Examination of Witnesses (Questions
WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002
BENDER CB, MR
20. I know what the procedure is, can you just
clarify why nobody spotted that the barn was already there?
(Mr MacKinnon) All he had made was an application
in which he needed to put forward essentially a business case
for the construction into which he was entering. So you could
say that the application was approved in principle but no monies
would be paid out unless he made an application for those monies,
which he did not do. It is for speculation whether the reason
that he did not make his application subsequently was the inspections
and the investigations which were going on but, as a matter of
fact, he did not make an application for monies to be paid.
21. The department agreed in principle to pay
for a barn which was already constructed?
(Mr Bender) No, the department's controls had not
been triggered because he had not submitted a claim. We had registered
his application but he had not submitted a claim.
22. He had submitted an application which you
(Mr Bender) We had accepted.
23. You accepted the application. Had he submitted
a formal application would you have sent somebody out there to
check whether or not the barn existed?
(Mr Bender) There were inspections made. I cannot
say that in every case, and I am therefore speculating
24. There had already been inspections made
of this property, had there not, and nobody had spotted that the
barn was already there?
(Mr Bender) At that stage, no, nobody had spotted
25. It is a difficult thing to spot, of course.
(Mr Bender) What they had said was that there was
a business case for constructing
26. Are you telling me then that it would not
normally be the procedure to check that any barn you were giving
money for actually existed?
(Mr Bender) It is now the procedure, Mr Davidson.
27. So up and down the country there could very
well be barns that already existed for which you have paid?
(Mr McNeill) When the official arrived to discuss
the application with Mr Bowden he asked to see the site where
the barn would be sited. At that time Mr Bowden indicated that
he had not taken a decision yet as to where the barn was to be
placed. Had he proceeded with his application, at that stage it
is possible the controls would have been triggered, would likely
have been triggered, and then an inspector would have looked for
a new barn on the site of the property.
28. Well, okay, I do not think we are going
to get much more on that. Can I clarify this question of the confidence
in the inspections. The briefing we had indicated that various
routine inspections in 1994 and 1995 did not find any irregularities
because it was difficult to identify the crops being grown and
harvested since flax and linseed are similar. Cows and sheep are
similar but you would normally expect a trained representative
of the Ministry of Agriculture to be able to identify the difference
between different crops, would you not? This was not an inspector
for the Benefits Agency, was it, it was presumably somebody you
could reasonably expect to know which crop was which? Does that
(Mr McNeill) Chairman, the inspectorate was there
to identify that flax was being grown on the fields. They were
satisfied that, one, it was being grown and after harvest there
had been flax on the fields and that met their requirements. It
is going back to this issue of whole farm inspection. They were
not there to inspect was he growing the crops he said on a multiple
range of issues, they were looking at a specific scheme. The situation
was that assessment was correct. In fact the courts relied upon
the judgment of the two inspectors and accepted their word that
flax was being grown and that formed the basis of the prosecution
on the basis that he had claimed that other crops were being grown
on the fields. In technical terms the assessment by the inspectorate
was considered valid.
29. Okay. So we trust the assessment of the
inspectors about what crops were being grown. This is the same
department which accepted Ordnance Survey references in the Atlantic
as being property in Devon, is it not? I am sure you can understand
our perplexity about all this. There seems to be so much confusion
here. I understand your point that somebody did not need to provide
Ordnance Survey references but when they did you would have thought
that somebody would have checked. The parallel I draw is the same
with the Benefits Agency. If you claim for a house, four children,
a wife and all the rest of it, you are required generally at some
stage to provide some evidence that this house and, indeed, you
yourself do exist, so why do you not do that?
(Mr Bender) Can I try and answer that. The error in
this case was a systemic one, following the earlier questioning,
because there was not a check between A and B. The map references
issue, as Mr McNeill said, enabled the inspector simply to find
the fields in question, that was all he had to do. He was not
asked to identify them.
30. Can I clarify how did it enable him to find
the fields in question when the references were in Iceland, Greenland,
the North Sea, various locations. If the man had managed to find
the fields through those map references then he would have been
worthy of promotion.
(Mr Bender) The final four digits of the map were,
as I understand it, correct. It is when you put the whole reference
together on the Ordnance Survey and then ask where those fields
would be. Can I repeat, the issue is not the competence of the
inspector, he was not tasked properly. That is why the issue did
not come to light. He was not asked, taking your analogy, to find
whether this person had four children or not, he was simply asked
to identify the fields and find what they were growing. He did
not cross check and that was the error in the system that allowed
the fraud to continue.
31. Can I just clarify then whether or not anybody
at all bears any responsibility for this on a personal level or
is it just the system?
(Mr Bender) The answer I would give to that is that
as Accounting Officers Mr McNeill and I are responsible for the
systems which exist and existed. I do not think there was human
error down the line in terms of individuals, the systems were
set up by the Ministry of Agriculture, and by the Intervention
Board and they were therefore accounted for by the Accounting
32. Are you on any performance bonus at all?
(Mr Bender) I am. Well, I will tell you at the end
of the year but, in principle, yes.
33. During this period?
(Mr Bender) If you are personalising it.
34. I am.
(Mr Bender) In 1996 I was in the European Secretariat
of the Cabinet Office. I am the Accounting Officer and, as you
well know, I am accountable for this issue.
35. Can you clarify for me whether or not anybody
who was involved with this at any stage was on some bonus system
and whether or not they got a full bonus or whether this was just
(Mr Bender) I cannot answer that.
36. Maybe you can give us a note about that,
I think we would be interested. Can I just clarify whether or
not I would be correct in assuming because you are dealing with
farmers there is an assumption of innocence, and an assumption
that anything they say is to be taken as correct whereas I often
feel that with the Benefits Agency there is an assumption of guilt.
Does that seem reasonable to you?
(Mr Bender) Hugh, do you want to comment?
(Mr MacKinnon) I think the answer is certainly no,
there is no assumption of innocence or guilt. What I can say is
if we get information or if there is information on the face of
any application or claim for money that seems to suggest something
suspicious then we will pursue it. I think I can say that was
the case for the Ministry's Regional Service Centres and for the
37. Okay. There is an issue about the difficulty
of completing the forms. Do you think your forms are any more
difficult than the Benefits Agency forms or the DLA forms?
(Mr MacKinnon) I am no expert on those forms. I know
something of our own forms.
38. If you cannot compare then I will move on.
Have you ever checked how difficult these forms are? Have you
thought of seeking professional advice? Farmers are always moaningfarmers
are always moaning anywayabout the difficulties of the
forms. You have never taken advice as to whether or not they are
more difficult than other Government forms?
(Mr MacKinnon) There are two areas where we do take
advice and compare. One is in relation to what other Member States
do and the other is that as we are trying to get the IACS system
on line, we are taking professional advice on how to have it in
electronic form as simple as possible.
39. Interesting answer but it does not answer
the question, with respect. I was asking how they compared with
other Government departments?
(Mr McNeill) There are some groupings in which we
use the forms and pilot them and take the views and try to identify
how we can improve the forms.
2 Ev 26, Appendix 1. Back