22 June 2001

Whistleblower talks of chaos with F&M claims

By Robert Davies

Wales correspondent

FOOT-and-mouth disease compensation claims are in chaos, according to a former temporary government employee.

David Bridge was based at the Cardiff office of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But he quit after three weeks during which he claims only 30 of 478 FMD-17 claims, for the use of farm labour and machinery and plant hire, were cleared for payment. When he left on June 12 there were 229 untouched files locked away in a cabinet.

Reports on the inquests on three farmer suicides convinced him he had to blow the whistle on the shambles in the claim audit section, despite the threat of legal action by the employment agency that found him the job.

"As I discovered in South Africa during apartheid, apathy is the biggest threat to a decent society. I believe that if you do not speak out about things that are wrong then you are partly to blame for them."

He feared that unless claim processing was accelerated other farmers would suffer hardship and stress, and could even take their own lives.

He was unhappy about the number of staff employed in the section, missing and incomplete documentation, poor communications with field workers, and inconsistencies in the way regulations were interpreted.

"When I arrived things were in disarray. It was an almost comic situation. There were delays because claims were processed in the order in which slaughtering took place rather than when they were received. If one in the sequence was missing the following files were not dealt with."

Though some problems were sorted, Mr Bridge remained very unhappy and was ready to resign. A senior civil servant, who said his organisational skills were needed, persuaded him to stay. But the final straw came when he realised how little had been achieved during his time at the unit.

A Welsh National Assembly spokeswoman said that when Mr Bridge joined he was told that it was a developing unit that did not have many staff.

There had been delays in processing because officials had to seek clarification over VAT charges.

"That has now been sorted out and the claims are being processed," she insisted.

Alan Morris of the Farmers Union of Wales said the union was deeply concerned about the allegations, and had called on Carwyn Jones, the minister of rural affairs, to initiate an immediate investigation. &#42