Foot and mouth is virulent – it travels in vehicles, equipment, fodder and people. And when one animal becomes infected, that farm will require a massive clean-up, with all suspected carcasses to be destroyed. Immediately.
The Department for Food and Rural Affairs turned to the armed services, the vet folk and construction industry workers. Indeed all of the clean-up work was properly classified as construction contracts under the Construction Act. But it was all too disastrous, too fast, for the plan to cope. Clean-up firms, pit-digging outfits and excavators were shipped here and there without notice. It was the construction industry at its best, dealing with the unexpected as each day dawned.
But how to get paid? JDM Accord was one of the civil engineering contractors. The crisis led to JDM being paid £32m – but there was a whopping £5.5m still to come. No, no said DEFRA and then it uttered the dreaded words: "Please substantiate the daywork sheets."
Pause for a moment please.
I bet that you are familiar with disputes about daywork sheets. Put simply, aren't they a fraud, a lie, a fiddle? The sheet tells us that Tom, Dick, Harry and Hubert have all worked 10 hours a day Monday to Friday. Oh yes? Pull the other one. DEFRA was faced with hundreds of sheets indicating thousands of man hours. The blokes worked, said the sheets, 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
Faced with this, DEFRA did what you and I have seen others do before: they paid something on account.
The crisis saw JDM owed £5.5m. No, no said DEFRA. And then it uttered the dreaded words: ‘Please substantiate the daywork sheets’
They saved up the row until the people who were owed the money weren't needed. Since then, it has taken two years in the High Court to prize the money out of DEFRA. An adjudicator would have taken 28 days.
Nobody enjoys having the wool pulled over his eyes does he?
And here we have a situation in which the gang leader who plonks a daywork sheet in front of you for signature is asking you not only to believe that all these blokes have worked all these hours, but to give evidence to the truth of those facts – sign here. The practical reality is that you haven't actually got a clue about the truth of the sheet. If you sign it "for record purposes only" then that's what it becomes – evidence, a record. And if your boss later wants to challenge those sheets he has to prove that they are wrong.
DEFRA was a tad silly with its approach. Having initially insisted that the sheets were to be countersigned, when it came to it, not many were. DEFRA didn't engage enough quantity surveyors to keep an eye on what was happening on the ground, in the sheds, at the excavations, at the burning carcasses.
In 32 weeks of foot and mouth, more than 6 million animals were slaughtered and 2000 premises in 44 counties infected. The direct costs of the clean up, disposal and compensation operations for the public purse was £3bn. When it came to paying up, DEFRA blanched.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator specialising in construction. You can write to him at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple, London EC4 7EY, or email him on firstname.lastname@example.org.