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March 26 2006

Christopher Booker's notebook

Organs will still sound despite the law's confusion

Few EU directives have caused more upset in recent times than the one said to threaten the survival of tens of thousands of organs, in cathedrals, churches and concert halls throughout Europe. The suggestion that this law might, in a way it was never intended to, do away with these magnificent musical instruments, which have been at the heart of European culture for centuries, has understandably sent a shock wave across the world.

Yet, astonishingly, it emerges that this furore arises from a basic misunderstanding of the nature of organs, leaving officials and politicians hopelessly at sea in their interpretation of a law that they themselves have framed. The problem began with a Brussels directive, 2002/95 on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS). Among the substances which this bans from use in electrical equipment is lead.

The metal pipes which produce sound in an organ can only be made from a lead-tin alloy. Nothing else will do, to create their incredible range of tones. The air that passes through these pipes (of which there may be many thousands - the Royal Albert Hall's organ, for example, has 9,999) is usually driven by an electrically-powered blower.

As long ago as January 2001, when RoHS, and a companion directive on the disposal of electrical waste, were first under discussion, Douglas Levey of the Institute of British Organ Building (IBO) wrote to the Department of Trade and Industry to make sure that any ban on lead would not apply to the organ pipes themselves, since these are wholly separate from any parts worked by electricity, such as a blower or electronic controls.

He had no answer to his point, and the directive was issued in 2003, followed last autumn by regulations passing it into UK law. It was now vital to everyone in the organ world that the issue should be clarified before the regulations came into force, on July 1 this year; so last month Mr Levey wrote to the European Commission.

But it became obvious that, since none of the officials involved had properly focused on how organs might be affected by the directive, they were unable to give a clear response. The Commission merely advised that the onus for determining whether any "product" is covered by the directive lies with its "producer", as the "person best placed to assess the characteristics of his product".

On this basis the IBO was confident that, though the directive applied to the electrical installations in an organ, it did not apply to the pipes. To identify them as "electrical equipment" would be as absurd as to claim that, if a building is fitted with air conditioning, then the whole structure should be considered as an electric device. But however clear this has seemed to legal and other experts, it has so far been too much for politicians or officials to grasp. When a DTI minister, Alun Michael, was challenged in the Commons last week, he could only suggest that the organ builders should apply for an "exemption" from the law.

As the IBO explains on its website (, this wholly misses the point. First, it implies that organ pipes are covered by the directive (otherwise there would be no need for an exemption). Second, such exemptions are only temporary, so that, in a few years' time, the whole case would have to be argued again.

That is why on Tuesday, following the Commission's advice and with growing support from across the musical world, the IBO will visit the DTI to insist that there must no longer be any confusion about this matter: the directive is irrelevant to organ pipes.

Ultimately the only authority that could gainsay this is the European Court of Justice, the final arbiter on the meaning of EU law. And the possibility that the ECJ might interpret the directive in a way that would force the eventual removal of the organs from the cathedrals, churches and concert halls of Europe, and expose the EU to the ridicule of the entire civilised world, must be unthinkable.

From one end of the land to the other, Prescott's Code is a blight on democracy

A recurrent theme of the many letters I have had on the havoc being inflicted on local councils by John Prescott's Code of Conduct is how this appears to encourage a system of double standards. It is often used to exclude from debates councillors who oppose official policy, because this supposedly gives them a "prejudicial interest", but members supporting their council's ruling establishment seem curiously immune.

When the North-East Regional Assembly earmarked the ward represented on Derwentside council by John Pickersgill as suitable for more wind turbines, he organised a local referendum. The area already has six turbines. Faced with the prospect of 17 more, more than 80 per cent of the residents voted - and more than 80 per cent were opposed.

When Councillor Pickersgill tried to raise this in a debate on the assembly's regional planning strategy, he was excluded from the room as having a "prejudicial interest". However, it was deemed quite acceptable for the council's leader, Alex Watson, to speak in favour of the assembly's policy, even though he did not think it necessary to declare that he was himself also the assembly's chairman.

When Mr Pickersgill raised this with the council's "monitoring officer", he was told that the leader had done nothing wrong - which seemed so bizarre that he reported the case to the Standards Board for England. An independent inquiry ruled that Councillor Watson was in breach of the Code of Conduct after all. But Mr Pickersgill has become so disillusioned by the demoralising effect of the code on the council that he has now resigned.

In South Cambridgeshire, eyebrows were raised recently when one prominent councillor failed to declare prejudicial interest or to leave the room during interviews with representatives of five charities funded by the council - even though she is chairman of one of the charities. The monitoring officer ruled that a complaint to the Standards Board would be "inappropriate" - though no fewer than 11 complaints are currently lodged against other councillors.

From Dorset, Richard Thomas - a town councillor in Shaftesbury known for frank criticism of the council's establishment - asks whether having had 10 complaints about him lodged with the Standards Board by fellow councillors constitutes a record. One investigation, which cost in the region of 20-30,000, was eventually found to be based on a false allegation. All 10 complaints were eventually rejected or dropped. Whether or not Mr Thomas holds the record, I hear similar stories from all over England.

A little illegal propaganda

In schools all over Britain pupils aged 10 and upwards have been invited to take part in a competitition, sponsored by the Department for Education and Skills and the European Commission, to design a poster celebrating "the importance of European integration" and the part played by the European Charter of Fundamental Rights in protecting the "rights of children".

The prize, organised by a mysterious body called the British Youth Council, will be a trip to Brussels and a day-long tour on the "themes of the European Union and justice, freedom and security", including lunch with a Commission vice-president.

One odd thing is that the Charter is part of the EU Constitution, which has as yet no legal force. Another, as the Democracy Movement points out, is that the competition is in breach of the 1996 Education Act, which forbids the promotion in our schools of "partisan views on any subject".

But since enforcement of this law is in the hands of the DfES, the competition's sponsors, it seems unlikely that much enforcement will follow. I trust the second prize will be a whole week in Brussels.