a yet more startling letter from Defra. This asked farmers to concoct records of the foot and mouth epidemic of the effects on their herds to give a misleading impression to the European Commission, which is already carrying out a fraud inquiry into compensation payments for the disease.

This extraordinary document was passed from me via a colleague to my old ally the Countess of Mar, for her to raise with the Government. I was somewhat taken aback when she revealed its contents to The Times, which ran the story on page one.

However since neither The Times nor the Countess seem to have grasped the full implications of the letter, it should be set in its proper context.

In August the European Commission suspended its compensation payments to the British Government, after an investigation by the EU's Food and Veterinary Office.

This found significant "irregularities" in our Government's handling of the crisis, not least in paying farmers up to four times the market value of their stock to buy their acquiescence in allowing destruction of healthy animals under the legally-dubious "contiguous cull" scheme. The Commission not only set up an audit of these payments but launched an investigation by Olaf, its anti-fraud unit.

Defra sent this remarkable letter to farmers last week asking them to concoct "farm diaries" to convey to Commission auditors that the paperwork matched what the investigators were looking for.

The letter included a sample of the type of entry that farmers should reconstruct describing events during the crucial stages of the epidemic as if these had been recorded at the time. When the Commission learns that history has been rewritten in this way, it may well refuse any further payments.

Although Defra and The Times claim that the Commission is due to pay 60 per cent of the compensation received by farmers, this is based on a misunderstanding of the system. It is true that Britain applies for 60 per cent of its compensation bill, currently estimated at more than 2 billion.

However 71 per cent of that is then subtracted from the UK's EU budget rebate, which means that UK taxpayers are ultimately liable for 83 per cent of the total. Even though, of the 480 million which Defra has claimed as a first tranche of its bill to the Commission, the UK could at best hope to receive only 139 million, we could now, in view of this latest "irregularity", receive nothing.

This would land UK taxpayers with a large additional bill, plus the possibility of a hefty fine for what looks like our officials' attempt to get round the system.