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Christopher Booker's notebook

When it comes to defence, it seems there is no Opposition

As the Tories gather in Blackpool for their latest bout of introversion, it is salutary to recall that we taxpayers hand over 40 million a year to them to act on our behalf as Her Majesty's Opposition. Thirty-six million of this represents the pay and expenses of their 197 MPs. The other 4 million is "Short money", paid to help them do their job of opposing the Government more effectively.

The question this inevitably raises was answered in one way by Garland's cartoon in Friday's Daily Telegraph. This showed a weary Michael Howard handing on a large flag labelled "HM Opposition" to Walter Wolfgang, the elderly heckler evicted from the Labour conference, while his colleagues squabble like children in the background, apparently too preoccupied with who should play leader to worry about the work they are paid for.

A more fundamental way to answer the question might centre on the extraordinary revelations recently unfolded in this column of how the Government is signing away astronomic sums of public money on a series of dubious defence contracts, in furtherance of its stealthy attempt to integrate the European Union's defence efforts.

By any measure, this is a huge story, involving a massive gamble with Britain's Armed Forces, the potential waste of tens of billions of pounds, elaborate Government deceit, and an end to this country's "special relationship" with the United States. It should also be prompting a very serious national debate as to just what the Armed Forces are now for.

There was a time when defence was a core concern to the Conservative Party. But one reason why these revelations have not aroused greater public attention is that the Tories seem not to have got to square one in appreciating what the Government is up to. In response to concerned party members, the Tory defence spokesman, Michael Ancram, has shown no grasp of how desperately skewed the Government's procurement programme has become towards "buying European"; nor of how the technicalities of modern electronic, satellite-based warfare are going to make it increasingly difficult for us to fight alongside the Americans as allies.

When a junior defence minister last summer revealed that the cost of the Army's Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) programme had soared from 6 billion to 14 billion, easily the British Army's most expensive-ever procurement project, this was in response to a lone Tory backbencher, Ann Winterton. FRES grew out of what was originally a joint project with the US, which we abandoned in favour of our new "Europe-first" policy. Only last week it was announced that the US may now be scrapping further development of the project because technically it is proving too complex. We are thus faced with the prospect of spending 14 billion on a project which doesn't work. Yet the Tory front bench remains silent.

When another Tory MP, Sir Patrick Cormack, was asked by a constituent to raise with the Government some of the points raised by this column, he sent on without comment a reply from Lord Drayson, the procurement minister, so breathtakingly disingenuous that one wonders whether the noble lord has any idea of what he is talking about. (He claims, for instance, that the EU has no plans to set up a European Rapid Reaction Force, as Mr Blair agreed to do at Cologne and Helsinki in 1999.)

The facts of this "secret realignment" of UK defence policy have been set out in exhaustive detail in a paper, The Wrong Side of the Hill, by my colleague Dr Richard North, soon to be published by the Centre for Policy Studies. Once this meticulously documented paper is in the public domain, we shall see from the Conservative Party's response whether it is prepared to earn some of that 40 million - or whether it is too engrossed in its leadership contest to care.

A dangerous level of asbestos inexpertise

The "great asbestos scam" continues, not least thanks to glaring inadequacies in a nationwide "training scheme" for surveyors, which leaves many none the wiser as to how properly to assess risks.

The Yorkshire Evening Post has recently run a series of front-page stories about the discovery of "deadly asbestos" on the site of a demolished Leeds hospital. After a surveyor's report, a contractor offered to remove the "killer dust" at a cost of 200,000. Fortunately for the site's owners, they called in Asbestos Watchdog. This body, run by a genuine asbestos expert, John Bridle, was set up following this column's exposure of how many surveyors and contractors are exploiting the confusion over the dangers of asbestos, and it has saved our readers millions of pounds.

An inspection of the site by Mr Bridle, who is now working closely with the Health and Safety Executive, found that the minute quantities of crushed white asbestos cement posed no risk to health, and could be safely disposed of, with the full approval of local environmental officials, thus saving 200,000.

In Torbay, the owners of a bowling alley were told by a surveyor that he had found "dangerous levels of asbestos" in the roof, which would cost 85,000 to remove (plus the cost of a new roof). They called in Asbestos Watchdog, and Mr Bridle found "no measurable amounts of asbestos". The surveyor then summoned an environmental health officer - who had recently attended a seminar given by Mr Bridle. He was sastisfied that the tiny amounts of asbestos on the site posed no risk, and the owners were saved more than 100,000.

Over the past year or two, Asbestos Watchdog has seen hundreds of cases where owners or managers of property, including many churches, have been told by surveyors that, under the new regulations, they must have asbestos removed at astronomic cost. In the vast majority of cases, expert inspection showed that the surveyors had seriously misrepresented the situation.

Most of these surveyors held a "P402" as their only qualification in asbestos, showing that they had been on a course given by the British Occupational Hygiene Society (formerly the British Institute of Occupational Hygiene). Though it sounds like an official body, the BOHS is in fact a private company, registered as a charity, run by a staff of 11 in Derby.

The courses, taken by 5,000 surveyors a year at 400 a time, offer no more than an introduction to the inspection procedures laid down by the HSE in a document called MDHS100. When I asked the BOHS last week whether it had any resident experts in asbestos, and what were their qualifications, it replied that its "proficiency modules in asbestos-related subjects were all developed in direct consultation with the HSE". In fact, as senior HSE officials confirm, the BOHS is in no way accredited by the HSE. The only connection is that its courses are based on an HSE document.

The BOHS became so alarmed a while back by Asbestos Watchdog's questioning of advice given by P402 "qualified" surveyors that it instigated a trading standards prosecution against Mr Bridle, for having included P402 among his qualifications on a letterhead. Having taken the course, which is run by a separate training organisation, and been told that he could cite his "P402", he was then told by BOHS that, as a "sole trader", he was not eligible to qualify.

The judge dismissed most charges, but found Mr Bridle guilty of the minor technical offence of using "P402" on a single letter (to the BOHS). Since then the BOHS has lost no opportunity to publicise his conviction. The HSE, well aware of Mr Bridle's expertise, knows better, and now fully supports what Asbestos Watchdog is doing.

Any reader concerned at advice they are given by surveyors holding a P402 and wanting a second opinion should contact www.asbestoswatchdog.co.uk.

EU places illicit ads for itself

The European Parliament is, as it likes to insist, "a rules-based organisation", so its office in London was quick to comply last week when, following a complaint by the UK Independence Party, it was told to haul down the large EU flag hanging outside its Westminster premises as being in breach of planning law.

This followed a similar retreat by Wear Valley council in the North-East, which had been proudly flying the blue and gold "ring of stars" outside its offices, to honour the fact that its leader, Olive Brown, is a member of the EU's Committee of the Regions.

On the advice of the North-East campaigner Neil Herron, a local resident, Jim Tague, pointed out to the council that, under the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulation 1992, the EU flag is classified as "an outdoor advertisement" and requires planning permission. Wear Valley was thus forced to remove the flag. The parliament has now followed suit.

If similar actions are taken across the country, doubtless few will be more upset than Kenneth Clarke who, despite his efforts to downplay the "Europe" issue, is still a vice-president of the European Movement. This Brussels-funded lobby group urges the flying of the EU flag as widely as possible because, as it claims on its website, it "advertises the Union as a benevolent, familiar aspect of our country's identity".

Alas, the website does not advise Europhiles that this may be illegal, and that to display their "advertisement" without planning permission is viewed in planning law as no different from putting up a hoarding for Coca-Cola.