14 november 2003

European Commission officials are to visit the UK next week to complete an audit that could see Britain lose hundreds of millions of pounds because of the Government's disastrous handling of the 2001 foot and mouth crisis.

The small team of officials from Brussels is beginning work on the final part of the assessment of the Government's claim for more than 1.6 billion assistance to help cover the costs of the 2001 outbreak. Under EU rules the UK could normally expect to recoup 60 per cent of the 3 billion costs it incurred in dealing with the disaster.

But, as the WMN reported last month, the European Court of Auditors is believed to have recommended that the Commission should pay no more than 600 million. The court, the financial watchdog for European taxpayers, is believed to be deeply concerned by the way ministers allowed costs to spiral out of control and by the controversial contiguous cull policy, which led to the slaughter of millions of healthy animals.

British officials have launched a desperate rearguard action in a bid to reduce the scale of the losses, but concede privately that the UK's claim will not be paid in full. The Government argues that it is unreasonable to expect normal practices to have been followed in the "fog of war" that descended during the crisis.

But the EC is said to have only limited sympathy with this view. Brussels sources suggest it will refuse to pay at least half the UK's claim when a final decision is made next year, leaving British taxpayers more than 800 million out of pocket.

South West Euro MP Neil Parish said ministers would then have to explain why taxpayers were being short-changed.

Mr Parish, Conservative agriculture spokesman in the European Parliament, said: "I am disappointed that the Commission is not paying up but I understand why. Of course it was a huge battle and we can have some sympathy with the view that it is easy to criticise afterwards.

"But the situation was completely out of control - they allowed valuations of animals to spiral upwards and went completely overboard on ripping up farms to clean them.

"Then there was the contiguous cull. We could accept some degree of culling to contain the disease, but there was no evidence that culling was needed on such a huge scale. Around Okehampton alone a huge number of farms were taken out, not one of which ever had the disease.

"These are huge sums of money, which the Chancellor was expecting and if they are not paid there will be a shortfall somewhere. That money must not come off agricultural budgets - British farmers must not be allowed to suffer a second time because of the Government's incompetence."

Next week's visit will see officials focus on the UK's claim for financial help with the costs of disposing of slaughtered animals and cleansing and disinfection of farms during the crisis.

The team will also examine the huge costs associated with the controversial animal burial pits - particularly the 7 million cost of the Ash Moor pit in North Devon, which was never used, and the 19 million pit at Eppynt, in Wales, where 18,000 carcasses had to be exhumed and burnt because of leakage into watercourses.

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said yesterday that no date had been set for the final settlement of the UK's claim.

He added: "We have put in a claim for what we are entitled to, but it is a complex and very large bid, so we expect it to be subject to rigorous scrutiny."