14 November 2001
Ministers face fines over MAFF dispute

By John Burns, south-west of England correspondent

STUBBORN ministers may pay multi-million pound fines to the EU, rather than pledge less to settle a dispute with ex-Ministry of Agriculture staff, say union leaders.

Brussels could impose penalties on the UK because the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has failed to meet support payment deadlines.

Delays have occurred because of industrial action including strikes and working to contract organised by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).

Ex-MAFF staff began action in the summer after discovering that Department for the Environment staff transferred to Defra enjoyed better pay and conditions.

At a recent meeting in Exeter, Devon, PCS official Sheila Pickman told staff that only in recent days had Defra gone to the Treasury for more money.

PCS Exeter branch secretary David Climie said the action might delay support payments to farmers, but that these would not be affected by fines.

Even with massive overtime, it was unlikely that some deadlines could now be met, warned Mr Climie.

Mr Climie said that the EU might impose penalties of millions of pounds if deadlines were missed – and the longer the delay the bigger the fine.

Ironically, these fines could exceed the total sum required bring ex-MAFF staff salaries up to the same levels as their colleagues in Defra.

PCS is also mounting a legal challenge on Defras failure to pay equal rates for equal work.

As part of a regional rota of industrial action, Exeter staff are due to strike on Thursday and Friday (15-16 November) if the dispute is not resolved.