Back to website

Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 29/02/2004)

A battle lost, a war to win
Mr Speaker stifles the bovine TB inquisition
MPs gun for the wrong gang
Welsh wizards make money vanish

A battle lost, a war to win

A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg last week brought closer the day when our Government and courts must decide whether they will send a man to prison for flouting the EC's metrication laws, opposed by 90 per cent of the British people.

After the ECHR refused to hear the case of the five "metric martyrs", convicted in Britain on criminal charges of selling goods in pounds and ounces, the original "martyr" Steve Thoburn, a Sunderland greengrocer, whose crime was to sell "a pound of bananas", defiantly stated: "I object so strongly to this interference in the way I serve my customers just because of a law passed in another country by people we did not elect that I shall continue to sell in pounds and ounces if my customers want it. If I am prosecuted again, I will not pay any fine and they can put me in prison."

The "metric martyrs" case became so notorious, following Sunderland's prosecution of Mr Thoburn in 2000, that the five "martyrs" remain the only traders charged with offences under the EC's metrication and price-marking rules.

Although the ECHR's contemptuous rejection of their case may look like a defeat, the bizarre fact remains that every day millions of criminal offences are committed all over Britain, as shopkeepers and supermarkets continue to sell and advertise goods in breach of the law. As Neil Herron, the former Sunderland trader who led the "martyrs" campaign points out, "It is now going to be virtually impossible for the Government to enforce the law."

"If Sunderland trading standards officials wish to prosecute Mr Thoburn again," Mr Herron claims, "under the terms of the Government's enforcement concordat, which guarantees that the law must be applied consistently to everyone, councils across the country would be obliged to take similar action against all other traders breaking the law, including the supermarkets." Every time a customer asks for goods in pounds and ounces and a shopkeeper does not measure them out in their metric equivalent, he is committing a criminal offence. The same applies to all signs in Tesco and other supermarkets which do not give greater prominence to metric weights than their imperial equivalents.

The legal battle which ended in Strasbourg last week has much wider implications than just a debate over weights and measures. The issue at its heart, which led to a historic judgment by Lord Justice Laws in the Court of Appeal, centred on who has the ultimate right to make Britain's laws: Westminster or Brussels? Laws conceded the Government's point that Parliament had abdicated the right to make laws to Brussels, but emphasised that Parliament cannot surrender its sovereignty because this belongs to the British people and cannot be given away.

Neil Herron was so fired up by this fight that he has, in four years, become one of the most effective grassroots political campaigners in the country. He is leading the campaign against John Prescott's plan to have a vote in the North-East later this year for the first elected regional government in England outside London. A series of local victories won by Mr Herron have thrown the Deputy Prime Minister's scheme into serious disarray.

Now Mr Herron plans to make the chaos of metrication a centrepiece of his campaign to be elected as an independent for the European Parliament next June. "I shall give the people of the North-East," he says, "the chance to vote on just one issue: who should govern Britain, Westminster or Brussels?"

If any readers wish to support Mr Thoburn and Mr Herron in their fight, messages and money can be sent to the Metric Martyrs Defence Fund, PO Box 526, Sunderland SR1 3YS.

Mr Speaker stifles the bovine TB inquisition

I reported last week that the Tory MP Owen Paterson, a front-bench agriculture spokesman, was planning on Tuesday to break the record for the largest number of written questions on a single subject ever tabled to ministers on one day. The purpose of his 300 serious and carefully crafted questions was to obtain information crucial to a better understanding of the crisis that now threatens our cattle industry as a result of the epidemic of bovine TB in Britain's soaring badger population.

Following my report, which was widely picked up by the media, including the BBC Today programme, a serious row broke out behind the scenes when Mr Paterson was told that, on a ruling by the Speaker, Michael Martin, his 300 questions were not acceptable. On Wednesday, in clear breach of parliamentary convention, the questions did not appear on the Commons order paper.

This decision by the Speaker had serious constitutional implications. In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for MPs to call ministers to account or to get straight answers to questions. Oral questions can be so easily side-stepped that they have become a farce, and debates likewise, since these are now time-limited and ministers merely have to flannel until time runs out.

Written questions, to which ministers and civil servants are obliged to give considered answers under the rules of the House, have become almost the only remaining means whereby MPs can get the information they need to monitor the Government's performance.

After tense negotiations involving the Tory Chief Whip, a compromise was eventually arrived at whereby Mr Paterson was permitted to table his 300 questions on TB over four days. He may not thus establish any records. But his campaign to tease out the data necessary to assess the scale of the crisis facing Britain's countryside is back on track.

MPs gun for the wrong gang

MPs were oozing self-righteousness on Friday when, in the aftermath of the Morecambe Bay tragedy, they approved a backbench Bill to set up a new authority to regulate and licence the activities of "gangmasters" - described as "a fitting memorial to the 20 Chinese cockle-pickers who died".

The only problem was that this Bill, supported by the Government, has not the slightest relevance to the Morecambe disaster. A gangmaster is someone who hires out workers to work for another employer. In Morecambe Bay, the employer of the dead Chinese was himself selling the cockles on to a wholesaler. He is therefore not a gangmaster.

This debate was yet another example of the readiness of our politicians to rush through legislation which ends up imposing needless burdens on responsible businesses, while leaving the problem itself, and the irresponsible businesses which create it, untouched. It is the principle which I have long described as "taking a sledgehammer to miss the nut".

What should have concerned MPs about the Morecambe Bay disaster was why the mass of already existing legislation relevant to the activities of the cockle-pickers had not been enforced. As I revealed last week, the Health and Safety Executive was aware that a similar "workplace accident" on the Morecambe tidal flats had only been narrowly averted last December: what the HSE described to me as a "near miss". Despite this, the HSE had failed to take any enforcement action - as was its statutory duty - and had merely offered "advice".

Four years ago Lord Grabiner, a Deputy High Court judge, produced a report for the Government recommending that a concerted effort must be made to apply existing laws to the "hidden or informal economy", to bring it into line with legitimate businesses. The Morecambe tragedy provided a perfect example of what he meant. The eagerness of the Government to back Friday's Bill may reflect how keen it is to divert attention from its tragic failure to follow his advice.

Welsh wizards make money vanish

For some years the proudest boast of the Welsh Assembly was that Wales had obtained £3 billion of "Objective One" funding from Brussels, on the grounds that it was one of the poorest "regions" in the EU.

The Assembly's claim was that this money - for which UK taxpayers had to hand over £6 billion to Brussels in the first place - was vital to raising Wales's "GDP per capita", which stood at only 74 per cent of the EU average.

It now emerges that, after spending such an astronomic sum, mainly on hiring consultants and yet more officials, along with the organisation of "gender awareness courses" and making sure that the EU's "ring of stars" was prominently displayed on new cycle tracks, Wales's GDP per capita has not risen at all. In fact it has fallen to just 68.6 per cent of the average. Truly, the benefits of EU membership know no bounds.