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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 23/11/2003)

A bid to give us back control of our fishing
The story behind my stories
No bill, no bank

A bid to give us back control of our fishing

Early in the new parliamentary session, the eyes of Britain's fishermen will be on a Commons vote which they see as a key test of whether Michael Howard has had to make secret concessions to preserve the Conservative Party's fragile unity over "Europe". Backed by MPs from every party, the Scottish National Party MP Alex Salmond plans to force a vote on a bill, published last week, calling for control of fisheries to be repatriated from Brussels to the UK.

Mr Salmond's bill accords with existing Tory policy, laid down by William Hague. But as fishermen's organisations line up behind it, they will be watching to see whether this pledge has been abandoned as part of the price of support from Tory Europhiles, led by Kenneth Clarke and David Curry, the former fisheries minister now in the shadow cabinet.

In recent months, as anger over the disaster that is being visited on Britain's fishing industry has erupted, support for the repatriation of fishing policy has soared, particularly in Scotland, which accounts for 85 per cent of UK tonnage, and where nearly 100 vessels, including some of the most modern boats in the whitefish fleet, have been forced out of business by the Brussels "cod ban".

Scottish Tory MSPs, led by Ted Brocklebank; Lib Dems, including Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland; and Alex Smith, the leader of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, have swung behind Mr Salmond's bill. So too have the fishermen of Folkestone, where Mr Howard has only a slender majority.

The ever-greater absurdity of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy was recently highlighted by a case in Whitby, where nine fishermen, including Arnold Locker, the chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, faced criminal charges relating to Brussels's "cod ban", though fishermen now report cod so abundant that they cannot avoid catching them.

Under EU rules, cod may form only 25 per cent of a vessel's catch. But since they are so common - contrary to the "scientific evidence" favoured by Brussels - fishermen are forced to dump huge quantities of dead cod back into the sea, in the name of "conservation". The Whitby case was reduced to farce, however, by confusion over what the new rules mean. Does "25 per cent" apply to the total catch in a 24-hour period, or to each separate haul, or what?

The vessels in question had been stopped by a notoriously zealous fisheries inspector, acting as "sea rider" on a Royal Navy protection vessel. The inspector, Rod Henderson, backed by lawyers for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, interpreted the law one way. The Navy claimed it read the law another way. It then turned out that Defra's own guidelines were not issued until a month after the "offences" took place.

Fred Normandale, an owner-skipper from Scarborough, explained the practical impossibility of constantly assessing the percentages of cod in a catch to comply with Defra's interpretation of the rules. It would involve using landing gear to retrieve the fish already caught from a fish-room 20 ft below deck in order to count them.

If it then proved necessary to discard fish already gutted, this would constitute a fresh criminal offence under other EU rules that ban dumping at sea. Andrew Oliver, an expert lawyer acting for Mr Locker and others, devastatingly exposed the confusion surrounding Defra's case, and Whitby magistrates gave the accused an unconditional discharge, ordering Defra to pay its own costs of 3,700.

This case was typical of the insane regime under which Britain's fishermen must now live, as Defra zealously enforces CFP rules which are motivated more by politics than by scientific assessment of fish stocks. There is scarcely a fisherman in the land who does not support Mr Salmond's bill. They will be particularly intrigued to note the stance of Mr Curry who, for his attempt in 1992 to decimate Britain's fleet without paying compensation, became the industry's most hated minister, and remains so.

The story behind my stories

Considering that Tony Blair is hoping to sign Britain up to a fully- fledged European constitution next May, it might seem astonishing that, until last week, there has never been a properly-researched history of the European Union. One well-kept secret, for instance, is that the original blueprint for what was to become the EU was devised in the 1920s by a British civil servant.

Arthur Salter, a senior official of the League of Nations and a close friend of the League's deputy secretary general, Jean Monnet, argued in a paper that a future "United States of Europe" should be modelled on the structure of the League, run by an executive or "European Commission" with supranational powers, a council of ministers, a court of justice and a parliamentary assembly. It was precisely Salter's plan that Monnet put into place in 1951 as the Coal and Steel Community, describing it as his model for the future "government of Europe".

This is one of the many revelations in a new book The Great Deception: The Secret History of the European Union, published last week by Continuum at 20, in which I must admit a particular interest, since it was co-authored by myself and Dr Richard North.

For 10 years I have been trying to bring to light in The Telegraph some of the practical consequences of EU membership for the people of Britain. But our book in a sense represents the culmination of that exercise, because what most surprised us when we began researching the history of the EU was just how superficial and misleading all previous accounts of this story had been.

There is scarcely a single episode that does not emerge in a new light, from the real reason why de Gaulle had to "keep Britain out" in the 1960s, to the way that the Foreign Office and Geoffrey Howe kept Mrs Thatcher in the dark about plans for a further leap in integration.This was to be so ambitious that it had been decided as early as 1984 that it would require two new instruments, now known as the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty.

If we have achieved anything, as I observed at the book's launch on Thursday, I hope it is "to make the most boring subject in the world as readable as a novel". I trust our readers will agree.

No bill, no bank

Peter Senneck was for years the manager of a NatWest branch in Gloucester, where he still keeps his account. When he recently went in to open an account for his granddaughter, his former staff apologetically told him that, under the rules, he had to produce "proof of his identity".

Since 1994 I have regularly heard from readers irked by the po-faced absurdity of these rules, requiring, among other "proofs", the production of two utility bills. One young man, for instance, given 1,000 for his 18th birthday, was unable to find a bank to take his money because, still living at home, he had no utility bills.

What is never explained, even it seems to former bank managers, is that this cumbersome system was introduced to comply with EC directive 91/308, designed to stop money-laundering by drug dealers. This requires banks to ask for such documentation, which they must keep for five years. A Colombian drugs baron wishing to deposit 2 million would not of course be clever enough to know how to forge a gas bill.