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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 28/12/2003)

I am often asked how some of the tales reported in this column subsequently developed. In this, the last Notebook of the year, I am updating some of my stories during 2003.

January

I reported a typical consequence of how the European Commission spends £600 million of UK taxpayers' money each year on its overseas aid programme. Between 1989 and 1994 a £20-million road project paid for by the European Development Fund scythed through some of the poorest communities in Kenya.

A deep hole dug by Italian contractors filled with contaminated water, destroying the water supply on which hundreds of Kikuyu farmers and their families depended for their water and livelihood. Dozens of local people were subsequently killed either by the road or by attempts to draw up desperately-needed water from the filthy lake.

But although Glenys Kinnock, an MEP, admitted that in 1995 that the scheme had gone "tragically wrong", and Article 215 of the EU Treaty obliges the Commission to make good any damage caused by its "servants", an eight-year campaign led on behalf of the farmers by Ann Usher, a British expatriate ex-nurse, seemed to get nowhere.

Now, following the renewal of pressure last January, the Commission has announced that, in part-reparation for the damage its scheme had caused, it will give £70,000 for two boreholes to provide fresh water.

Also in January I revealed a Commission plan that every sheep in the EU must carry two plastic eartags with an individual 14-digit number. The Tory MEP Neil Parrish later discovered that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had carried out its own private study, showing that the scheme would cost UK sheep farmers an average £16,000 a year, £5,000 more than their average income. This month, after a barrage of protests, the Commission finally agreed to drop its plan.

February

I reported how bailiffs acting for Defra tried to seize toys belonging to the 12-year-old son of Welsh teacher Janet Hughes, and the car needed for her work, to pay legal costs incurred when she vainly tried to get the High Court to declare illegal the slaughter of healthy animals during the "pre-emptive cull" recommended by EC vets during the 2001 foot and mouth crisis.

Although her case had been against the Welsh Assembly, Defra intervened and was now claiming £17,000 costs. When it was pointed out that seizure of the toys and the car, as a "tool of trade", would themselves be illegal, the bailiffs backed off. Cardiff law professors later confirmed that Defra's cull had indeed been unlawful. Defra eventually agreed to settle its claim in return for £4,000 sent to Miss Hughes by members of the public shocked at her treatment.

March

I revealed that, hiding behind the pseudonym "Agromenes", a Country Life columnist who had launched a hysterical attack on the Telegraph for not caring about Britain's countryside, was the former agriculture minister John Gummer. Since 1998 Mr Gummer has also been chairman of Valpak Ltd, a company set up by himself when environment minister to administer EC directives on packaging waste.

A reader attending Valpak's annual general meeting later reported shareholders' surprise when their chairman launched into a vitriolic attack on me, for reasons seemingly unconnected to his role as their company's highly-paid chairman. A current search for "Agromenes" on Country Life's website shows "no results".

April

An EC directive banning the burial of "Animal By-Products", from fallen farm stock to the millions of tons of meat products thrown away each year by supermarkets, threatened to create a shambles. Tesco and Sainsbury's managed to win a two-year reprieve from regulations that are wholly unworkable.

Although there was no reprieve for farmers, the new law still proved so impractical that by mid-summer local authorities were telling farmers to carry on burying dead animals on the farm as before. Defra is still vainly trying to concoct a system to enable this absurd EC edict to be obeyed.

May

Another EC directive unwittingly threatens the survival of Britain's only scheduled helicopter service, to the Scilly Isles. Thanks to behind-the-scenes lobbying by Dr Richard North, a senior researcher in the European Parliament, the Commission was so alarmed by this unintended consequence of its edict that, in the autumn, the Scilly helicopter service was exempted.

June

Hundreds of readers rushed to support Geoff Bean, a Yorkshire farmer, for his robust response when, after he bought a load of builder's rubble to repair his farm tracks, the Environment Agency threatened to prosecute him under EC legislation for running an "unlicensed waste site".

Sir John Harman, the head of the Environment Agency, defended his officials in this newspaper's letters column by claiming that Mr Bean had illegally dumped 100 tons of asbestos. Investigation showed that his rubble had not included a single fibre of asbestos. The case against Mr Bean has now been dropped.

July

Our £20 million-a-year cockle industry was threatened with closure thanks to a faulty testing procedure relied on by Defra and the Food Standards Agency to implement EC hygiene laws. Mice injected with cockle-meat were dying, not because the cockles were poisonous but because of toxic solvents used to bind the samples together.

Defra and the FSA refused to admit publicly that their discredited tests were to blame; but quietly changed the procedure to eliminate the effect of the solvents. The fishermen have now been permitted to resume their trade.

August

I revealed that the 118 directory enquiries fiasco originated entirely from EC legislation. For months this was denied by the relevant UK minister, Stephen Timms, by the European Commission's man in London, Jim Dougal, and by Oftel itself, despite the fact that I cited the relevant EC directives, and a 1996 EC edict that all EU enquiries services should use 118.

Only last week I had a further message from Oftel's Alex Campbell, still denying any link between 118 and the EC. For guidance he gave a website which turned out merely to list all the documents in question.

September

The world-famous Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand faced disaster when certification of the giant tethered balloons or "aerostats" he makes in Oswestry, Shropshire, passed from the UK's Civil Aviation Authority to the new European Aviation Safety Agency.

It turned out that the new rules for certifying aerostats were being drawn up by his only competitor, a Franco-German firm, Aerophile. Until these were approved, he would not be able to sell his aerostats, worth £500,000 each, anywhere in the EU. Three months later, Mr Lindstrand is still waiting.

October

Britain's last surviving commercial shipbuilding yard, Appledore Shipbuilders in north Devon, went into receivership, putting 550 men out of work, partly because Government officials claimed they could not provide loan guarantees for a vital order under EC "state aid" rules.

At the same time, a French company, Alstom, which had just launched the QM2, the world's largest liner, won a £2 billion subsidy from the French government in flagrant defiance of the same EC rules. Last week John Langham, the chairman of Appledore's owners, Langham Industries, confirmed to me that talks are well advanced to find the yard a new owner, with hopes it will reopen early in 2004.

November

I reported the launch of a new organisation, Asbestos Watchdog. It has been set up after articles in this column exposed the nationwide racket by which contractors exploit the confusion over the Health and Safety Executive's implementation of an EC asbestos directive and rob property owners of hundreds of millions of pounds.

In the six weeks since the launch of AW - backed by a businessman who nearly fell victim to HSE-licensed cowboys - more than 350 businesses and homeowners have already received expert help through its website, www.asbestoswatchdog.co.uk, saving them hundreds of thousands of pounds. This is on top of £3 million already saved to Telegraph readers following earlier articles.

December

The year ends appropriately with the row over charges that lives have been lost through the clumsy drafting of the Data Protection Act 1998. But even the BBC has been forced to admit there is no hope of amending this Act because it merely implements an EC directive, 95/46. Under the principle of the acquis communautaire, once EU legislation is agreed, however faulty, there is virtually no mechanism for changing it.

I must thank the thousands of readers who have contacted me during 2003. Although I cannot reply to every message, their help and encouragement is hugely appreciated. A happy, EU constitution-free New Year to you all.