Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 29/08/2004)

Model trains fall foul of trade war
Prescott's ballot is a special case
BBC innumeracy
Wasted words

Model trains fall foul of trade war

Thousands of businesses large and small, including Bernard McQuiggan's Mac's Models, which imports collectors' scale models of American trains, recently found themselves victims of the latest trade war between the EU and the USA. But no one bothered to explain to them what the row was about.

Mr McQuiggan, a railway buff who has run his business outside Glasgow, employing six people, since he was made redundant as a Royal Navy lieutenant-commander in 1993, can no longer publish the exact prices of the models on his website - - because every four weeks, on orders from the EU, the duty on his imports rises by a further 1 per cent.

Despite contacting Downing Street, the BBC and the local press, Mr McQuiggan could get no explanation as to why he was being inconvenienced in this way, and why he was "having to hand over thousands of pounds to Gordon Brown" in duty. I was finally able to tell him that he, like countless other businesses, has fallen foul of a ruling by the World Trade Organisation that something called "the Byrd Amendment" is illegal. This amendment, a longstanding US law named after the late Virginian Senator William Byrd, says that if a fine is imposed on countries which illegally dump cut-price goods on the US market, part of the proceeds can go to American firms which have suffered as a result.

Last December, in accordance with the WTO's ruling, Brussels issued Council Regulation 2193/2003, listing a vast range of goods imported from the US on which, as a penalty, duty would be levied at an additional 1 per cent a month until it reached 17 per cent. The idea was that this would eventually force the US to repeal its law.

The inventory of goods affected, from birds' eggs, honey and video recorders to spoons and forks, reads like a bureaucratic self-parody. One item is "articles of apparel and clothing accessories, knitted or crocheted". The next cites the same articles, "not knitted or crocheted". The list includes iron and steel, all articles made of wood or glass, and even nuclear reactors. The final item is "toys, games and sports requisites". (Mr McQuiggan is not pleased to see his scale models classified by the EU as mere "toys".)

Like all the other importers affected, he must pass on these continually escalating costs to his customers, making them the only real victims of a mysterious dispute which has nothing to do with them. It has arisen because Britain and the other EU countries have had to hand over responsibility for international trade to a commissioner in Brussels - the portfolio which is now held by Peter Mandelson.

I was thus able to inform Mr McQuiggan that these new duties go, not to Mr Brown as he supposed, but directly to Brussels, as with all other EU customs duties. At least someone benefits from a trade war which otherwise seems so pointless that even Lewis Carroll might have hesitated to include something so absurd in Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Prescott's ballot is a special case

Never again, says the Electoral Commission, can a British election be held on an all-postal ballot - with the sole exception of the very next election to be held, the North-East's referendum on an elected regional government, on November 4. The Commission's excuse for making this exception was so lame that its announcement was brought forward from September 13 to last Thursday, in the hope that, as Britain's thoughts turned to a bank holiday weekend and Kelly Holmes, no one would point out how unconvincing it was.

John Prescott is anxious for the referendum to go ahead by postal voting because he sees it as the only chance of saving his plan for an England divided under eight regional governments. Originally he had been hoping that the three safest Labour heartlands, in the North-East, the North-West and Yorkshire, could be relied on to vote Yes, and so set off a domino effect across the rest of the country.

Mr Prescott's desperation is evident in the latest "information leaflet" put out by his office, in eight languages, to the North-East's 1.9 million voters. Although this paean of praise for the benefits of regional government purports only to be giving "information", the game is given away by its carefully staged illustrations. These contrast young, attractive, affluent-looking Yes voters, giving the thumbs up to an elected assembly, with "typical" No voters, such as an old man with a cloth cap and a stick, a diminutive Asian shot in shadow and an Afro-Caribbean lady: a selection so blatant it should earn Mr Prescott an interview with the Commission for Racial Equality.

On Friday, as the media again tried to raise a flicker of interest in this campaign, the BBC showed a Lib Dem spokesman on Palace Green in Durham waxing lyrical about how the people of the North-East were about to rise up en masse to vote for regional government. When the programme cut to Neil Herron, the director of the North-East's No campaign, the interviewer asked him why he was gazing up into the sky. He replied: "I'm looking for the pigs flying over Durham Cathedral."

BBC innumeracy

On Monday morning, the BBC's Today programme was inspired by an item in this column last week to make its fourth report in five days on the Tories' attempt to make political mileage out of attacking the "gold plating" of EC directives.

Today savagely mocked the Tories for claiming that a Brussels "abattoirs directive" had only contained 12 pages, which had been expanded by the UK regulations implementing it to 96 pages. The truth, as I pointed out, was that the directive in fact ran to 34 pages, while the regulations (introduced by a Tory government) were not much longer.

Today somewhat spoiled its satire on the Tories' inability to count by claiming that the Lord's Prayer contains "several hundred words" and the Gettysburg Address "several thousand". One could not expect BBC researchers to know the Lord's Prayer by heart, but even they might have checked out that it runs to only 65 words, while every American schoolchild knows that Lincoln's immortal speech contained only 278.

The first mistake made by the Tories was to use wildly inaccurate figures taken from a speech by a Tory MEP without bothering to check them (they are still being shown on the Party's website). What makes this report on "gold plating" even more depressing, however, is that those responsible seem unable to grasp even the most basic facts about how our system of law-making now works. The report's recommendations as to how this regulatory overkill might be halted are so adrift from reality as to be meaningless.

When I first exposed the problem of "gold plating" as long ago as 1992, this helped to inspire John Major's vaunted "deregulation policy". In five years this achieved precisely nothing. It was only at the very end of the Deregulation Act's passage through Parliament that a junior minister finally admitted that the one area it had not been permitted to touch was legislation originating from Brussels - the very problem which had inspired Mr Major's policy in the first place. As an exercise in self-deceiving futility, this latest Tory report has a very good precedent.

Wasted words

Irecently reported on the problems faced by various enterprising firms which have been told that they can no longer use "waste" materials ranging from cardboard to sewage, as fuel to generate energy. According to UK environment ministers such as Elliott Morley, this is because EC rules forbid "waste" products to be destined for anything other than disposal, by incineration or landfill. Thus Scottish Water, unless it wins an expensive court case, faces the closure of a plant specially built to turn sewage sludge into fuel for power stations, which cost 65 million.

A reader points out that the Home Office's leaflet Preparing for Emergencies, recently sent to all households, boasts that it is made from "75 per cent post-consumer waste" (the same is true of Mr Prescott's leaflet cited above). Perhaps Mr Morley can explain why he is not going to prosecute David Blunkett and Mr Prescott for acting in breach of EC law?