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Booker's Notebook

Sunday Telegraph

Jan 25 2004

In August last year the best-selling author Philip Pullman was startled to receive a letter from Götz Drauz, a senior official of the European Commission in Brussels. The 'Merger Task Force' of 'competition directorate B', the letter informed him, was investigating a proposed merger between two French publishing houses. Under the EC's 'merger regulation' 4064/89, Mr Pullman was obliged to answer a five-page questionnaire. If a reply was not received by 12 am on 20 August, less than three weeks later, he would be liable to a fine of up to 50,000 euros (£35,000), with penalties up to 25,000 euros a day thereafter.

When Mr Pullman read through the 20 questions, he was even more surprised. They asked him to describe in detail why he chose one firm rather than another to publish his books. He was asked to supply details of all contracts he had signed with French publishing houses in the previous five years, including the names of all editors involved in bidding for his books.

Some questions were so clumsily translated that they were illiterate, such as "please explain if it happens that you derogate from the usual process. If this the case is, please indicate in which circumstances, if that often arrives (frequency), for which type of book by giving examples".

Mr Pullman replied that, firstly, he could not understand why he was expected to answer such questions under threat of a swingeing fine when his books were not published by either of the firms involved in the merger. Many of the details requested about his contracts were confidential. To complete the questionnaire would be so time-consuming that, as a freelance writer, he would be more appropriately be entitled to charge the Commission for time lost than be threatened with hefty fines. "This letter, however" he ended, "is free".

Mr Pullman has heard no more from Mr Drauz. He also assures me that, although he regards the letter as 'bureaucratic impertinence, I am in general strongly pro- European and I certainly don't feel any phobia about Britain's position in Europe".

Like many another Europhile, he is obviously not familiar with the extent to which this kind of letter typifies the style in which the technocrats of the Commission address their subjects. For those to whom it is familiar, it is precisely this self-importance of our Platonic Guardians which we find most disturbing about the system of government we are now ruled by. I am grateful to Mr Pullman for allowing me to report yet another example. If, however, he was not one of our more illustrious authors but a fisherman having to obey the Common Fisheries Policy, he might well have been pursued for those 25,000 euros a day, which would now add up to just over £2 million - for failing to answer questions which never applied to him anyway.

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Last week I reported on a court case which has exposed the astonishing scandal of the refusal by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to pay millions of pounds still owing for work carried out at Defra's instructions during the 2001 foot and mouth crisis. After a 12-week hearing, Defra was ordered to pay £5 million owed to JDM Accord for constructing the notorious Ash Moor burial pit in Devon, which was never used.

The Forum of Private Business, a organisation which has taken on many of the contractors' claims, estimates that the sum still owed to 350 firms amounts to over £100 million. Since 2002 Defra has used any excuse not to pay what it owes, in a futile bid to appease the European Commission from which it still hopes to claim £1 billion - the loss of which might cause even Gordon Brown to blench.

The largest creditor, it emerges, is Cumbria Waste Management Ltd. (CWM), a company owned by Cumbria county council, still owed £6 million by Defra for work carried out in 2001 when Cumbria was worse affected than anywhere else in the country. For months CWM was at the heart of the crisis, disposing of its awful detritus. When the army took over in March 2001, Brigadier Alex Birtwistle set up his headquarters in the firm's Carlisle offices. The company staff worked up to 16 hours a day, in horrendous conditions, until the bill for wages and new plant amounted to £24 million. There were never any complaints about the efficiency with which they carried out Defra's orders, as they managed to dispose of carcases at only a third of the average cost, and until mid-2002 CWM's invoices to Defra were paid in full.

Then, however, following indications that Brussels was unhappy with the scale of payments the UK government hoped to reclaim under EC law, Defra mysteriously halted its payments. Mike Bareham, CWM's managing director, who has logged hundreds of hours in futile discussion with Defra and in answering endless nit-picking queries, recently exploded "it's frightening that this is the way they are treating people who did their best to help them beat the outbreak. It's cynical and dishonourable".

In CWM's case, it is notable that one taxpayer-funded body is having to bear the cost of refusal to pay its debts by another. But the court ruling that Defra behaved illegally in paying its debt to JDM Accord gives hope to Mr Bareham and hundreds of others that this scandal may at last be brought to an end - even if it means Gordon Brown having to forego that £1 billion.

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Under the heading 'Track and train must be re-married, Darling', Sir Simon Jenkins unleashed in last Wednesday's Times yet another splendid diatribe on the continuing shambles of Britain's railway system. Speaking with all the authority of a member of the British Rail Board at the time, he castigated the decision to separate the running of our railtrack from the train companies which use it as "the stupidest act of John Major's government".

Not for the first time, I have to report on what seems to remain the best-kept secret of British politics. The reason why transport minister Alastair Darling was so adamant last week that he could not re-unite track and train lies in two pieces of law. The first is EC directive 91/440, which laid down in 1991 that "the future development and efficient operation" of Europe's railway system "may be made easier if a distinction is made between the provision of transport services and the operation of infrastructure", which is why it went on in Article 1 to order that management and accounts of the two must be separated.

This was then translated into the Railways Regulation 1992, nodded through Parliament under the European Communities Act 1972, concerning "measures relating to the management independence of railway undertakings" and the requirement that managers of 'infrastructure' must charge train operators for using the track. It was this which, two years later, inspired the setting up of Railtrack, separate from the operating companies which were subsequently privatised, and which today lies behind Mr Darling's insistence that he cannot put them together again.

I told Simon all this in 1996, when we spent an agreeable day together looking at Somerset churches. But like many others he seems to find it peculiarly difficult to recognise just how much of how we are now governed is dictated not by Westminster but from Brussels.

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A mighty groan went up last week from those areas of Britain which stand to lose Brussels regional aid worth £3 billion, when it is switched to poorer countries in eastern Europe after they join the EU in May. Again this highlights the misapprehension that these funds somehow represent Brussels largesse. Apart from the fact that UK taxpayers must hand over £2 for every pound we get back, we in most cases then have to contribute a further £1 in 'match-funding'.

Having to pay £3 for every £1 we get from Brussels hardly makes these funds the bargain of the century. When it is further recalled that, under the 'additionality' rule, they can only be used to fund projects 'additional' to those on which we would wish to spend money anyway, and that most of the money goes simply to employing more officials, it will not exactly be the end of the world if our £3 billion is redirected to hiring more officials in Latvia.