyone from the English-speaking world, even those who have lived here much of their lives.
A flurry of court cases in recent days has highlighted the horrifying treatment by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of 350 contractors who worked under ministry instructions during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic. There is more than £100 million in outstanding payments for such operations as building pyres, moving carcases and disinfecting farms.
Terrified that it may lose £1 billion due to Britain from Brussels, Defra has tried to appease the European Commission by finding every excuse not to hand over the money. But now it seems the courts have finally called Defra to account for a campaign of intimidation which has been actively supported by ministers - while the UK Government may well lose the £1 billion it wishes to claim from Brussels anyway.
On Friday the new "Technology and Construction Court" ruled that the contractors JDM Accord should be paid the remaining £5 million of the £7 million cost of creating a vast burial pit at Ash Moor, Devon, which was never used (and which it cost taxpayers a further £3 million to fill in).
A few days earlier, Michael Pedrick, a 63-year-old Devon farmer who lost his entire farm stock during the crisis, was cleared at Exeter of trying to cheat Defra out of £17,000, after the ministry spent more than £100,000 trying to convict him. He said afterwards that he and his family had been "put through hell" by Defra's officials.
Another Devon farmer, Ted Haste, 62, was due to appear last Monday on charges of deceiving the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by wrongly claiming compensation in an invoice he was instructed to submit by Maff officials. At the last minute, after what Mr Haste described as two years of "living nightmare", Defra abandoned its case and told Mr Haste he was now free to continue his claim.
Hundreds of contractors have claims outstanding, including Robert Pugh of Montgomeryshire, still owed £500,000 by Defra after its officials spent two years quibbling over sums as small as 35p. A Devon-based contracting firm run by Luke Furse and his wife Suzanne gave such efficient assistance to Maff in building pyres that at one time they were employing 400 people.
Despite being supplied with 750,000 documents, meticulously recording every action the firm took under Maff's instruction, many counter-signed by Maff officials, Defra has conducted such a remorseless campaign of prevarication and intimidation that the firm is still owed £1.2 million.
During the crisis, Maff showed no restraint in signing up contractors to help. It was only after Brussels questioned the scale of Maff's expenditure, and indicated its reluctance to hand over £1.2 billion due to the UK Government under EU law, that serious difficulties began to arise over payments.
When many of the contractors' cases were taken on by the Forum of Private Business it emerged that Defra was using a common strategy to justify non-payment, including such manoeuvres as refusing to pay for meal breaks and travel time. Many of the same devices were used against JDM, as emerged in the 12-week case which came to judgment last Friday, when the court ruled they were illegal and in breach of contract.
The relevant ministers, led by Margaret Beckett and Alun Michael, publicly admit that they have spent £20 million "investigating" the hundreds of cases still outstanding - to save, they claim, £80 million. But of 1,200 cases investigated, the National Audit Office last year found that only 18 involved allegations of fraud, and six of those have already been dismissed.
The final disgrace of this affair is that, despite Defra's shameless efforts to convince Brussels that it has been looking after taxpayers' interests, the European Commission does not show any sign of being impressed. It has capped the UK's right to repayment at a mere £250 million, leaving £1 billion outstanding: a sum it seems the UK Government may now never be in a position to claim.
Neil Herron, who leads the "No" campaign in next autumn's referendum on whether the North-East should have an elected regional assembly, has claimed another scalp.
In November I reported his discovery that the "vice-chair" of the unelected North-East Assembly was Gill Hale, the northern secretary of the local government union Unison, many of whose members might lose their jobs under an elected assembly, since this would mean the abolition of Durham and Northumberland county councils.
What made this odder was that Unison contributed its members' money to the Campaign for English Regions, at the same address as Unison, which in turn gave money to the North-East Constitutional Convention Ltd, a private company set up at the same address to campaign for an elected assembly, of which Ms Hale was the director and secretary. Unison members expressed considerable surprise at this.
Last week, at the end of a Northern Echo report on a YouGov poll showing a dramatic swing against elected assemblies (only 19 per cent in Yorkshire are now in favour), it was discreetly announced that Ms Hale has stepped down from her assembly post.