HC Deb 04 December 1991 vol 200 cc165-6W
Mr. Burns

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action he has taken to detect fraudulent applications for a five-year set-aside scheme; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Gummer

The administrative instructions on set-aside include procedures for checking at each stage of an application. In addition to the office checks, the aim is to carry out a field inspection at least once during the five-year commitment period. The Sunday Times on 1 December carried a report headed "Ministry is fooled by fictitious farm" which said that, the Ministry promised us annual payment of £248.64 or nearly £1,250 over five years".

The facts of the matter are as follows:

Dr. N. Rufford, who claimed to be engaged in agriculture and the owner of 1.2 hectares of agricultural land, applied for and was allocated an agricultural holding number. He was not the owner of the land and he gave a fictitious name for the alleged previous owner. The agricultural holding number does not confer any eligibility for payment of grant under the set-aside scheme.

On 6 September signed registration and application forms for the five-year set-aside scheme were received from Dr. Rufford. The application form had to be returned twice to Dr. Rufford before he answered the question confirming that he had been farming the greater part of the holding since 1 October 1990. The documents and associated map included what are clearly fictitious details of previous and current cropping. Dr. Rufford signed declarations that he had given correct answers. These were false.

Officials were suspicious of the application and decided that a physical inspection should be undertaken to verify the details. Dr. Rufford said that it was essential for him to accompany the inspector but could not find a convenient time. This was the position last Sunday when The Sunday Times article was published.

Dr. Rufford telephoned the Ministry's office at Ipswich on Wednesday 27 November claiming to be trying to arrange a date for the field inspection. He asked to be sent a copy of the approval document. He was told that an approval document had not been issued as his application had not been approved.

Later that afternoon, at a time that he had been told the officer dealing with his case would not be available, Dr. Rufford telephoned again. He claimed to have mislaid his acceptance letter. So that he could reconstruct his correspondence he asked a clerk to fax him a copy. An undated, unsigned draft letter on plain paper was faxed to him. That letter was reproduced in The Sunday Times report under a faked Ministry letterhead.

The Sunday Times story was, therefore, fabricated. The application from Dr. Rufford was not approved. The inspection of the land would have revealed that the application was fraudulent. Dr. Rufford gave false information on the ownership and cropping of the land. He obtained a draft letter by deceiving a junior officer. The Sunday Times then published that letter with a faked letterhead.

I want to commend the staff concerned who were put under pressure by the journalist and responded in a careful and sensible way. There was never any question of the false application being approved or a payment authorised.

I have written to the editor of The Sunday Times asking him to publish this reply in full together with a retraction of this misleading and inaccurate report.

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