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11:00 - 05 October 2005

Businesses in the Westcountry owed millions of pounds for work during the foot and mouth crisis say the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should now pay up, following a landmark court ruling.

The Forum of Private Business (FPB) is fighting for money owed to small contractors since the 2001 crisis, and it says Defra still has to settle bills worth 20 million in Devon.

The FPB, which campaigns for the rights of more than 25,000 private firms across the UK, spent four years fighting for a number of private contractors awaiting payment from Defra.

The forum supported the case of Harry Ruttle plant hire, of Chorley, Lancashire, which took Defra to court and won a claim for outstanding debts of more than 10 million. The firm was also awarded costs and interest on top of the sum it was owed for digging disposal pits on farms.

An FPB spokesman confirmed that four businesses in Devon, which cannot be named for legal reasons, could be entitled to up to 20 million following the judgment - half of the total national figure which could be owed.

One farmer, Tony Jones, from Sheepwash, West Devon, says he is owed around 2,500 for repair work and cleaning after his farm was "taken out" as a place of dangerous contact in March 2001, although there was never any evidence of foot and mouth disease on his land.

Mr Jones, 49, who had to destroy 1,600-1,700 pigs because of the potential dangers, said: "What we are owed is not a lot by comparison to some, but there's a principle at stake.

"Why should a big organisation like Defra, under the umbrella of the Government, take small businesses and ride roughshod over them?

"We co-operated with them and actually went overboard a lot of the time on what we had to."

Mr Jones's farm also carried out cleaning work and removed weirs to help save time in getting rid of some of the potentially contaminated slurry on site.

"Defra had said they would pay for the work but since then they changed their minds and wanted to pick and choose what they would pay for," he said.

Defra officials were criticised in the Ruttles court judgment for having no real grounds for refusing to pay the bill. The department will now also have to pay the 1 million cost of the court hearing.

Nick Goulding, chief executive of the forum, said: "This court judgment proves even officials of a Government department cannot get away without paying their debts.

"This case was only the tip of the iceberg where Defra refused to pay a host of contractors for legitimate work they carried out during the foot and mouth outbreak."

Mr Goulding added: "As a result of the precedent set by this court judgment, we will be encouraging several other contractors we have been supporting to pursue Defra for payment, and claim interest at a rate of over 12 per cent for late payment as their statutory right.

"This will mean Defra having to pay out up to another 40 million plus interest nationally."

The FPB alleges the Government department could be forced to hand over millions of pounds to a long queue of other contractors still waiting to be paid for the disposal of millions of livestock in Britain's foot and mouth epidemic in 2001.

A Defra spokesman said: "The Department is disputing several million pounds worth of charges from contractors arising from the provision of goods, services and works, during the foot and mouth outbreak.

"Defra's payment terms are the payment of valid invoices within 30 days of receipt and agreement of valid invoices for goods, services and works requested by the Department.

"The Department is disputing payment in cases where it believes on the basis of the quantum, accounting, technical and legal advice it has received that it was overcharged for goods, services and works during the outbreak."