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20 DEFRA STAFF FACE EXPENSES INQUIRY

 EXCLUSIVE JAMIE MCGINNES

09:00 - 23 November 2002
 
 Twenty workers involved in controversial badger trials in the South
West are being investigated over expenses claims.

The employees, who work for the Department for Environment, Food and
Rural Affairs (Defra) at Polwhele in West Cornwall and Aston Down in
Gloucestershire were informed of the inquiry by letter earlier this
month.

Some of the claims under investigation were made during the foot and
mouth crisis.

It comes as an embarrassment to the Government which, in similar
circumstances last year, had to investigate 18 Defra workers because of
expenses claims made during the anti-foot and mouth campaign in the
Westcountry. Three men were subsequently convicted for making bogus
claims and given fines and community service.

A spokesman for Defra said that the investigation related to claims made
during everyday work.

"Investigations have begun into claims for transport and subsistence,"
he said. "They are not linked specifically to foot and mouth. It's to do
with the normal working activities of these staff, some of which may
have related to foot and mouth and some of which may not have done. It's
not actually linked with the previous episode."

It is understood that ten workers from Polwhele and ten from Aston Down
are being investigated.

Colin Breed, South East Cornwall MP and member of the Commons Select
Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that Defra
should deal as severely with anyone found guilty as farmers who disobey
rules which govern their industry.

"There's no doubt that if they have discovered fraudulent claims, and,
bearing in mind the way Defra implements European directives to the
letter of the law and is so quick to come down on farmers who make
mistakes in their claims, the same severity ought to apply to their own
employees."

Ian Johnson, spokesman for the South West National Farmers' Union, said:
"It's inappropriate for anybody, whether it be farmers, Defra officials
or somebody else, to try and hoodwink the system.

"It would be quite wrong if anybody was treated differently for these
kind of misdemeanours. At the end of the day we do have to remember that
this is taxpayers' money and it should not be used inappropriately."

As part of research into the spread of tuberculosis in cattle, more than
1,500 badgers have been killed in the Westcountry. Workers from Polwhele
and Aston Down are involved in trapping the badgers and culling them as
part of the Krebs trial to establish their link with the spread of
bovine TB. They also test badgers killed after being hit on the road for
TB.

The #35 million Krebs trial has been dogged by controversy since it
started in 1998, with some Westcountry trial sites disrupted by animal
activists. There are four trial sites in the Westcountry, in west
Cornwall, east Cornwall, on the Devon and Cornwall border and on the
Devon and Somerset border.

jmcginnes@westernmorningnews.co.uk