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Christopher Booker's notebook

(Filed: 22/05/2005) In the end, it's Parsnip that will have to pay

EU constitution? Yes, but no, but yes, but no…

The 3,000 edicts Her Majesty didn't mention

Bananas judge

In the end, it's Parsnip that will have to pay

Britain's vets, thanks to an EC directive, could soon have to spend a quarter of their working lives recording mountains of almost wholly irrelevant data, forcing them to increase their bills to pet owners by up to 25 per cent.

The threat arises from an article in the proposed Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2005, implementing directive 2004/28 and now out to "consultation". The new regulations stem from a series of Brussels directives which, since 1990, have sought to protect meat eaters from adverse reactions to drugs used to treat farm animals. But the directives make no distinction between animals for human consumption (including horses eaten on the Continent) and domestic pets such as dogs, cats or guinea pigs.

Article 66 of the proposal, headed "Record Keeping", lays down that every time a vet buys in a medicinal product, he or she must record the date, product, quantity, manufacturer's batch number and expiry date. Each time it is dispensed the same data must be recorded, with client details. At the year's end all drugs dispensed must be checked against stocks remaining, and the records kept for five years.

This might not seem unreasonable until one looks at what it means for Britain's 2,500 small veterinary practices. Simon Gubbins, a West Midlands vet, who drew the issue to my attention, said: "Every time I see a dog with a bad ear - which might need an antiobiotic injection and an anti-inflammory injection, followed by two sorts of tablets and possibly two sorts of topical drops - I will have to spend up to five minutes recording 12 sets of numbers on the clinical records."

Michael Jessop, the president-elect of the Small Animals Veterinary Association, explains that "in an average day, we may prescribe 200 items, each of which must be recorded, then audited". Thirty consultations a day, with five minutes each logging-in time, adds up to two and a half hours a day, or 12½ hours a week. This is more than a quarter of the time a vet will be permitted to work under the EC's working time directive.

The implications are frightening. The loss of time will inevitably mean longer waits for appointments and higher bills. Even with dedicated software (so far not available), tallying up this data will be hugely time-consuming. For the 25 per cent of practices that are not computerised, as Mr Jessop points out, "it will be all but impossible". Errors will be treated as criminal offences, punishable by fines or imprisonment.

This batch recording requirement derives from just one article in a set of regulations 115 pages long. The original purpose of the legislation was to protect humans - but dogs, cats and guinea pigs do not form a large part of the British diet. Even if the officials now claim that it will be useful to be able to track down any batch of drugs found to be faulty, almost all of those millions of items of data, solemnly logged and kept for five years, will never be looked at again.

The Veterinary Medicines Directorate admitted that it will have "no information on the cost of keeping the necessary records" until the consultation is complete. But it insisted that "implementation of the directive's provisions is an obligation of membership of the EU".

EU constitution? Yes, but no, but yes, but no…

As the referendum campaign for the Constitution for Europe shudders into gear - although it remains uncertain, until France votes next Sunday, whether we will have one at all - both sides will have to put on a rather more convincing show than they managed last week. Considering the gravity of the issues, many viewers must have been astonished by the Newsnight discussion last Wednesday, when the spokesmen for each side appeared not just far too young and inexperienced but singularly ill-briefed.

Fronting for the Yes side is "Britain in Europe", with its shambolic track record, which must be hoping that Tony Blair will send in some more heavyweight reinforcements than Douglas Alexander, after his faltering start as our new Europe Minister. Along with the Lib Dems and a few Tories, led by Kenneth Clarke, their aim will be to downplay the contents of the constitution as far as possible, hoping no one will actually read it and see how it would further subordinate Britain to a supranational form of government that in almost all significant respects will be able to dictate how our country is run.

At the head of the No camp is an uneasy alliance between the Tories and a cross-party group set up by the people who formed Business for Sterling, which campaigned effectively against the euro. The weakness of their platform is their almost comical determination to show that they have nothing against Britain's membership of the EU as such, but only oppose the constitution. This will involve them in wondrous contortions, as they try to distinguish between those bits of the constitution that are new and those that are simply carried over from previous treaties.

The result can be as embarrassing as the young No spokesman's reply to Jeremy Paxman, when he stammered: "I don't think anyone in the No campaign is against there being a constitution." In other words, these Yes/No campaigners would welcome an EU constitution; it's just this particular draft that they don't care for.

What is conspicuously missing from this line-up is a broader-based People's Campaign, appealing to ordinary voters who want a grown-up, free-ranging debate on the EU rather than one so tightly constrained as to be meaningless.

Next Wednesday at 2pm, various Eurosceptic groups will meet at Abingdon House, 13 Little College St, Westminster, opposite the House of Lords, to discuss launching such a "People's No Campaign". Anyone is welcome to join former Tory and Labour MPs and Neil Herron, the doughty campaigner from the North-East, to plan a campaign which is not being set up in rivalry with others but to complement them.

The 3,000 edicts Her Majesty didn't mention

Journalists who claimed that the Queen's Speech "broke the record" by proposing 45 new Bills should be sent on a beginners' course in how our country is now governed. For a start, the only way Tony Blair's proposals challenged for a record was not in how many Bills he put forward but how few. When John Major put through only 41 in 1994-95, this was a record low. Through much of the post-war era, 150 to 200 Bills a year were commonplace.

More importantly, most of our legislation no longer needs be discussed by Parliament. It is issued as statutory instruments or ministerial edicts. Since 1990 the number of these has soared, so that they now average 3,400 a year.

Although much of this "secondary legislation" is trivial, it also now includes many of the more onerous and far-reaching laws going on to our statute book, notably the hundreds of regulations required each year to implement legislation from Brussels (even 10 of Blair's new Bills are EU-related). If journalists are troubled by what Anne McElvoy, in the London Evening Standard, called the "juggernaut" of new laws our Government imposes on us, let them first discover how most of these laws are made, and then recognise which "government" is actually imposing them.

Bananas judge

There was understandable uproar over the decision of a district judge, Bruce Morgan in Ludlow, to acquit Pc Mark Milton of a speeding charge for driving his police car at 159mph on the M54. He even criticised the bringing of a prosecution, on the grounds that, as an advanced police driver, of the "crème de la crème", Mr Milton needed to practise driving fast.

Interestingly, this was the same Judge Morgan who, in April 2002, had no hesitation in convicting a Sunderland market trader, Steve Thoburn, of the offence, under EC-inspired law, of selling a "pound of bananas".

To purvey bananas by the pound is a crime, but it is fine for a policeman to exceed our highest speed limit by almost 90 miles an hour. Judge Morgan may have told us more about today's Britain than he realised.