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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 26/10/2003)

Our dairy farmers are drowning in the EU milk lake
This man discovered the harm nuts can do you
Flushed with shame
When the law is not the law

Our dairy farmers are drowning in the EU milk lake

Last Wednesday more than 1,000 dairy farmers closed down five Asda milk distribution centres, from Scotland to south Wales. In the past month desperate farmers have been staging similar protests in a campaign to persuade supermarkets to increase the price they pay for milk by 2p a litre, and halt the haemorrhaging of their industry which for the past two years has seen hundreds of dairy farmers a month going out of business.

What the farmers cannot understand is how the supermarkets can force them to take a loss on every litre they produce. Why is Britain's milk price, at 17p a litre, the lowest in Europe when, in terms of yields, Britain's dairy industry is the most efficient?

Some time back David Goddard, who farms near Tewkesbury and has a herd of 130 pedigree Holsteins each producing 8,400 litres a year, was astonished to read in the Irish Examiner about an Irish farmer who makes a comfortable living from a herd of 30 cows, each yielding only 6,000 litres.

How could the Irish survive on production levels that Britain left behind in the 1960s, when British farmers with cows 30 per cent more efficient are being driven to bankruptcy?

The glib answer given by many commentators is that Britain must have a milk surplus, thus driving down the price. But last year the UK's consumption of milk and dairy products was only just less than our production, and we exported 530-million-worth into the bargain.

It is true there is a huge surplus of milk, but it is not in the UK, it is in the rest of the EU: an annual surplus of 30 million tonnes, more than twice the UK's production of 13.9 million tonnes. This is how the supermarkets can keep the price down - because other EU countries are awash with milk, produced less efficiently by farmers who receive much more financial help from their governments.

Under the EU's quota system, first introduced in 1984 to curb runaway milk surpluses, the UK is only permitted to produce 14 million tonnes a year, slightly more than we consume. Germany, which consumes less milk than Britain - only 11.2 million tonnes - has twice as many cows and is permitted to produce 28 million tonnes.

France, which consumes even less (8 million tonnes) is allowed by Brussels to produce 24 million tonnes, three times as much as she can use. France and Germany alone thus account for the entire EU surplus.

Furthermore, dairy farmers in other EU countries receive all kinds of government help, from tax breaks to guaranteed intervention prices. So, even though the UK exports half a billion pounds-worth of dairy products a year, we import twice that amount.

The very fact that these cheaper imports are available allows our supermarkets to squeeze the prices paid to British farmers below their cost of production.

Oxfam estimates that the EU dairy sector benefits in one way or another from 16 billion of subsidies a year, equivalent to half the total spending on the Common Agricultural Policy. This includes subsidies on crops for cattle feed and those export subsidies which allow EU farmers to dump their products so damagingly on the Third World.

The real reason for the disaster engulfing Britain's dairy farmers is not what Mr Blair called the "armlock" of the supermarkets. It is the fact that the EU system creates that obscene surplus. And the UK Government does nothing to protect our dairy farmers - the most efficient in Europe - from the consequences of that glut, so that more than 2,000 of them every year go out of business.

This man discovered the harm nuts can do you

Eurosceptics express alarm that under the EU's plans for a new legal system, Britain will lose the right of habeas corpus - imagining that this protects us against being imprisoned for long periods before being brought to trial. Someone who might wonder what we have to lose is a man whom, for legal reasons I must call Mr X.

Until earlier this year, Mr X ran a storage depot in south Wales. Five months ago he collected a pallet-load of foodstuffs shipped from Brazil, part of a much larger consignment imported for other customers. The shipping arrangements had been made for an agent by his brother, with whose business Mr X has no connection.

On returning to Wales, he heard that his brother had been arrested. Apparently two lorries carrying the rest of the consignment to London had been stopped by Customs and Excise. In one, drugs had been found worth 61 million.

Mr X rushed back to Winchester to see if he could help his brother and was promptly arrested himself, charged with involvement in drug smuggling. Customs and Excise issued a press release, wrongly claiming he had given himself up. He was refused bail, lest he flee the country. All his assets, including his house, were seized or frozen. Classed as a Category A prisoner, he was put in solitary confinement in a succession of prisons.

At Woodhill, he was kept in a tiny 6 ft by 8 ft cell for 23 hours a day. His visiting times were severely restricted by staff shortages and the fact that he had to be manacled and accompanied by a guard with a dog. All his correspondence, including that with his lawyers, was opened and subject to severe delays.

He was recently transferred to even harsher conditions in Belmarsh in London. His wife was not informed of his various moves, and more than once made a 300-mile round-trip to the wrong place. He was then told that, following a change in his legal representation, his trial, fixed for next January, might be postponed for several more months. His business is on the verge of bankruptcy.

No doubt if the officials of Customs and Excise succeed in proving that Mr X had any connection with those drugs heading for London, it will be thought he has deserved everything that has been visited on him and his family. If they fail, however, questions will be asked as to how such a thing could have happened, in a country which still upholds the belief that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty.

Flushed with shame

Travelling from Bath to London last week I found our Great Western train was not the usual eight-coach InterCity 125 but one of the new, five-coach "Adelantes" made by the French company Alstom. These are so unreliable and badly designed, with their cramped little tables and non-automatic connecting doors, that they are as unpopular with the staff as with passengers. But at least they make handsome profits for one of the EU's "star" performers.

Brussels recently allowed the French government to bail out Alstom with a 2 billion subsidy which would normally have been considered a gross breach of the EU's "state aid" rules. Not surprisingly this was the firm which could successfully bid to build the new QM2 superliner and provide Great Western with the cheapest trains under EU procurement rules.

One exciting design feature I discovered when trying to flush the lavatory by pulling a handle prominently sited just above the loo. Only then did I see a notice below explaining that this was an emergency handle which would stop the train. The flush should be operated by a small panel low down on the wall.

As we glided to a stop, the tannoy announced that someone had pulled the wrong handle and asked "customers" not to make similar mistakes in future. I was far too shamefaced to admit my error. But at least when I told the story to a friend he said I seemed for once to have been successful in "bringing the European juggernaut grinding to a halt".

When the law is not the law

It was reported last week that an Austrian farmer, Johann Thiery, had been fined and threatened with prison for selling "apricot marmalade" made from a traditional Austrian recipe passed on by his grandmother. Under EU rules "marmalade" can only be made from citrus fruit. Sternly defending Mr Thiery's punishment, a European Commission spokesman said: "The law is the law."

Next day Pedro Solbes, the EU's economics commissioner, was reported as defending the right of France and Germany to run up huge budget deficits, in flagrant breach of the Growth and Stability Pact. "Given the circumstances we face," he said, "it would be unwise to follow the letter of the law."