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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 02/02/2003)

Defra fights dirty with anti-cull campaigner
Beware the 'supercentre'
EU gives aid to destroy the Bushmen
How to help the Maltese say no

Defra fights dirty with anti-cull campaigner

This week bailiffs acting for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will enter a family home in Montgomeryshire to remove a toy jeep and quad bike, the prized possessions of a 12-year old boy, in pursuit of a claim for #17,000 in legal costs against his mother.

During the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, Janet Hughes, an environmental sciences teacher, spent her life savings in a bid to have the cull of 10,000 healthy sheep on the Brecon Beacons declared illegal. When her case was dismissed last year, Defra announced it would pursue her for its costs.

Last week, when Defra's bailiffs arrived at the house in the village of Churchstoke, they listed her son Matthew's toys on their seizure notice, and this week will return to remove them, along with the family car and most of the contents of her home.

Two years ago, having grown up in a farming family, Janet Hughes became increasingly disturbed at the mass killing of healthy sheep around her village. In June 2001, when the Welsh Assembly began a "contiguous cull" of thousands of sheep on the Brecon Beacons, she was surprised at the lack of opposition from local farmers, persuaded to acquiesce in the slaughter of their animals by compensation way above their market value.

Having bought 10 Brecon sheep to establish her legal involvement, she spent her #11,500 savings and #10,000 from members of the public in applying for judicial review of the policy.

She argued that the Assembly had no power to carry out a "contiguous cull", since the 1981 Animal Health Act only authorised the killing of animals that had been infected or directly exposed to infection.

Having exhausted her funds, she continued on her own until, in January 2002, Lord Justice Latham dismissed her case in the Appeal Court by ruling that, if a minister believed there was a reason for the contiguous cull policy, the courts must accept his opinion.

By now the Assembly's case had been taken over by Defra, desperate to uphold the legality of its contiguous cull policy - the killing of animals just because they were within a few kilometres of infection - despite a High Court ruling in the "Grunty the pig" case that the ministry was not empowered to carry out "blanket slaughter".

It was Defra's legal department that insisted, following Latham's ruling, that Miss Hughes must pay the ministry's #17,000 costs, even though it was not against Defra she had brought her case.

After months of silence, Miss Hughes was last week astonished to have a visit from the bailiffs, combing her house for goods they intended to seize.

Her son has fully supported his mother's battle, but what no one could have anticipated was that the bailiffs would be entitled to remove his prized toys, the jeep and quad bike worth #600, on the grounds that, as a child, his possessions were not his property but his mother's.

The same day Defra announced that, under a new European Union law, pig keepers must provide their pigs with toys to keep them happy. But Matthew must lose his toys because of his mother's love of animals. Doubtless Defra will give them to the pigs.

Beware the 'supercentre'

Last Wednesday, despite the most determined campaign by any community in Britain to keep its post office, the villagers of Chesham Bois on the edge of Amersham in Buckinghamshire lost the sub post office in their village shop which was the centre of village life.

Some 80 local people holding candles sat in silence as the shutter was slammed down for the last time. They now fear they may lose their shop as well.

What has baffled the campaigners, led by their diminutive Conservative councillor Mimi Harker, has been the Post Office's insistence that its branch must close, despite the fact that it has run at a hefty profit. Its closure is in direct breach of the Post Office's own Code of Practice.

It gives the lie to the claim by Stephen Timms, the post office minister, that post offices will only close when no one is prepared to take them on. The shop's owner, Maggie Joyce, applied to take on the job of postmistress but was told, falsely, that the Post Office is no longer training new applicants.

Having taken their battle as far as a demonstration outside Downing Street and a House of Commons debate, the campaigners only learned last week what may lie behind this decision, which will force hundreds of villagers to trek up to a mile to much less friendly post offices in Amersham.

According to a Post Office mole, the plan is to close hundreds more branches like that in Chesham Bois and to replace them with new post office "supercentres" in supermarkets. It seems those millions of pounds given by supermarket chiefs to the Labour Party have not been paid in vain.

EU gives aid to destroy the Bushmen

There has been a vicious twist to the tragic saga of the Botswana government's forcible expulsion of the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

The EU, which previously threatened to withdraw 14 million euros of funding from a management plan for the reserve, has now, in a complete U-turn, thrown its support behind a policy branded round the world as racial persecution, even genocide.

Since Botswana announced its expulsion policy in 1996, it has attracted intense international criticism, including from the US government and the UN. The game reserve was originally set up by the British Government in 1961 to give the long-persecuted Bushmen a safe haven.

But Botswana's Bantu ruling elite, who regard the Bushmen as "sub-humans", have used every means, from cutting off water supplies to torture, to force the Bushmen into a "resettlement camp" at New Xhade, which they call "the place of death". Although no one can now enter the reserve without a permit, several dozen Bushmen have in recent months managed to return to their homes.

If those from New Xhade wish to visit their old homes legally, they must make a three-hour journey to Ghansi, where they may have to wait two weeks for a permit for a brief stay. It is a criminal offence for them to take food or water for those still in the reserve.

In August 2001 Gunnar Ring, head of the European Commission's delegation to Botswana, warned the responsible minister that cutting off water supplies was in direct breach of the terms of the EU-funded management plan, and that, unless this ceased, the EU would halt its payments.

But in a letter to Stephen Corry, head of Survival International, which has done much to bring the Bushmen's plight to world attention, Mr Ring's successor Claudia Wiedey now says the expulsions are acceptable to the EU, because the Bushmen are no longer hunter-gatherers but engaged in "settled agricultural activities" considered "incompatible with the regulations on National Parks and Game Reserves". It has been made a criminal offence for the Bushmen to catch game.

Their "agriculture" consists of growing tiny patches of watermelons and keeping a few goats for milk. On these obscenely flimsy grounds, it seems the EU is now quite happy to see the extinction of the Bushman culture, in a way which, according to an academic paper by Dr Mark Levene of Southampton University, meets the accepted definition of "genocide".

How to help the Maltese say no

It has now been confirmed that, on March 8, Malta will be the first of 10 applicant countries to give its people a referendum vote on entry into the EU.

As I reported last week, despite Brussels pouring millions of euros into the island to get a "yes" vote, the tide of anti-EU feeling, centred on the opposition Labour Party, is so strong that even the EU's enlargement commissioner, Gunter Verheugen, concedes that it may win the day. A recent Labour Party rally drew more than a seventh of the island's population, equivalent in British terms to eight million people.

Readers have asked how they can help. A live-wire of the campaign is Sharon Ellul Bonici, who recently launched a youth-orientated "No2EU" movement alongside the Labour Party, for whom she is likely to become an MP at the next election.

Cheques to "No2EU" can go to 44, Censu-Busuttil Street, Fgura, PLA15, Malta. Offers of direct help by those willing to visit Malta are being co-ordinated via the office of Nigel Farage MEP on 01903 885573 (in working hours).