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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 01/02/2004)

Fisherman who defied the law wins judge's sympathy
The BBC helps to sex up the asbestos threat
The 900m cost of students from EU
Gordian knots that Gordon can't cut

Fisherman who defied the law wins judge's sympathy

It is not often that someone who believes a law to be absurd deliberately sets out to risk a 50,000 fine to demonstrate its injustice - and then makes his case in court so powerfully that the judge more or less agrees. Last January Haydn Jones, the skipper-owner of the Pride of Wales, a small Anglesey fishing boat, was shocked to be told that, under new EU restrictions on catching cod in the Irish Sea, he would only be allowed to catch "100 kilograms" of cod a month, worth around 200.

First, there were so many cod around that he could hardly avoid catching them. Most would have to be dumped dead back in the sea. Second, since he had just paid 4,000 to insure his boat, to earn only 200 a month would leave him with a crippling loss.

So, for two months running, Mr Jones caught a ton of cod, 10 times his quota, and openly sent them for sale in Grimsby. Inevitably he found himself facing criminal charges and, determined to put his case to a jury, he last month finally found himself, after three previous hearings, in front of Judge Geoffrey Kilfoil at Mold Crown Court.

In a day-long hearing, Mr Jones explained how the reduced Brussels cod quotas off the Welsh coast were mainly allocated to larger boats, including those from Belgium and France. The tiny amount left was not remotely enough for small fishermen such as himself to earn a living.

Mr Jones told the jury how he was faced with a Catch-22. Because his quota was so small, he could neither earn a living nor sell his boat. On the other hand, because the Welsh Assembly had denied local fishermen any share in "decommissioning" funds agreed by Brussels, he cannot afford, at the age of 67, to retire.

The judge told the jury they had little option other than to find him guilty, but made clear that he was highly sympathetic to Mr Jones's plight. When Simon Medland, prosecuting for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, asked the court to impose a maximum fine of 50,000 on Mr Jones, the judge gave a tart reminder that it was his responsibility to decide the level of fines in his court and gave Mr Jones a discharge, conditional on not breaking the quota rules again for two years.

For Mr Jones it was a moral victory, but he and his wife are still left living on his fast-diminishing savings. He refuses to go to sea because of his horror at rules which force him to throw 10 cod dead back into the sea for every one he is allowed to land, thanks to rules introduced by the EC to "conserve fish stocks", and so zealously enforced by Defra's officials that they would have been happy to see him forced to sell his home, to pay a fine 10 times greater than the value of the fish they did not permit him to catch.

The BBC helps to sex up the asbestos threat

On Friday the BBC went overboard promoting a new British Medical Journal paper warning of the dangers of asbestos and the soaring rate of mesotheliomas. There was no explanation that this nasty cancer has only been associated with iron-fibred amphibole asbestos, and that not a single case has ever been scientifically linked with asbestos cement, made from a different mineral, which constitutes 90 per cent of all asbestos in the UK.

The BBC repeated long-discredited science and bogus statistics, thus helping to promote the commercial racket, based on confusing the two types of asbestos, by which this country is now being ripped off to the tune of billions of pounds.

Though most observers were rightly stunned at the one-sidedness of the Hutton report, the BBC has not begun to understand why its reporting has in recent years come under such relentless criticism, not least from this column. The real problem is that, on a whole range of issues, the new BBC culture creates a clearly-defined "agenda" which then dictates how it reports the news.

The distorted item by Andrew Gilligan at the heart of the Hutton report was only significant in that it stemmed from that more general failure of professionalism which for months led the BBC to report the Iraq war so one-sidedly. But the BBC's "cultural bias" has led it into similar unprofessionalism in other areas, where it proves just as self-righteously eager to promote only one side of an issue.

An obvious example is how consistently it misrepresents issues raised by Britain's membership of the EU. Typical instances were all those occasions when the BBC led its news with claims fed it by pro-euro lobbyists that some major multi-national company had threatened to pull out of the UK unless Britain joined the euro. On each occasion the companies rubbished the BBC report, but not once did it correct its error.

Another area in which the BBC has for years shown itself grossly unprofessional has been the readiness with which it falls for any kind of "scare". From salmonella to BSE, from herbal medicines to asbestos, no sooner do scientists or lobbyists dream up some scare (usually to justify more funding) than the BBC is talking up the hysteria for all it is worth, without bothering to check facts often later shown to have been grotesquely distorted.

It was Newsnight, for instance, which in 1996 prodded Sir John Patteson, the government's chief BSE adviser, into predicting that by now 500,000 people would be dead of CJD caught from eating beef. It was the same gullibility which led the BBC on Friday to highlight the latest BMJ paper on asbestos, arguing for more funds to research mesothelioma.

With an ounce of professionalism, the BBC might have noted that one of the paper's three authors, Professor Julian Peto, was the scientist who set off the astonishingly damaging confusion over the different forms of asbestos in the first place, by claiming he had found serious health damage in people who were exposed to white asbestos.

Only much later did other scientists discover that he had in fact been examining samples from people damaged by amphiboles. But, thanks not least to the BBC, the damage done by this blunder is being perpetuated to this day. It is hard to imagine such institutional incompetence will be affected simply by the resignation of Mr Dyke.

The 900m cost of students from EU

Last week, as the Labour Party was tearing itself apart over top-up fees, it was estimated that the Government stands to lose 900 million, no less than a third of the money it hopes to save, thanks to the flood of students expected to arrive in British universities when 10 new countries join the EU on May 1. The low levels of income in these countries mean that many graduates may never reach the proposed salary threshold at which repayment of fees should begin.

Britain and Ireland are the only EU countries that have agreed to allow the citizens of the new entrant countries unrestricted right to work and claim benefits from day one. Students from Poland and other countries will be given access to UK universities on the same basis as British students, but it is unlikely they will ever have to repay their tuition fees.

Last month I reported that Denis McShane, our Europe minister, had claimed that several other EU countries, including Denmark and Holland, will give new entrants the same access to work and benefits as Britain. It has now been confirmed that neither Holland nor Denmark intends anything of the kind. Britain and Ireland stand alone. Not for the first time Mr McShane has shown that, despite his devotion to the EU, he knows remarkably little about it.

Gordian knots that Gordon can't cut

A prize for the most cynical (or perhaps naive) initiative of last week must go to Gordon Brown, for inviting British industry to help him campaign for a drastic reduction in the red tape which is strangling British businesses.

The CBI responded by publishing the "Top 10 Regulatory Threats" which it fears as most damaging. No fewer than eight of these, including new directives on chemicals, agency temps, waste and emissions, which will cost industry billions of pounds a year, originate from our supranational government in Brussels.

In other words, as Mr Brown must realise, there is virtually nothing either he nor industry can do to stop them. So why pretend otherwise?