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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 11/04/2004)

Climbers to be shielded from perils of heights
Don't send us to the Place of Death
Ministers disappear as the TB crisis worsens
You wait years for one and then 30 come along together

Climbers to be shielded from perils of heights

There could be no more vivid example of how our law-makers have lost touch with reality than the extraordinary battle now being fought by Britain's leading climbing organisations. They are resisting a plan by the Health and Safety Commission to subject them to an EC directive wholly inappropriate to mountaineers and which Brussels never intended should apply to them in the first place.

This month saw the end of a two-year-long "consultation" with the "adventure activity industry" over regulations that the HSC plans to introduce by the end of the year, to implement the EC's "temporary working at height directive", 2001/45. The directive's intention was to introduce new safety rules for "workplaces", where builders and others work with scaffolding, ladders and ropes. No other EU country thought this applied to climbing, yachting and other adventure activities. But HSC officials insist that, since these are "work activities" under UK safety law, the EC rules must apply.

The results of trying to apply rules to something they were never designed for are pure Alice in Wonderland. One HSC proposal that caused problems was the insistence that rock-climbing parties must use two ropes instead of one. This might be relevant to window-cleaners on tower blocks but for climbers, as is explained by the organisations co-ordinated by John Cousins, the president of the World Climbing and Mountaineering Federation's training and standards group, the need to fix two ropes would make climbing more dangerous rather than less.

Equally daft is the ruling that no one should be allowed to "work at heights" in adverse weather conditions, such as snow and ice. Applied to mountaineering this is ridiculous, as is the requirement that a "work plan" should be drawn up in advance, to show exactly how a climb is to be attempted and where ropes are to be fixed.

Most obviously absurd, however, is the HSC's insistence that signs must be erected to warn of any dangers from fragile, brittle or slippery surfaces. As Mr Cousins and his colleagues point out, this would mean covering mountains with signs to indicate every patch of loose rock or snow. The HSC's response is that it would be difficult to draft the regulations so that climbers were exempt from such rules, without exposing other workers to the risk of falling through a snow-covered skylight.

Even more astonishing is that the requirement for signs does not appear in the directive at all. When the HSC first made its proposals, three of its officials were invited to north Wales to be shown how inappropriate they were to rock-climbing. They left seemingly convinced that mountaineering should be exempted. Such is the rapid turnover of HSC officials, however, that all those engaged in the consultation have repeatedly moved on. The only consistent factor has been the HSC's insistence on doing something so crazy that, in another context, those responsible would be sacked.

26 March 2004: Going climbing? Better use scaffolding, says EU

Don't send us to the Place of Death

Our Government continues to play its bizarre role in one of the world's most poignant and symbolic tragedies, as revealed last week in the House of Lords. The Botswanan government is forcibly evicting around 700 bushmen, the last who remain in the wild, from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Since these expulsions began in 1996, British ministers, Tory and Labour, have consistently supported the policy, and denied that the reserve was originally set up by the British government to provide the bushmen with a safe haven.

But now Survival International, an organisation which has fought tirelessly for the bushmen's rights, has unearthed documents in the Public Record Office which confirm that the reserve was set up specifically to give the bushmen a refuge in perpetuity. Our Foreign Office is thus in flagrant breach of the guarantee given to the bushmen in colonial days, and confirmed by the independent Botswana's constitution in 1966.

Last week Baroness Symons, Foreign Office minister, again claimed that the transportation of the bushmen to the grim settlement at New Xhade (which they call "the Place of Death") was in their best interest, because it provided them with medical care and education. Therefore, she said, most bushmen, particularly the young, support the policy.

Her statement is ridiculed by a Survival International team, led by its director Stephen Corry, which has just returned from another visit to the Kalahari reserve. "Nearly 200, including children and young people, have so far managed to find their way back into the reserve," says Mr Corry. "The claims made by the minister to Parliament last week are simply not based on fact."

Ministers disappear as the TB crisis worsens

In view of the critical state of our agriculture, the recent conduct of our farming ministers seems rather odd. First Margaret Beckett announces that she will take six weeks off while she swans round the world to environmental conferences. Then last week her junior minister, Ben Bradshaw, went off on holiday to America, leaving his officials to publish a highly embarrassing report on TB in cattle, without prior announcement in Parliament.

The report, by a team led by Prof Charles Godfray of Imperial College, London, is a bombshell. It concludes that there is "compelling" evidence that the TB epidemic in cattle is caused by a parallel epidemic in the exploding badger population. It is time for ministers to take tough decisions: shorthand for ordering a cull of diseased badgers. This seems the only way to avert the disaster now engulfing farmers such as Tony Yewdall of north Devon, who last week saw a quarter of his 200 Guernsey cows - as seen on this page a few weeks ago - slaughtered after catching TB from badgers.

The Tory farming spokesman, Owen Paterson, who has so far put down 500 written questions on the bovine TB crisis, described Mr Bradshaw's decision to sneak out the Godfray report during the Easter recess, while he himself was on holiday, as showing "contempt for Parliament".

Answers to Mr Paterson's questions confirm that the ministry is now well aware that culling diseased badgers is the only proven way to bring the epidemic under control; and that unless urgent action is taken taxpayers face a bill which in 10 years will have reached 2 billion.

7 April 2004: 25m badger cull study 'too slow'

You wait years for one and then 30 come along together

A few days ago my Somerset neighbours watched incredulously as county council employees disfigured every corner of our tiny Mendip village of Litton with new speed limit signs - more than 30 of them altogether, or one sign for every two houses. Even Michael Schumacher would find it hard to negotiate our narrow, winding village street at more than 15 mph. Yet there, between two right-angle bends 20 yards apart, is now a 30 mph sign.

Litton is far from alone in being subjected to this plague. Whole columns of the local paper are taken up with letters asking what Somerset council thinks it is up to. A poll found that 94 per cent of readers think that there are too many signs (one village now has 30 signs in 200 yards of road).

For decades it was almost impossible for a village to be granted a 30 mph speed limit until five fatalities had been recorded, so I asked the council why it had now veered so wildly to the other extreme. I was told that this was in response to the Department for Transport's new Traffic Signs Regulations 2002 (which were "notified" for approval to the European Commission under directive 98/34).

Last week a press release from Cllr Tim Carroll, our Lib Dem "Executive Portfolio Holder for Environment and Transport", headed "Council listens to residents' views", suggested that some signs would be reduced in size. But when I asked Mr Carroll and his officials how much all this had cost, they were strangely coy. They refused to divulge either the cost of the entire scheme (so far involving 38 villages) or that of individual types of sign ("there is a degree of commercial sensitivity with regard to this information"). Other sources indicate that the cost of new signs in our village alone is more than 5,000.

This year Somerset's council tax is due to rise by 5.7 per cent, more than twice the rate of inflation. They are quite happy to take our money, but refuse to tell us how they are spending it. Like other local authorities, Somerset boasts of course that it is committed to a policy of "transparency".