Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 18/05/2003)

Waste laws will cost UK firms #6bn a year
Britain's most expensive myth
Sharp Ms Short will be missed
Nelson battles on

Waste laws will cost UK firms #6bn a year

Linn, the company launched in 1972 to manufacture superior hi-fi equipment, is one of the success stories of British industry. Founded by Ivor Tiefenbrun, the son of an Austrian refugee, Linn now employs 300 people in a factory designed by Richard Rogers in the countryside south of Glasgow, and has become a world-class supplier of sound systems, for everything from home entertainment to luxury yachts. But Mr Tiefenbrun is an angry man: so angry that he recently wrote a blistering letter to Brian Wilson, the minister for energy and construction at the Department of Trade and Industry.

What specifically draws his ire is the "farce" of "consultation", that ubiquitous feature of modern government, whereby bureaucrats in Brussels and Whitehall, bent on introducing some crazily unworkable item of legislation, go through the pretence of conferring with the industry they are regulating, when they have no intention of listening to a word that is said, and then deliver precisely the proposal they first thought of.

Next year, thousands of firms will become subject to an edict from Brussels known as "WEEE", the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive. Its purpose is to promote the collection, recycling and disposal of every conceivable type of disused electrical product, from batteries and computers to vacuum cleaners and washing machines. The intention appears admirable, but the method that the EU has chosen to achieve it is to remove all such items from the existing waste disposal system and place all responsibility for them on the industry.

The EU's manufacturers are expected to organise and pay for an immensely complex system to collect and dispose of all such electrical products, even those that have been imported or that were made by firms no longer in business. Existing firms will therefore have to pay a colossal levy, amounting to more than #6 billion a year in the UK alone, to dispose of millions of items, many of which they never made in the first place.

Mr Tiefenbrun, who bases his firm on the philosophy that the best way to prevent products polluting the environment is to make them to such a standard that they will last for decades, does not object to the directive's intentions. What irks him is the utopianism that imagines that, if you place all the onus for disposal on the makers of goods rather than on those who own and use them, such a system can possibly work.

The supporters of WEEE self-righteously explain that it is based on the principle that "the polluter must pay", without recognising that the only way such a mammoth bill can be paid is by passing it on to customers in higher prices, often to dispose of goods imported from other parts of the world. Electronics manufacturers in the Far East are delighted by the present the EU is about to give them, as are the makers of mobile phones, whose products, thanks to deft lobbying, are excluded from the directive.

For years Mr Tiefenbrun and others in his industry have watched this legislation emerging, and have expended untold effort on proposals as to how its intentions might be more practically achieved - to no effect whatever. Civil servants have even privately admitted to him that, once legislation has been drafted, "consultation" is just a charade. But now Mr Wilson at the DTI has written to UK manufacturers to announce further "consultation" on how the regulations can be implemented.

Mr Tiefenbrun's response was to point out that, since the issue has been decided already, "this kind of spin is simply nauseating" to those who realise that the "cumulative impact" of such legislation can only result in the collapse of UK manufacturing, "engineered by numpties who have no understanding of the issues involved".

Britain's most expensive myth

Everyone knows that the claimed link between BSE and the singularly unpleasant disease "new variant CJD" set off the greatest and most expensive food scare in history. In the days that followed the health minister Stephen Dorrell's fateful announcement in March 1996, predictions of deaths from eating beef ranged from 500,000 by the government's chief BSE scientist, John Patteson, to many millions (The Observer).

With very few exceptions (this column being one), the media unquestioningly accepted thatthere was such a link. As one result, #3 billion of public money was spent on incinerating elderly cows. The costs to industry and the UK economy, not least from a consequent thicket of further regulations, have been many times that, and are still continuing.

The chief reason for doubting a link between beef and CJD lay in the epidemiological evidence, which even in 1996 suggested that the promised epidemic was a fantasy. Over the past seven years, as the incidence curve has begun a steady fall, that has seemed ever more certain. Now, after reviewing the evidence, Professor Roy Anderson and his Imperial College team have published a revised estimate of the total number of victims likely to die of vCJD in the future (link available through www.warmwell.com). Their figure? Not 400,000, or 40,000, just 40.

As Britain's farming and food industry grapples with the latest regulatory insanity inspired by the BSE scare, the EU Animal By-Products Regulation that is predicted to drain billions more pounds from the UK economy, it is clearer than ever that Mr Dorrell's monumentally foolish statement in 1996 was the most costly blunder ever perpetrated by a British minister.

Sharp Ms Short will be missed

One refreshing trait of Clare Short's was that she was the only minister in recent times prepared to speak her mind about the realities of Britain's involvement with the system of government known as the European Union.

When she took the job of Secretary of State for International Development in 1997, she was shocked to discover that a third of Britain's #2 billion annual overseas aid budget had to be spent on projects run very badly and corruptly by Brussels. Nearly a fifth of the EU's aid budget came from some #700 million a year of UK taxpayers' money, being spent not on the world's genuinely poor countries but on richer countries nearer to the EU, for "political" rather than altruistic reasons.

When Ms Short gave evidence to a Commons Select Committee in 2000, she described the European Commission as "the worst development agency in the world. The poor quality and reputation of its aid brings Europe into disrepute." She singled out specific examples, such as the need to get 40 separate signatures before a contract could be changed, as "a monstrous Kafka novel of disgraceful administration".

Ms Short described how the EU's aid commissioner, Chris Patten, tried to blame national governments for the fiasco of an EU emergency relief programme after a Central American hurricane disaster, and had no hesitation in saying that, when she looked into it, this turned out to be "false" and yet another example of "completely malfunctioning bureaucracy". Compared with ministers such as Peter Hain, who is happy to whitewash the EU's bid for a full-fledged constitution as no more than "tidying up", one has to say that Ms Short will be missed.

Nelson battles on

There is good news from the Lancashire town of Nelson where, as I reported on April 6, an admirably united English and Asian community has been trying to fight Pendle borough council's plan to bulldoze 400 19th-century terrace houses, as part of a huge "renewal plan". This appears to have the backing of John Prescott, as part of his "Pathfinder" policy to redevelop large tracts of the old industrial North. When an inspector rejected the Whitefield scheme, which involves 1,700 homes altogether, Mr Prescott told him to re-open his inquiry.

The community's battle to save their homes from being compulsorily purchased and demolished is backed by a galaxy of conservation bodies, from the Heritage Trust for the North-West to the Prince of Wales's Foundation, which support an alternative scheme whereby the houses could be restored. My article has since been followed up by other newspapers, and Newsnight is to report on the battle this week, probably tomorrow.

More importantly, however, control of the council in the recent elections passed from Labour to the Lib Dems, who oppose the scheme. It seems that the prayers of campaign leaders like Jamila Khan, whom I featured in my first report, may now be answered.