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Christopher Booker's notebook


(Filed: 02/04/2006)


The EU allows it, but UK officials ban organ-building
Let's hear it for South Hams
Defra sits on farmers' cash
Dial 118 for confusion

The EU allows it, but UK officials ban organ-building

Two incidents last week revealed the deepening confusion over who now has the
power to make laws in Britain.

In the first, UK officials claimed that they could use an EU directive to
threaten the survival of an important British industry, even though the
commissioner who framed the directive has categorically stated that it allows
them to do nothing of the kind.

In the second, a British minister told MPs that he could not introduce a
simple road safety measure which might save hundreds of lives because under
EU law this would be illegal.

On Tuesday, as announced in last week's column, the Institute of British Organ
Builders (IBO) called on the Department of Trade and Industry to insist that
the lead-alloy pipes which are an essential part of organs are not covered by
an EU directive banning the use of lead in "electrical equipment" from July 1
this year.

The suggestion that this might prohibit organ-building - an industry in which
Britain is a world leader - aroused such anger that the European Commission's
vice-president, Margot Wallstrom, went out of her way to quell the rumours.

Addressing the European Parliament, she said: "I am very happy to have the
opportunity to tell all the people in the UK that church organ pipes are not
covered by the directive… You can fill all your churches with as many leaded
pipes as you want. Just make sure that now and then the poor people in the UK
hear the truth, as they rarely receive correct information. You can rest
absolutely assured that the directive does not cover church organ pipes."

Even though Ms Wallstrom was originally responsible for putting the directive
into law, her assurances meant nothing to the DTI officials who met the IBO
on Tuesday.

They conceded that lead could be used for repairing pipes after July 1, but
when it came to new organs, their understanding was that these must be
treated as "electrical equipment". Lead will be banned, even though pipe
organs cannot be built without it.

The same day, in the Commons, a Labour MP, Dr Brian Iddon, supported by the
Tory shadow transport minister, Owen Paterson, moved that Britain should
adopt a safety measure which has been shown to prevent thousands of road
accidents.

Each year, hundreds of motorists collide with lorries in the dark because they
cannot see them properly. Many die. Yet studies show that fitting lorries
with reflective strips, which make them instantly visible, can reduce such
accidents by 95 per cent.

MPs were amazed to hear Stephen Ladyman, the transport minister, admit that,
however desirable it might be to make such strips compulsory, Parliament
could not do so because it had ceded the power to make such laws to Brussels,
and "our European Union partners would certainly object".

We must wait for the EU to legislate, which would not be before 2011.

What makes this even odder is that when Italy introduced such a law in 2003,
Brussels raised no objection. But since there is now such confusion as to who
governs us, is it surprising we are governed so badly?

Let's hear it for South Hams

At last one group of councillors has had the courage to rise in revolt against
the way our local democracy is being destroyed by John Prescott's Code of
Conduct for councillors, enforced by council "monitoring officers" and the
Standards Board for England.

Last Thursday, Trevor Pennington, a Conservative member of South Hams council
in Devon, proposed a motion that encompassed almost every aspect of
this "reign of terror" on which I have recently been reporting.

Councillor Pennington began by inviting his colleagues to deplore the code and
the entire system imposed by Mr Prescott's Local Government Act 2000.

In particular, he identified the "pernicious" principle of "prejudicial
interest", which "makes it an offence for an elected councillor to represent
the views of his constituents" in any instance where the councillor has
already declared a view before the meeting, even though this may have been
why he or she was elected.

The motion went on to point out how Mr Prescott's new system is poisoning
local democracy and ruining councillors' lives by encouraging a plethora
of "malicious, vexatious and ill-informed complaints".

It deplored the conferring of arbitrary powers on unelected officials such
as "over-zealous monitoring officers", and called on Mr Prescott to review
the entire system.

In particular, the motion asked him to abolish the offence of "prejudicial
interest", which prevents councillors from exercising their democratic
rights.

Despite a plea from the council's monitoring officer that the motion should be
watered down, it was overwhelmingly carried, by 29 votes to four. All the
Conservative and Labour members voted for it. Only the Lib Dems voted against
or abstained.

Recalling the words of Bishop Latimer, "We shall this day light such a candle
in England as I trust by God's grace shall never be put out", I trust that
councillors across the land will be inspired to follow South Hams's shining
example.

Defra sits on farmers' cash

The Rural Payments Agency has made such a shambles of handing out EU
subsidies - worth more than £1 billion - to English farmers that the agency's
Northallerton office has had to recruit dozens of sixth-formers from the
local comprehensive to come in, between six and nine each evening, to help
sort out the mess.

This is easily the worst administrative fiasco the Government has created in
farming since the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001. Farmers submitted their
application forms, under the EU's new Single Farm Payment scheme, 11 months
ago.

However, thanks to the unique complexities of the system devised for England
by Margaret Beckett, and the collapse of the computer system devised by
Accenture (the same company that is responsible for the chaos engulfing a £6
billion computer system for the NHS), the Department for Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs has sitting on the money for months.

Meanwhile farmers hav been paying an additional £13 million a month in
interest on what they borrow to make up the shortfall.

When it became obvious that payments may not be forthcoming until midsummer,
Mrs Beckett suspended Johnston McNeill as head of the RPA (he continues to
draw his £160,000 a year salary). Meanwhile, the real architect of this
disaster, Mrs Beckett herself, remains unscathed.

Dial 118 for confusion

Yet another official report slams the chaos that has engulfed our directory
enquiries system since 192 was replaced by 200-odd "non-services" using 118.

The public, according to the regulator Ofcom, are angry, confused and have
given up on the costly new services in their millions. What no one identifies
is the cause of this debacle. The Daily Mail blames it merely on "the
quangocracy that now rules Britain".

As I explained in 2002, what drove this change was a Brussels directive
ordering the break-up of monopolies in directory services, with a
recommendation that all services which replaced them should have a 118
prefix.

When this was denied by both Oftel and the European Commission in London, I
had to point out that, in happier times, such denials would have been
called "lies".

On this occasion, I simply point out to my friends at the Daily Mail that the
European Union is not a "quasi non-governmental organisation". In many ways
it is now our government and, until people develop a rather more grown-up
appreciation of that fact, we can expect similar disasters ad nauseam.

Fortunately, thanks to the internet, this one can be avoided, since both BT
(bt.com) and ukphonebook.com provide an efficient directory service free of
charge.