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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 08/08/2004)

EC offices get a clean bill of health - for 1 bn
Army frightened for its future
Defra snubs the young crusader

EC offices get a clean bill of health - for 1 bn

The unveiling of the "new" Berlaymont, Europe's largest office building, now refurbished as the Brussels headquarters of the European Commission, made headlines last week.

The "Berlaymonster" was closed for 13 years, after it was discovered that the building was "riddled with asbestos". It cost more than 1 billion to make it ready for occupation by the new Commission, when it takes over this autumn.

The removal of the (mainly white) asbestos, which had been sprayed on the internal steel structure as a fire retardant, was the largest such operation in history. But was it necessary to close the building at all?

The World Trade Centre used the same "limpet spray" on its steel beams up to the 60th floor, and when its towers collapsed on September 11, 2001, sending clouds of dust billowing out over Manhattan, the US Environmental Protection Agency was quick to reassure New Yorkers that the asbestos posed "no risk" to their health.

Furthermore, recent scientific studies have shown that the material used as a substitute fire-retardant in the refurbished Berlaymont may pose a greater health risk than the asbestos it replaced.

When the Berlaymont - built in the 1960s as the supreme symbol of the new "government of Europe" - was closed in 1991, 3,500 officials had to be dispersed into expensively rented offices elsewhere in Brussels. Yet it was four years before work began on scraping the asbestos off the beams.

According to a spokesman for Rentotech, one of the firms conducting the removal operation, the asbestos had been sprayed on very casually and there were "loose fibres all over the place".

But much of the asbestos could have been painted or encapsulated, to remain safely in situ. No attempt was made to find a cheaper solution to the problem.

The result was that the Commission continued to pay a total of 96 million in rent to the Belgian government for the building it had evacuated, and very much more than that to house its officials in the most expensive office space in Brussels.

As work on the Berlaymont continued, surrounded by rumours of corruption and inefficiency which were the subject of a series of reports and internal inquiries, Neil Kinnock, as the Commission's vice-president, finally agreed in 2002 to pay 370 million to buy the building outright.

Another 338 million has gone on its "modernisation".

The twist in the tail is that the asbestos has been replaced as a fire-retardant with a mineral fibre known as "rock wool".

Recent studies by Dr David Bernstein, a Geneva-based American who is a leading international consultant and has himself carried out work for the Commission, have shown that this silica-based product could be potentially much more dangerous to health than the biodegradable fibres of white asbestos.

Stand by for the announcement that the spanking new, space-age Berlaymonster must be evacuated all over again.

Army frightened for its future

There is alarm at the highest levels in both the services and the Ministry of Defence over an extraordinary gamble that the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, is taking with Britain's Armed Forces in the name of European integration.

Last month Mr Hoon announced an unprecedented restructuring of the British Army, based on what is known as the "Future Rapid Effects System" (FRES).

This centres round a "family" of 900 new highly-sophisticated combat vehicles, initially costing 6 billion, but with a lifetime cost over 30 years of 50 billion.

In a re-run of the 19 billion Eurofighter fiasco, the purpose of FRES is to set up a European rival to the American "Future Combat System" (FCS), on which the Pentagon is spending $90 billion, just on phase one.

The vehicles may even be built by a European consortium, led by the German defence firm Rheinmetall De Tec, the idea being that FRES will provide the centrepiece for the EU's Rapid Reaction Force.

But what alarms defence analysts, including some inside the MoD itself, is that such a concept, involving satellite guidance and incredibly complex computer systems (the US FCS will need 34 million lines of electronic "source codes"), can only work properly if the entire system is in place.

The EU plans to put up its own Galileo satellite positioning system, on which FRES would rely. But because the Europeans cannot afford the complete electronic package, it is viewed as highly dubious that their cut-price version could operate effectively.

Another concern is that the FRES system is so integrated that no individual country can use it without the agreement and co-operation of other participants.

By committing so much of our entire military effort to this unproven system, Britain would thus forfeit the chance to operate independently of our EU partners.

Reliance on FRES would make it virtually impossible to work in an integrated fashion alongside the Americans. One can see why European integrationists might favour such a system, as the EU puffs itself up as a rival "superpower" to the US.

But since it is for this we are now proposing to sacrifice much of what the British Army stands for (including the independence of 19 regiments and a large part of our existing tank and armoured vehicle force), it is hardly surprising that so many senior officers should view Mr Hoon's gamble with such alarm.

Defra snubs the young crusader

Georgina Downs, the young Sussex singer who mounted a three-year campaign on the dangers posed to public health by toxic crop-spraying, has suffered a remarkable snub from the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs.

Miss Downs and her parents experienced chronic health problems through nearly 20 years of exposure to the poisons sprayed on a field next to their home near Chichester.

But she was appalled to discover how little protection the public was given by the regulatory system operated by the Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD) and the Health and Safety Executive.

She exposed this glaring anomaly to such effect, through the media and interviews with ministers, that the Government eventually conceded an inquiry.

The most extensive evidence it received was from Miss Downs herself, who spent thousands of pounds on collecting case studies and scientific papers, and on making a video.

In June, Alun Michael, the minister for rural affairs, announced that, after a full review of the evidence and in consultation with Prof Howard Dalton, his chief scientific adviser, he was satisfied that the protection afforded to the public was perfectly adequate.

Now it has emerged, however, that Prof Dalton never saw Miss Downs's evidence.

At a recent meeting of "key stakeholders", attended by Mr Michael, Prof Dalton told Miss Downs that Defra had never sent him her evidence.

He had consulted the PSD and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, but was not aware that her evidence even existed. Nor had he seen the paper from Prof Samuel Epstein, an international authority on pesticides, who is an enthusiastic supporter of Miss Downs's campaign.

Prof Dalton agreed to look at her evidence, although, as she pointed out, this could serve little purpose. Mr Michael has made his decision, citing for his support the views of a man who had not seen the evidence which prompted the inquiry in the first place.