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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 23/05/2004)

Sea views disfigured by a surfeit of cautions
The constitution crumbles
Keep the asbestos hysteria flying
Scottish bulls are a red rag to Brussels

Sea views disfigured by a surfeit of cautions

'The nanny state gone absolutely berserk" was how Doreen Savage, who has just stepped down as mayor of the charming Suffolk seaside town of Felixstowe, describes the forest of safety signs which now disfigure the entire length of the town's sea wall.

The signs, erected by the Environment Agency, warn the public that falling off the wall onto the beach might be dangerous, and that children must not be allowed near the wall except when supervised.

"No one has ever fallen off our sea wall," says Mrs Savage, who is also a Tory member of Suffolk Coastal council. "Putting up 20 signs where one would do is just a joke".

The notices have been erected as part of what the agency describes as "Operation Public Safety" - launched, a spokesman explains, in response to criticism by a judge that it did not provide enough safety warnings on its property.

Following a nationwide survey of "nearly 50,000 agency assets, from sea walls to weirs", the EA will be erecting thousands of new safety signs, to pre-empt legal arguments by anyone who uses the inadequacy of its signing to support claims for damages. "This is the price we pay," said a spokesman, "for the compensation culture."

Mrs Savage and the townsfolk of Felixstowe remain to be convinced that this necessitates quite so many signs stretching to the horizon along their seafront.

"It's as if people have no common sense any more", she says. "We live in a society where nobody is ever responsible for themselves and there has always got to be someone to blame." That anonymous judge, I suggest, might be first in line.

The constitution crumbles

"The yobs of Europe" shrieks Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian on the latest twists in the tale of the proposed EU constitution. The focus of her wrath are those "British hooligans", led by Jack Straw, who have been "breaking up the negotiating table".

Perhaps Ms Toynbee should not be blamed for displaying such ignorance since, as a good "little Englander", she has taken her view from the laughably parochial coverage given to this story by most of the British media.

The truth is that the bid to give the EU a constitution is in far more trouble than most people have yet realised; and the problems arise, not just from Mr Straw fighting for Britain's "red lines", but from almost everyone involved.

Last summer, when Giscard d'Estaing handed over his draft constitution to the heads of government, he warned them to approve it as it stood, because otherwise it might unravel completely - which is precisely what has happened.

Since the first talks on the draft foundered last December on the insistence by Spain and Poland that their voting rights must not be reduced, behind-the-scenes negotiations have thrown up more and more disagreements.

Reflecting this, the Irish presidency two weeks ago published 130 pages of amendments already agreed to Giscard's draft treaty, followed a week ago by 99 pages of new proposals.

Spain and Poland are still banging the table on voting rights, opposing German demands that a "qualified majority" must be reduced to only 55 per cent of the EU's population, which would give the Franco-German alliance the power to call the shots.

Poland's position is further complicated by the fact that its new prime minister, Marek Belka, recently lost a parliamentary confidence vote. This leaves him as a powerless lame duck until a general election in August, when he is likely to be replaced by a fiercely nationalist successor.

Hungary's "red line", contradicting one of Giscard's key proposals, is that each country must still have a commissioner. The Poles, Italians, Maltese and four other nationalities have laid down another on the inclusion of "God" in the constitution.

There are now proposals on the table for no fewer than three separate EU "presidents' - one for the Commission; another, according to a cumbersome troika formula, for the Council of Ministers; a third, chosen for two and a half years, for the European Council, which is now to be included in the treaty for the first time as a fully-fledged "Community institution" and as, in effect, the government of Europe. The council will also have the power to change the constitution without further treaties.

Compared with all this, the breaching of Mr Blair's own "red lines" over foreign policy and judicial law is little more than a sideshow.

The fact is that Giscard's draft is dead, and the prospects of having a constitution on which Mr Blair can hold his referendum look more distant by the day. The pity is that this may deprive us of that real national debate through which we could reflect on whether we wish to remain part of such a shambles at all.

Keep the asbestos hysteria flying

Last Sunday I reported on three new studies by respected scientists which devastatingly expose the falsity of the white asbestos health scare, one of the costliest this country has ever seen. By confusing dangerous forms of asbestos with the much commoner white asbestos, specialist contractors, helped by the Health and Safety Executive and a new law which came into force on Friday, are ripping off the public to the tune of billions of pounds.

On the same day the Sunday Times Magazine published a nine-page article which demonstrates just how irresponsible the propaganda promoting this scam has become. Proclaiming that "by 2050 almost 185,000 will have died in agony, and that's a best-case scenario", the article made no distinction between the different forms of asbestos.

It harrowingly described the sufferings of victims of mesothelioma, the cancer associated with other forms of asbestos - but which, the new studies show, has never been linked with white asbestos cement.

With a claim that I and The Telegraph oppose any ban on asbestos (we have never argued anything of the kind), the article contained not a single scientific fact. Its lurid projections of future deaths were based on no more than wild guesswork.

The nicest thing one could say about the article was that it was based on pure ignorance - except that it so gullibly reflected the propaganda of those who benefit commercially from the scam.

I would be delighted if The Sunday Times were prepared to put up the sources on which it based its article to argue with the eminent scientists whose findings I reported last week. But whenever such challenges have been offered in the past, either to the HSE or its supporters, they have proved strangely reluctant to expose their claims to public debate.

Scottish bulls are a red rag to Brussels

Eagle-eyed Brussels officials have noted with disapproval a scheme run since 1897 by the Crofters Commission in Inverness, whereby the far-flung small farmers of the Scottish highlands and islands have been able to hire the services of top-quality bulls and rams to inseminate their cows and ewes. Because this "livestock improvement scheme" relies on modest public funding, the officials of Mario Monti, the EU's competition commissioner, have ruled that it is in breach of "state aid rules".

It is wonderful to see how arbitrarily Mr Monti and his colleagues seem to decide what constitutes "illegal state aid". Only last week they approved a subsidy of 2 billion to the German coal industry as "compatible with the single market".

This was yet another instalment of those lavish subsidies which, by enabling German collieries to undercut their British competitors, are one reason why our coal industry is almost defunct. Monti also seems set to approve a subsidy of 2 billion to Alstom, the French company which, thanks to state aid, was able to bid competitively for the contract to build the huge new Cunard liner, the QM2.

Before this the Commission had approved similarly astronomic subsidies to Air France and the French computer firm, Bull. But when it comes to subsidising Scottish bulls, this is considered illegal. Perhaps the Crofters Commission should invest a few million pounds in opening an office in Brussels and taking some of those officials out to lunch?