Booker's Notebook 30 August

When a month ago Paul Clark read in a local newspaper that on September 9 the Highways Agency planned to close the A36 across Limpley Stoke viaduct south of Bath for 12 weeks, to carry out subsidence work, he was horrified. Mr Clark's Bath Furniture Mill, a warehouse complex full of beds, sofas and tables in a beautiful wooded valley next to the viaduct, is totally dependent on road access. Closing it for three months would cost his business well over£1 million.

When he first contacted the Highways Agency they did not seem to have thought of the disaster this would mean for his business or two others next door, selling carpets and fireplaces. But it then turned out that, although the road would be closed, there would still be limited access for all but three of the 12 weeks. Even then Mr Clark's customers could still be given access via two tiny side roads, although these are not large enough to carry the trucks which bring in his stock. As a final concession, the agency has agreed that even these can still be given access, so long as drivers give four hours notice.

Even though the impact of the road closure will not therefore be as bad as Mr Clark first feared, he still estimates that the three-months dislocation, diverting 12,000 vehicles a day across miles of surrounding countryside, may well cost him half his normal turnover, equating to several hundred thousand pounds.

Yet again Mr Clark's plight highlights the nationwide scandal of that gap in the law whereby businesses are expected to subsidise schemes involving road-closures without any compensation, even to the point where some are forced out of business altogether. Earlier this year I reported how shops in the city of Wells lost over £1 million through the months-long closure of their high street for a £500,000 council 'enhancement' scheme. In the nearby holiday resort of Weston-super-Mare, traders forced to subsidise a similar council scheme this summer by losing a large part of their year's turnover are now threatening to withold their business rates.

Yet in my own part of rural Somerset, where our village shop, pubs and other businesses have lost hundreds of thousands of pounds through prolonged road closures caused by a sewerage scheme, Wessex Water has a statutory obligation under the Water Industry Act to compensate them. Why is this principle recognised in law when the bill can be picked up by a water company, but not when it is carried out by a council?

One had to scratch one's eyes when Jack Straw came up with what he called his "proposal" that the European Union should have a written constitution; particularly when he suggested that this was the best way to prevent it becoming a superstate. This proposal is in fact 61 years old and first came from that guru of European integration, the former Italian Communist Altiero Spinelli, creator of the term "European Union". His name has been given to the EU Parliament's building in Brussels. Drafting a manifesto for unification in an Italian gaol in 1941, he suggested that the way to build a "United States of Europe" was first to put in place all its institutions, such as a commission, a parliament and a court. The final step would then be to stage a convention, modelled on the USA's Philadelphia convention of 1787, to give the EU a constitution. Thus would the superstate be complete.

As everyone except our 'little Englander' Foreign Secretary seems to have noticed, this is precisely what has happened. In 1999, in accepting the invitation of the EU Parliament to produce a draft constitution, the EU's university in Florence agreed that "the concept of a constitution is intimately linked to the creation of a state". The Commission's new President, Romano Prodi, then called on 'three wise men', including Mr Straw's colleague Lord Simon of Highbury, to rush out a report outlining how, in order to draft such a constitution, virtually all that was needed would be to combine all the relevant sections of the existing treaties. In May 2000, Germany's foreign minister Joschka Fischer made a speech calling for the EU to be given such a constitution. This was echoed in November 2000 by Chancellor Schroeder and President Chirac, calling for a constitution as "an essential step in the historic process of European integration". In Brussels last February, President Prodi opened the constitutional convention first proposed by Spinelli with the words "we have to give ourselves a constitution which marks the birth of Europe as a political entity". The only purpose of all this, as Spinelli set out six decades ago, has been to mark the moment when his European Union finally emerges as a superstate. Then, just when it is all but done and dusted, along comes Mr Straw to tell us that he's had this brilliant idea. Why doesn't the EU get itself a constitution, to prevent it becoming a superstate: the very thing the constitution is intended to bring about. Either he is pitifully ignorant or he is astonishingly dishonest. Which does he prefer?

A mystery last week was the news which flashed round the world that Sir John Krebs's Food Standards Agency planned to ban that Scottish delicacy, the haggis. From the Today programme to the Toronto Star, it was reported that the agency was calling for a ban on the grounds that haggis is made from the intestines of sheep, as another twist in Sir John's remorseless campaign to link sheep to BSE.

I was then contacted by a highly irate Bill McKean, king of Scottish haggis-makers, to point out that haggis has no connection with sheep's intestines whatever. The mystery only deepened when I rang the FSA itself, to be told they were well aware that haggis is not made from sheep's intestines and that this seemed to be only a silly season fiction manufactured by mischievous journalists.

What is not a fiction, alas, is Sir John's dotty campaign to link sheep with BSE, and his hope that Brussels will accept the recommendation of his friend Professor Roy Anderson that the EU should put 2000 people in Britain out of work by banning the use of sheep's intestines to make the skins vital to high-quality sausages. There is, of course,not a shred of evidence that sheep can catch BSE, any more than there is a shred of proof that eating beef can infect humans with CJD. "NvCJD: the epidemic that never was" as one eminent scientist has derisively called it.

These gifted savants may be relying on the old axiom that if you repeat a lie often enough, you may eventually fool some people into thinking it is true. But it is a pity the FSA only leaps to defend the truth when it is itself misrepresented as making the equally idiotic suggestion that sheeps' intestines are used in haggis.

Having reported for six years on the Botswanan government's forced removals of the Bushmen from their last natural refuge, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, I am delighted that, thanks to Survival International, this scandal has now become mainstream news. Full marks to Labour MEP Richard Howitt who, when he recently visited Botswana on a EU Parliamentary delegation, insisted on contacting two of the four groups of bushmen still pitifully hanging on in the reserve, to hear first hand evidence of how horrendously they are being persecuted. Unlike Glenys Kinnock, when she visited the country in June, he was thus not fooled by the Botswanan government's lies that it is only forcing the Bushmen to give up their way of life for their own good.

When John Simpson interviewed Mr Howitt for last Thursday's BBC news (BBC-2 plans a further long report next Tuesday) he did not mention the increasingly sinister part in this story played by the EU. Not only did Brussels fail to honour its threat last year to halt aid to Botswana unless persecution of the Bushmen stopped. It now turns out that EU taxpayers' money has helped fund the vile resettlement camp at New Xhade which Bushmen call "the place of death". The record of successive British governments in endorsing this outrage has been shameful. That our money is also being used to help perpetrate it is horrifying.