Booker Notebook, Friday, 3rd  August  2001

FMD extract

 

    The real story of why the Brecon Beacons are being brutally cleared of
thousands of healthy sheep has been hidden from view. Rural affairs minister
Elliott Morley, supported by the NFU's President Ben Gill, blithely assure
us that this is necessary to stop the spread of foot-and-mouth, because testing
the sheep has shown that a minority carry "antibodies", indicating that they
are still infectious.


    But an array of veterinary experts, including Professor Fred Brown, the
world's leading authority on foot-and-mouth, are astonished by such claims.
What they point out is that the crude serological tests being carried out on
the sheep show nothing of the kind.  The presence of antibodies merely shows
the animals were exposed to the disease sometime in the past nine months. If
they have recovered, they are now immune and no longer infectious. If Mr
Morley and his friends genuinely wished to identify sheep that were still
infectious, they would use quite different tests, designed to pinpoint the
virus itself.


Thus the official line is transparent nonsense. The real story of what is
happening in the Brecons, as reported in this column two months ago, is that
the UK Government has agreed a behind-the-scenes deal with the European
Commission that, in order for the UK to regain its disease-free trading
status, it will carry out these serological tests on sheep across the
uplands of Britain and,wherever antibodies are found, the animals will be killed.
Only when this operation has been completed, which could take a year or
more, will Brussels consider lifting the ban on British exports. The advantage of
keeping all this unrecorded in any public document is that it might avoid
any repetition of that humiliating saga of the mid-1990s, when John Major was
locked in those endless very public battles with his EU colleagues to
persuade them to lift the BSE export ban on British beef.


 In other words, the mass-slaughter on the hills of South Wales, which is
inflicting such despair on the local community, has nothing whatever to do
with disease control. It is simply the result of yet another murky little
political fix, designed to recover a trading status which could have been
achieved far more quickly, cheaply and humanely by accepting a policy of
vaccination. But men like Mr Morley and Mr Gill are now so entrenched in
their total misunderstanding of this crisis that we can no longer be
surprised when they appear on the media peddling pure fairy tales.


**************

Booker notebook Friday 3rd August 2001


    The Welsh and the Scots seem to be competing to see who can make the
more bizarre shambles of the projects to house their new regional parliaments.
In Cardiff when Richard Rogers, famous as the architect of the #758 million
Dome, was last month sacked over the soaring cost of his design for the
Welsh Assembly building, reminiscent of a canopy over the forecourt of a motorway
service station, the cost of timber alone for his new building had risen
from #200,000 to #1.2 million, that for glazing from #1.2. million to #1.7
million and that for the roof by 200 percent.


    In Edinburgh, MSPs recently voted to lift a ceiling on the cost of  the
equally fanciful Scottish Parliament building, since this had now risen from
its original estimate of #40 million to nearer #250 million. In June, when
the project's manager Alan Ezzi resigned, his #65,000-a-year post was given,
without being advertised, to Sarah Davidson, a 30-year old clerk to one of
the Parliament's committees and formerly private secretary to Mr Blair's new
Scottish Secretary, Helen Liddell.


    The farcical story of the Scottish Parliament project has been termed by
David Black, author of a book called All The First Minister's Men, "the
biggest architectural scam in history".  But this might overlook other
claimants to the title, such as Portcullis House, the notorious new office
block for Westminster MPs across the road from Big Ben. This cost taxpayers
#231 million, or #1.1 million per MP housed, with its famous #150,000
imported Belgian fig trees and  #300,000 reception desk.


    But even these sums pale beside that of refurbishing the European
Commission's old headquarters in Brussels, abandoned nine years ago when it
was found full of asbestos. The cost of this has now risen, amid the usual
allegations of fraud, to #690 million, seven times the original estimate.
Meanwhile nearby stands the gargantuan complex housing the European
Parliament, which at #850 million ranks as the most expensive structure ever
built in Europe.


    Three years ago Thierry Jean-Pierre, a French judge-turned MEP, was
threatening to expose an amazing web of corruption and backstairs deals
behind the construction of this building, erected by a consortium of
Brussels developers at #2,300 per square metre, more than twice the cost of the next
most expensive building in Brussels, the office block for the Council of
Ministers.  But, like so many allegations of corruption in that city, his
investigations seemed to fade away.  The only consistent moral of all these
tales seems to be, the less democracy we have, the greater its cost
becomes.
****************


    The real story of why the Brecon Beacons are being brutally cleared of
thousands of healthy sheep has been hidden from view. Rural affairs minister
Elliott Morley, supported by the NFU's President Ben Gill, blithely assure
us that this is necessary to stop the spread of foot-and-mouth, because testing
the sheep has shown that a minority carry "antibodies", indicating that they
are still infectious.


    But an array of veterinary experts, including Professor Fred Brown, the
world's leading authority on foot-and-mouth, are astonished by such claims.
What they point out is that the crude serological tests being carried out on
the sheep show nothing of the kind.  The presence of antibodies merely shows
the animals were exposed to the disease sometime in the past nine months. If
they have recovered, they are now immune and no longer infectious. If Mr
Morley and his friends genuinely wished to identify sheep that were still
infectious, they would use quite different tests, designed to pinpoint the
virus itself.


Thus the official line is transparent nonsense. The real story of what is
happening in the Brecons, as reported in this column two months ago, is that
the UK Government has agreed a behind-the-scenes deal with the European
Commission that, in order for the UK to regain its disease-free trading
status, it will carry out these serological tests on sheep across the
uplands of Britain and,wherever antibodies are found, the animals will be killed.
Only when this operation has been completed, which could take a year or
more, will Brussels consider lifting the ban on British exports. The advantage of
keeping all this unrecorded in any public document is that it might avoid
any repetition of that humiliating saga of the mid-1990s, when John Major was
locked in those endless very public battles with his EU colleagues to
persuade them to lift the BSE export ban on British beef.


 In other words, the mass-slaughter on the hills of South Wales, which is
inflicting such despair on the local community, has nothing whatever to do
with disease control. It is simply the result of yet another murky little
political fix, designed to recover a trading status which could have been
achieved far more quickly, cheaply and humanely by accepting a policy of
vaccination. But men like Mr Morley and Mr Gill are now so entrenched in
their total misunderstanding of this crisis that we can no longer be
surprised when they appear on the media peddling pure fairy tales.
**************
    When Mike Woolnough, a Norfolk hotelier, arrived at Dover with his
father-in-law in a tiny Fiat Punto, carrying 90 pouches of tobacco and 4000
cigarettes for his mother-in-law, he did not expect to face a two hour
grilling by customs officials who, disbelieving that these were for personal
use, confiscated both goods and car.  Despite the fact that the car belonged
to his mother-in-law, the customs men said she must have known about the
plan
to import the cigarettes illegally and they were therefore entitled to
impound it.
    When this all-too typical story was reported last week, HM Customs
admitted that, in the year since they were given an extra #209 million to
'crack down' on 'illegal'  imports of tobacco and alcohol from the
Continent,
they have confiscated no fewer than 7000 vehicles, or 20 a day, mostly
belonging to travellers who believed they were entitled to bring in such
goods for their own use.  Since normally the only form of appeal against
such
confiscations is to HM Customs and Excise themselves, this would seem to be
yet another breach of the ancient right under Magna Carta,  that the state
cannot confiscate property without either authorisation from a court or
paying compensation.
But even murkier does the story become when one considers the  threat by
Frits Bolkestein, European Commissioner for the 'internal market', that he
may now take the UK Government to court, on the grounds that harrassing
travellers in this way breaches single market law. In fact the relevant
directive, 91/12, relating to the abolition of duty free within the single
market, is typical of the woolly drafting of EU legislation. On one hand, it
specifically allows people to import unlimited quantities of tobacco and
alcohol on which tax has already been paid, so long as this is "for private
use". On the other, it offers guidelines as to what quantities might be
permissible (e.g. 800 cigarettes); and it is these guidelines which the
British Government is now enforcing as if they were law.  In fact when one
victim did manage to have his case heard by Kent magistrates, they upheld
his
claim that 5000 cigarettes were for his personal use.
    The real paradox, of course, is that our Government is caught between
its
support for the single market and its refusal to abandon  the most draconian
excise duties in Europe. It dare not  reduce taxes on tobacco and alcohol,
which still yield #13 billion a year, even though revenue lost through
imports from the continent now amounts to #8 billion or more.  So all that
is
left is to carry on persecuting thousands of innocent people, until Brussels
brings a legal action which could end in the Government being ordered to pay
millions of pounds compensation for vehicles confiscated by its officials in
breach of the law.  What a sad  mess.
*******************
      Readers keep on sending me packaging from imported goods printed with
non-metric weights in breach of EU metrication laws: e.g. a label for La
Joya
asparagus from Granada, clearly labelled "1 Lbr". No mention of any kilo
equivalent. Obviously our continental friends haven't heard of these
compulsory metrication rules and continue to print their labels in pounds,
fondly imagining that Britain is still a free, independent country with its
own system of weights and measures.