Farmers 'abusing government clean-up scheme

Farmers' abusing government clean-up scheme
Foot-and-mouth Blair halts pounds 2m-a-day disinfecting scheme after evidence that taxpayers' money is being used to buy new farm equipment

July 24, 2001 The Independent (London) by Steve Connor And Nigel Morris

THE GOVERNMENT has accused some farmers of replacing equipment and machinery with money meant to be used for curbing the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it has evidence to suggest that some farmers have misused money designated for cleaning and disinfecting - spending it instead on the repair of dilapidated buildings or the purchase of new machinery.

Tony Blair has now ordered a halt to the clean-up process pending a review of its cost, which is running at pounds 2m a day and could eventually top pounds 800m.

The Prime Minister ordered the moratorium after being advised that the average clean-up payment to each affected farm in England and Wales was about pounds 100,000, compared to the pounds 30,000 it cost to disinfect a typical farm in Scotland.

A spokeswoman for Defra said the costs appeared to include, in some cases, repairs and replacement that went beyond the scope of what was required for an effective clean-up. So far 1,685 farms have received money for disinfecting.

"We suspect we are being charged for things like repairs to dilapidated buildings or excessive cleaning costs or replacement costs to things that could be cleaned," the spokeswoman said.

"I believe there are cases where some machinery has been replaced instead of being repaired or disinfected and indeed this is one of the issues we've been looking at."

The issue centres on the "secondary" disinfection of farm premises affected by foot-and-mouth which can take place at the farmers' convenience after the initial primary clean-up, when carcasses and other obvious sources of infection are removed.

Buildings, floors and equipment are first steam-cleaned and then degreased using a detergent so that surfaces can be sprayed with a citric acid solution, an effective disinfectant against the virus.

The procedure is monitored by a vet and equipment and machinery is left in situ if at all possible rather than moved and dismantled, the Defra spokeswoman said.

About half the contractors who carry out the work are the farmers themselves, who are paid pounds 15 an hour from public funds to finish a job that should take no more than a few weeks.

However, it is apparent that in some cases the clean-up is taking months rather than weeks, leading the Government to believe that it is being overcharged.

A leaked memo issued last week from the Government's joint co-ordination centre dealing with the epidemic made it clear that Mr Blair was not happy about the costs being incurred in what should be a straightforward business of cleaning and disinfecting.

"The Prime Minister has indicated that six-figure sums per farm are unacceptable. This is based on information from other European countries where the requirements of the directive are being met without incurring anything like this expenditure," the memo states.

"In some cases requirements are being met at 10 per cent of the estimated costs of the UK operation. Our own costing information is far from complete and we are seeking to rectify this."

Farmers and countryside groups hit back at the Government saying that the decision to halt the clean-up operation while the review is in progress could deal a fatal, final blow to farms struggling to survive.

A Downing Street spokesman said the hold-up would only last weeks and was justified to ensure the Government was getting value for its money. But a spokeswoman for the National Farmers' Union said: "This will leave hundreds of farmers in limbo, unable to plan restocking and rebuild their businesses.

"It also sends a very bad message to the farming industry when the emphasis should be on disease-control measures."

"Cleansing and disinfection is an integral part of fighting the disease but a part which farmers simply cannot afford on their own.

"This review must now be carried out very quickly so we can get on with the job of picking up the pieces after foot-and-mouth," the spokeswoman added.

The Food minister, Lord Whitty, said: "We need to ensure we are not taken for a ride by some of the contractors who are alleged to have been overcharging for the final cleaning. We have a responsibility to ensure money is well spent - but none of this undermines the urgency we have in stopping this disease."

The Conservative leader, William Hague, described the decision as a "cruel blow" to the country's farmers. He said: "The Government should have had those costs under control in the first place and should have been able to bring them under control without holding up the clean-up process."

t A foot-and-mouth slaughterman yesterday denied murdering a colleague by shooting him in the head with a bolt gun as they both killed infected sheep at the Great Orton disposal site in Cumbria.

Keith Hubbard, 37, of Atherstone, Warwickshire, appeared at Carlisle Crown Court and pleaded not guilty to murdering Stephen Smart, 27, of St Leonards, East Sussex, in April. Mr Hubbard was granted pounds 10,000 bail and banned from working as a slaughterman.

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