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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 29/06/2003)

Why must we import our own mussels?
Britain bears the brunt of 'new' CAP
Regions of unreason
The heavy hand of Harman

Why must we import our own mussels from the continent?

When Kim Mould, Britain's largest mussel producer, brings the world's largest mussel dredger into Bangor harbour, north Wales, there are Dutch and French trucks waiting for him on the quayside, ready to rush his catch back to their home countries. Thanks to the uniquely crude testing system used by Sir John Krebs's Food Standards Agency to enforce European Union rules, Mr Mould cannot sell his mussels in Britain because the FSA tests show the waters they come from to be polluted. But as soon as they have been processed in Holland or France, which use more sophisticated testing procedures, the mussels can quite safely and legally be shipped back to Britain, reclassified under EU rules as "Dutch" or "French", and sold in supermarkets as top quality.

If such an absurdly roundabout system were not made necessary by the FSA's unscientific testing methods, operated by a government laboratory in Weymouth, Mr Mould could process 10,000 tons of mussels a year in his own modern purification plant now standing idle in Bangor. This would employ 60 more people and bring millions of pounds into the Welsh economy. As it is, the Dutch and French processors, for doing the same job, can sell the mussels back to Britain at four times the price he receives for them on the quayside.

This bizarre anomaly has arisen because the FSA insists on its laboratory at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) classifying English and Welsh shellfish waters by means of a sampling method known as MPN (most probable number). This is statistically so unreliable that it has resulted in less than 3 per cent of British waters being given the "Class A" status required by supermarkets; whereas, thanks to more scientific testing procedures used by other countries, an "A" rating under EU rules has been given to all Dutch waters, 50 per cent of Ireland's and 38 per cent of France's.

As Dr Peter Hunt of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain points out, in recent years Britain has spent more than £5 billion, directly or indirectly, on purifying shellfish waters around its shores, making them as clean as any in Europe. Yet, thanks to the FSA's testing system, a significant part of Britain's shellfish industry - generating half the total earnings of our fisheries - has been brought to its knees.

In a Commons debate last month, Richard Younger-Ross, the Liberal Democrat MP for Teignbridge in south Devon, reported how the mussel and oyster industry in his constituency, until recently employing 40 people, has been all but wiped out. For several years the industry has been vainly pleading with Sir John Krebs, and ministers such as Elliot Morley, to adopt more modern testing procedures, with no more response than some sympathetic noises.

The damage inflicted on the mussel industry follows on the even more scandalous own goal I reported last week, whereby Cefas's use of a controversial testing procedure involving the injection of mice has now virtually closed down the cockle industry, putting 3,000 people out of work. Last week the Home Office banned the National Reference Laboratory in Aberdeen from using the Cefas mouse test on animal welfare grounds, after the laboratory had repeatedly come up with wholly contradictory results.

On the Thames estuary, where 200 people have been put out of work, the cockle fishermen intend openly to defy the ban, in the hope of getting the FSA's procedures tested in the courts. The evidence they will produce from an array of scientists is said to be "devastating".

Britain bears the brunt of 'new' CAP

Rarely has there been such a triumph for the Brussels and Whitehall spin-doctors as the reporting of last week's "reform" of the Common Agricultural Policy. Examine the small print and almost every headline claim - that it was a "victory for Britain", "good for the environment and consumers" or "good news for the Third World" - turns out the reverse of the truth. For British farmers in particular, the reform - which leaves the overall spending of £30 billion a year on the CAP untouched - will be a disaster.

This is thanks to the peculiar way in which Mrs Beckett and her colleagues interpret the "rural development fund", now to absorb most of the CAP budget, as a way to divert money away from farmers and towards a useless army of consultants, officials and quangoes. British farmers will end up receiving less, in return for more "cross-compliance" red tape. French farmers, in whose interests the CAP was originally drawn up in the 1960s and who have always received more than any others in the EU, will keep almost all that they get now.

The net effect will be similar to that of the Common Fisheries Policy, designed to wipe out Britain's fisheries and make room for the Spanish fleet in UK waters. The "new CAP" will drastically reduce British food production, to create an even greater market for French farm surpluses.

The real time-bomb, which somehow escaped mention last week, follows from the fact that when the EU enlarges next year to take in Poland and other eastern European countries, even the limited farm subsidies they are allowed will leave a shortfall on the CAP budget of £3 billion a year. Conveniently, that happens to be just the sum the EU would save if, as indicated at recent meetings of its budget control committee, it abolishes the UK's £3 billion a year budget rebate.

Perhaps Mrs Beckett should explain to Gordon Brown that he will shortly have to find another £3 billion a year to pay for those east European farmers. He will not be best pleased.

Regions of unreason

At the unadvertised annual general meeting of the unelected North-East Assembly last Wednesday, Tony Flynn, the leader of Newcastle council, resigned as chairman. This was a remarkable victory for the doughty Neil Herron in his battle to expose the unlawful way in which the NEA was using taxpayers' money to campaign for an elected assembly.

The departure of Mr Flynn, however, seems only a token gesture to acknowledge the district auditor's judgment that the NEA was in breach of the Local Government Act. As the only outsider at the meeting, Mr Herron confirms that the NEA is as committed as ever to fulfilling John Prescott's desire for a "yes" vote in the forthcoming referendum on an elected regional government.

Wednesday's guest speaker was Janet Ryder of Plaid Cymru, who expatiated for 45 minutes on the benefits an elected assembly has brought to the Welsh Euro-region. She failed to mention that since the Welsh Assembly was set up another 1,300 officials have been added to the payroll, costs have soared from £75 million to £125 million and the Welsh are so grateful that, at last month's elections, fewer than two in five of them bothered to vote.

The heavy hand of Harman

Anyone who wonders why the topic of a regulatory system gone off the rails should recur so frequently in this column might study the contribution to last week's Letters page from Sir John Harman, the head of the Environment Agency. He was defending the conduct of his officials towards Geoff Bean, the Yorkshire farmer who was treated like a criminal for having recycled a pile of builder's rubble to resurface his farm tracks.

Sir John sought to make readers' flesh creep by alleging that the site that the rubble came from contained acquired, as the demolition firm confirmed last week, was tarmac and concrete suitable for his hardcore. Sir John was not only thus guilty of misleading our readers, he also failed to explain why his agency's first approach to Mr Bean had not been to investigate the facts but to threaten him with interrogation under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

What I ask for is not, as Sir John claimed, a world free of regulations and officials. It is a world in which officials behave like grown-ups and regulations are directed at real problems rather than at figments of fevered bureaucratic fantasy. I am afraid that he himself fails on both counts.