8 March 2002

DEFRA defaultson clean-uppayments

By Mike Stones

DEFRA risks disaster in another foot-and-mouth outbreak after failing to pay 10s of £ms owed to agricultural contractors involved in clean-up operations, warns a West Country law firm.

"Non-payment means no contractor will work for DEFRA in the future because they feel abused and betrayed. So who will clean foot-and-mouth infected farms?" asked Tim Russ of Clarke Willmott Clarke. "We are considering legal action on behalf of several contractors, who wish to remain anonymous, who claim they are owed more than £20m. One alone is owed £7.5m," said Mr Russ whose firm played a leading role in fighting for a public inquiry into the F&M crisis (News, Mar 1).

If more unpaid contractors come forward, DEFRA could face a group action to recover up to £1bn in unpaid debts, he added.

"DEFRA is being obstructive in paying up, using excuses such as failure to submit signed time-sheets. But in mid- crisis officials werent keen to sign forms," claimed Mr Russ. The scale and cost of the crisis surprised the department which is now trying to reduce costs by querying legitimate bills," he added.

One North Country contractor, who asked not to be named and claimed DEFRA owed him £3.5m, said he would think twice about working for the department again. "Id only work for DEFRA if it paid up-front," said the contractor.

The contractor denied suggestions that he and others were attempting to cash in on the crisis. "Fat cat contractors cant get rich on bad debts. We did the work and suffered the worry for nothing."

A DEFRA spokesman said the department had already paid £275m in cleansing and disinfection costs, but acknowledged that the need to validate claims had caused some delay. "We must ensure proper control of taxpayers money," he said.

The spokesman denied payment delays could jeopardise future clear up operations. "DEFRA used more than 2000 contractors and most are happy and satisfied with the payment arrangements," he said.

&#8226 Tim Russ of Clarke Willmott Clarke can be contacted on 01823-445218. &#42