Farmer fined for helping Hartland community

Joseph Bulmer

RETIRED Hartland farmer John Thorne has become national news after being fined for using his tractor in an act of charity for his local community.

Geoffrey Cox, MP for Torridge and West Devon is now taking up his case with the treasury minister.

John, 65, fell foul of HM Revenue and Customs when he was caught by officers mowing the village playing field and football ground with a tractor powered by red diesel – fuel with a lower tax rate designed for use by agricultural vehicles.

This was deemed to be a non-approved use of such fuel and his tractor was confiscated by officers when he was stopped when leaving the playing field last Wednesday. It was only returned after he had been escorted home to make payment of �250.

The incident has caused uproar in the community and spread nationwide through the media, drawing a huge response of support for the hapless volunteer.

Geoffrey Cox MP has roundly condemned the conduct of HM Revenue and Customs officials.

He said: “I strongly believe this to be a disproportionate and heavy handed action. At most, if action was necessary, a warning would have been sufficient. If HMRC’s procedures do not allow for a flexible, proportionate and common sense application of their powers to the circumstances, they should be reviewed immediately. I shall be writing to the Treasury Minister David Gauke MP to request him to look into Mr Thorne’s case.”

Mr Thorne, who played football for Hartland for 33 years, has retired from full time farming, but still has 22 acres of land and uses his tractor to work on it.

He told the Gazette: “Now that I am retired, I though I would put a bit back. Nowadays it is quite expensive to run a football club and they do not have the money to buy something specially to cut the grass.

This is his second season carrying out the work free of charge, but as he left the playing field last Wednesday his way was blocked by a vehicle and three customs and excise officers, he said.

“It just felt as if I had a stash of drugs or something! I did not know I was doing anything wrong. We can’t be the only ones doing this. There is no common sense in the world. The majority of local people are with me and pretty much up in arms.”

He knew there was the possibility of appeal, but would have to think carefully about this. He did not want to be involved in a court case or caught up in legal fees, said Mr Thorne. He would probably leave the matter in Mr Cox’s hands.

HM Revenue and Customs press officer Bob Gaiger said: “We are unable to discuss individual cases due to taxpayer confidentiality. The law states that a tractor may only use red diesel for the purposes of agriculture, horticulture and forestry. Where disputes arise these will continue to be considered on an individual basis with regard to the relevant legislation and any definitive interpretation of the law would remain to be given by the courts.”

Mr Gaiger said that the Revenue and Customs team involved covered the whole of Devon and Cornwall and parts of Dorset, visiting different areas from week to week.

It just so happened they were in North Devon that week.

The officers had had ‘no choice’ he said. They did not have the discretionary powers to give a warnings like police did. But Mr Thorne could use the appeals procedure.

Fine ‘raises issues’

HARTLAND Playing Fields committee chairman John George said he felt Mr Thorne had been treated heavy handedly – and that the incident had also raised issues which could concern other local communities.

Mr Thorne cut the grass and kept the field tidy voluntarily, he said.

“We would not be able to exist if it was not for people’s voluntary help. We made a loss of �200 last year and we have a pavilion with broken windows and guttering. Then someone is fined for helping us out. It was heavy handed. We were dumbfounded that he was breaking the law. He was not even given a warning, which would have given us an opportunity to re-assess the situation. And all for three or four litres of diesel, on which the tax would have been about �2. It just seems so ludicrous.”

Despite their financial situation, they would be reimbursing Mr Thorne, said Mr George.

But this had also raised issues which could affect other events and other communities, he said.

“Hartland is a good community. Every year we put up flags around the village at carnival time and lights at Christmas, using a loader. We have one of the best carnivals around, with some floats pulled by tractors. What if these vehicles were using red diesel?

“And we are not the only local community likely to be affected in this way. It could affect small communities across the region.

“Let’s hope that common sense does prevail and communities like Hartland are encouraged to help themselves without fear of ridiculous consequences, especially when community budgets are being slashed everywhere. Every little village throughout the country relies on an army of John Thornes to be able to function! A person of generous nature, who puts himself out for the benefit of younger people within his community.”