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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 03/10/2004)

Ben Bradshaw proves a poor saviour to dolphins
Nitpicking brainstorm sweeps across Wales
EU newcomers begin to rue the day they joined
The invisible official campaign

Ben Bradshaw proves a poor saviour to dolphins

Last week our fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, won admiring press for trying to avert an ecological catastrophe. He proposed a ban on "pair-trawling" for bass, and this, according to his department's vainglorious press release, will help to stop the deaths of the dolphins and porpoises that are washed up in their thousands every year around the coasts of Devon and Cornwall.

The problem is that Mr Bradshaw's ban is no more than a particularly humiliating example of gesture politics. It will not stop the needless slaughter of dolphins. It just brings home how impotent British ministers have become since their powers in UK fishing waters were handed over to the officials in Brussels who administer the common fisheries policy.

The chief cause of the dolphin slaughter has been the nets, up to half a mile long, towed between pairs of French trawlers to scoop up huge quantities of bass. These also trap and drown up to 5,000 dolphins and porpoises a year, which are thrown back, dead, into the sea.

The anger aroused by this massacre has been so great that, four years ago, our then fisheries minister, Elliott Morley, declared on Newsnight that he had "sufficient evidence to take action, and we intend to do that". Alas, the only action open to him was to plead with his masters in Brussels to ban this practice; and in July this year, his successor, Mr Bradshaw, finally announced that he was going to "press the EU Commission" to impose a ban on winter pair-trawling "off the West Country coast".

This was hailed by West Country newspapers and conservation groups as "a major victory". But the French immediately lodged a strong objection, and early last month the departing EU fisheries commissioner, Franz Fischler of Austria, rejected the proposed ban. Although Mr Fischler was "sympathetic to the plight of the dolphins", he claimed that the UK Government had "not presented sufficient scientific evidence to justify an end to pair-trawling".

Mr Bradshaw's response last week was to announce his own unilateral ban on winter pair-trawling anywhere within 12 miles of the British coast. But, as conservationists were quick to point out, this is an empty gesture. Although most of the damage is being done in UK waters, it is taking place outside the 12-mile limit, which is the only area where Britain still has jurisdiction.

As Willie MacKenzie, a spokesman for Greenpeace, put it: "Bradshaw may as well have announced a ban on pair-trawling in village ponds for all the dolphins that his meaningless decision will save." Echoing Mr MacKenzie's scorn, Laila Sadler of the RSPCA pointed out that the damage is being done, not by British boats, but by French trawlers outside his control.

The only pair-trawlers affected by Bradshaw's futile ban will be small inshore boats from ports such as Looe and Mevagissey, which do no harm to dolphins with their bottom-trawls but which earn a good deal of their yearly profits from fishing for bass around Christmas-time. So Mr Bradshaw gets his headlines, the Cornish fishermen lose their income, and the mass killing of dolphins will continue.

And when, as is widely predicted, Brussels introduces quotas for bass based on the historic "track record" of catches, it is France, thanks to the vast recent hauls of its pair-trawlers, that will be able to claim by far the greatest share.

Nitpicking brainstorm sweeps across Wales

Media excitement was recently aroused by the claim that staff of the Welsh Development Agency have been told not to use the words "nitpicking" and "brainstorming", because these are offensive to minorities.

Five hundred WDA employees were sent - at a cost to taxpayers of 17,500 - for training in "equality and diversity issues". On these courses they were told that, under the terms of the Racial Equality Act, they had to avoid using the term "nitpicking", because it originated from the practice of examining the hair of African slaves for lice. The word "brainstorming" is also banned because it is considered "insulting to people suffering from mental illness".

There is however a twist to this example of po-faced political correctness. If you type the words "nitpicking" and "Welsh Development Agency" into an internet search engine, one of the first items that come up is a report from Eurada, a body that enables regional development agencies across the EU to "engage in dialogue with the European Commission". The report recommends that Brussels should do everything it can to co-ordinate the activities of the EU's regional agencies "at a Community level". But it insists that this must not lead to "administrative nitpicking".

Among the members of Eurada endorsing this recommendation is the Welsh Development Agency. It must surely be now awaiting prosecution for an offence under the Racial Equality Act.

EU newcomers begin to rue the day they joined

Anger is still growing across the 10 countries that joined the EU in May as they discover how they were hoodwinked with fine promises of the benefits that would showered upon them if they voted to join.

In southern Poland last week there were threats of rioting by thousands of small farmers whose woes have been compounded by a harvest even worse than Britain's. Like their British counterparts, they had lobbied their government for an advance payment of EU farm subsidies, due in December, to tide them over. The Polish government appeared sympathetic, but then sent out subsidy application forms so fiendishly complex that the farmers found them almost impossible to fill in.

However, the Self-Defence Party, which represents Poland's peasant farmers, engaged the services of British consultants, wise in the ways of EU form-filling. As a result, and to the astonishment of the Polish officials, most of the farmers' forms were successfully completed. The authorities, their bluff having been called, then had to confess that there was no hope of getting the money from Brussels before December after all.

Meanwhile in Malta, a row has erupted over the discovery that, instead of being able to buy sugar at the world price of 200 a tonne, the islanders must now pay the protectionist EC price of 840. The government tried to allay public outrage by announcing that it has negotiated with Brussels a special subsidy that reduces the sugar price to 380. But the opposition spokesman Noel Farrugia then pointed out that, since half this subsidy comes from Maltese taxpayers, they will still have to foot most of the additional bill - as well as seeing Malta's soaring government deficit going ever further beyond the EU's spending rules.

The official response came last week from Malta's EU commissioner, Joe Borg. In a bizarre outburst, he claimed that the Maltese eat far too much sugar anyway. Mr Farrugia, he said, should read Professor Yudkin's book Pure, White and Deadly, on the damaging effects of sugar on the human body. He should then advise his fellow citizens (10 per cent of whom, according to Mr Borg, are diabetic) to "applaud the government" for reducing consumption of this dreadful stuff.

The invisible official campaign

With only a month to go before the North-East's referendum on an elected regional assembly, the disastrous result for the Conservatives at the Hartlepool by-election again highlights the curious decision by the Electoral Commission to designate as the official "No" campaign a group known as "North-East Says No" (Nesno), run by the Tories.

Last week Neil Herron of the rival and long-established "North-East No" campaign - which, to the surprise of local people, did not get the designation - received a telephone call from the Electoral Commission in London. The caller had been told to travel north to hand over the commission's cheque for 100,000. He had searched for "Nesno" on the internet but all the resulting references had led him to Mr Herron's "North-East No" campaign. So could he please be told how to contact the now-official "No" campaign?

Mr Herron naturally obliged. But many people would like to know how the Electoral Commission came to give taxpayers' money to an organisation so inept that it offers John Prescott his only hope of winning the November 4 referendum - and so obscure that even the commission has difficulty in finding it.