Government sued over foot and mouth bill
By David Harrison, Environment Correspondent
Dozens of firms plan to take legal action against the Government because they are still owed millions of pounds for clean-up work during last year's foot and mouth crisis.
More than 100 contractors have not been paid for invoices totalling more than £400 million, according to the Government's own figures. Many told The Telegraph that they would have to go to court or face bankruptcy.
The companies accused the Government of failing to honour contracts signed 18 months ago when ministers urged them to halt the spread of disease.
The work included building pyres to burn animals, transporting livestock to the pyres, removing waste and disinfecting farms.
Tim Russ, a solicitor representing three contractors who are owed millions of pounds by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said: "Defra signed the contracts during a national emergency. Now they are trying to unzip them.
"Going to court is inevitable given the Government's attitude. I would expect to see several dozen companies taking legal action."
Some contractors said they had been offered, or paid, only a fraction of their claim. Gerald McDonald, of Hill Farm Merchants, of Yorkshire, said he had been made an "insulting" offer. He has launched a legal battle to recoup more than £3 million.
Defra was trying to force contractors to accept "pitiful amounts," he said. "Thousands of people worked very hard in terrible conditions for an agreed price and this is how we are rewarded.
"They accuse us of overcharging but their claims are based on records made in offices days or weeks after the event.
"For example, they claimed that we didn't start work until 11am - but they had called us and asked us to be there at 8am and we were there.
"We couldn't start the job until 11am because Defra had not got the slaughtermen there. That's not our fault and we should not be penalised for it."
Other clean-up firms said that attempts to discuss the unpaid bills with Defra were met by a "wall of silence". All questions were being referred to Defra's lawyers.
Defra said that the payments had been delayed because officials were going through the claims "with a fine toothcomb" to check for any "over-charging".
Contractors said the department's "endless delays" were part of a deliberate attempt to avoid paying the bills.
David Hepworth said his company, Farm Assist Aston, of Hereford, was owed more than £9 million for work it carried out on farms in Shropshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire during the crisis.
"I have a signed contract and Defra are saying they won't pay. They are trying to screw us into a corner and don't seem to care whether we survive."
Mr Hepworth acknowledged that some contractors had doubled their hourly rate during the crisis to £30 but added: "We charged our normal rate but the point is that whatever rate is charged if the Government makes a deal it should honour it."
He added: "Defra officials weren't present when the work was being done, or had incompetent people keeping records. We have sent them data covering everything we did."
One Northern-based contractor who claimed that he was owed more than £1 million, said: "They are trying to string it out, make us desperate for money to keep our businesses alive and hope we will settle for a small proportion of what we are entitled to. But we want every penny of what they agreed to pay and legal action looks like the only way."
Neil Parish, the Conservative MEP for the South West and member of an European Union team investigating the outbreak, accused the Government of "totally dishonourable" behaviour. "These companies responded magnificently in a time of national crisis," he said.
"Obviously we would expect Defra to weed out any unscrupulous contractors but this was a war and you can't say after the war that you've decided not to pay your soldiers."
Mr Parish said he suspected that Defra was reacting to pressure from Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, who had been shocked by the cost of the clean-up.
Defra said it was examining all invoices "forensically" and added: "A number of concerns have been drawn to the attention of senior management. Defra very much hopes that these concerns can be resolved satisfactorily."