Christopher Booker's notebook
A furore has blown up in the Sussex town of Hastings after a judge last week imposed crippling fines on two local fishermen for committing a criminal offence that, until the two men were charged, no one knew existed. Although the judge claimed to be upholding EC law in finding the men guilty, he was supporting fisheries inspectors of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in creating a law which conflicts with rulings from the European Commission and which exists nowhere else in Europe.
Last Tuesday, in Lewes Crown Court, Judge Simon Coltart imposed a fine and costs of £7,500 on Paul Joy, the leader of the Hastings beach fishermen, more than the value of his small wooden fishing boat. When his colleague Graeme Bossom, ordered to pay £6,500, said he would have difficulty in raising the money, the judge advised him to get a second mortgage on his house. If the two men did not pay in full within a year they would be sentenced to three months in prison.
The offence with which the two men were charged in October 2003 was that in the previous month they had illegally landed £2,570-worth of cod, in excess of their "monthly allocation". This came as a complete surprise since, as the European Commission confirms, "under 10 metre" boats are not given individual quotas and EC law does not recognise monthly allocations. There may be "yearly allocations" for certain species, and when that limit is reached a fishery may be closed. But until then, under EC law, there is no restriction.
Since, in September 2003, the small Hastings boats had only landed 53 per cent of their yearly allocation, Mr Joy and Mr Bossom were unaware that they might fall foul of the law. A local Defra inspector, Paul Johnson, knew how much fish they were landing and said nothing until, to their astonishment, he charged them with exceeding a putative monthly limit.
As a highly experienced fisherman who sits on the local Sea Fisheries committee, Mr Joy is in regular contact with Defra, and has often made the point that any system of monthly allocations for small inshore boats could not possibly be enforced since, unlike larger vessels, they are not required under EC law to keep log books of their catches.
One odd feature of the trial was the general confusion that seemed to prevail over the distinction made in EC law between boats under 10 metres and larger vessels, which are subject to quotas and many more rules. Several times EC regulations were cited which apply only to larger boats, and the judge said he saw no reason why boats under 10 metres should not carry log books, even though Franz Fischler, as EC fisheries commissioner, had personally confirmed in a letter produced in court that this is not a legal requirement.
Also frustrating for the defendants was that, although Defra's barristers were permitted to report statements alleged to have been made by Mr Joy, which he strongly contests, he had noopportunity to give evidence that he was being misrepresented. When the judge ruled in favour of Defra's legal arguments, the two men were advised to change their plea to guilty. Even so, they were horrified when, after Defra was given a week to investigate their financial affairs, the judge ordered swingeing fines, comparing their conduct to that of drunk drivers, in that they had gone over the legal limit and should be punished accordingly.
The chief Hastings fisheries inspector, Angus Radford, has publicly proclaimed his "delight" at the judgment, and claimed on local radio, with wild exaggeration, that Mr Joy's £5,000 fine only amounted to a quarter of his monthly earnings. In September 2003 Mr Joy in fact earned £5,000, but this was by far his highest monthly income of the year.
The implications of this controversial case are such that it is being taken up by both Hastings's Labour MP, Michael Foster, and the Tories' front-bench fisheries spokesman, Owen Paterson. A local fund has been launched to support Mr Joy and Mr Bossom while they consider an appeal. It seems the case of the "Hastings Two" still has some way to run.
The Telegraph's headline was "BBC cleared of bias". The Daily Mail's version was "BBC's pro-EU bias". The report by a committee under a former cabinet secretary Lord Wilson, following complaints that the BBC's coverage of EU-related issues is persistently one-sided, gave something to everyone. It cleared the BBC of any "intentional bias", but found it guilty of "cultural bias", "ignorance" and "a reluctance to challenge pro-EU assumptions".
Over the past 12 years I have regularly reported on the BBC's partisan and unprofessional coverage of this issue, citing – unlike the Wilson committee – scores of specific examples to make the general point. The BBC's performance is no longer so shameless as it was in the 1990s, when it seemed to be in the forefront of the campaign to get Britain into the euro.
In 1999 I published a dossier of six occasions when the BBC had accepted stories fed them by pro-euro propagandists, leading its news broadcasts with claims that multinational companies were threatening to leave Britain unless we joined the euro. On each occasion the companies named, including Toyota, Sony and Ford, had issued trenchant denials. Not once did the BBC publish any correction.
But even if they are now slightly less gullible in falling for the propaganda spin, there is plenty of evidence that the BBC is still hopelessly failing its audience through its inability to engage with this issue in an informed fashion. One revealing trick was exemplified on Friday morning by John Humphrys's interview on the EU constitution with a spokesman for each side of the debate.
Instead of presenters doing their homework and establishing the facts for themselves, so they can interview with real knowledge and authority, the game here – as Humphrys demonstrated - is simply to allow two talking heads to shout past each other, making contradictory points, until the presenter can say: "That's all we've got time for, the debate will doubtless continue."
The listeners are left wholly bemused (and bored) because they are not given enough information to know who is telling the truth. Therein lies the real problem, and there is scant evidence that it is even understood, let alone being addressed.
It was not exactly tactful of the Commons committee in charge of scrutinising the unending deluge of new legislation from Brussels to choose last week to decide, on the casting vote of its Labour chairman Jimmy Hood, that in future its proceedings will be in secret. The timing was immaculate in that it came hard on the heels of the European Commission pointing out that Michael Howard was in no position to implement new proposals on immigration, announced in last week's Sunday Telegraph, because the power to decide immigration policy has been handed over to Brussels.
The immediate response of commentators was to claim that this might bring home to people just how much of our power to govern ourselves has been ceded to Brussels without anyone realising it. But just as significant was the response of Mr Howard himself. He immediately said that a future Conservative government would take those powers back. He thus adds immigration policy to fishing as one of the major policy areas he is now pledged to return to national control.
He might not want it to be shouted about too loudly, for fear of upsetting Ken Clarke, David Curry and the rump of Tory Europhiles. But these pledges strike right at the heart of the most sacred principle of the "European project", the acquis communautaire, which lays down that once powers to legislate and decide policy are surrendered to the EU they can never be returned.
Throw in the Tories' implacable opposition to the Constitution (which includes all the existing treaties), plus the likelihood that this will be rejected by the British people in next year's referendum, and it seems a very interesting situation is in the making. Mr Howard may be ultra-diplomatic in his strategy. But, unless he is prepared to make a humiliating retreat, he is setting us up for a showdown with our European partners on a scale unprecedented in the EU's history.