Christopher Booker's notebook
Without hunting, we will incur vast EU fines And a very happy Europe Day to you £60,000 pa - not worth mentioning Sentence passed on the Glen Parva Four
The clamour by more than 200 MPs for the Government to get on with its ban on hunting has presented ministers with an impossible dilemma. Officials of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have worked out that the only way Britain can comply with an EC regulation banning the on-farm burial of "fallen stock" - stillborn lambs, old cows and other animals that die of natural causes - is to call on the assistance of hunt kennels, which feed the meat to hounds. If a hunting ban means the kennels can no longer help, there is no way the Government can comply with EC law. It will thus face fines totalling millions of euros.
Even by the standards of the EU, the Animal By-Products regulation, 1774/2001, has created an astonishing fiasco. Inspired by wild-eyed exaggeration of the dangers of BSE, the regulation bans the burial of any "animal products", from dead chickens to pork pies, which must now be rendered into powder and incinerated.
It was obvious at once that this was totally impracticable. Since Britain has nothing like enough rendering or incineration capacity to cope with the millions of tons of meat products thrown away each year by supermarkets, Tesco and other big chains were given a "derogation" by Brussels, exempting them from the near-impossible task of separating meat products from their packaging (which cannot be rendered) until 2005.
Since May 1 last year, however, it has been a criminal offence for farmers to continue their age-old, harmless practice of burying fallen stock on the farm. Yet with no other arrangements in place to collect the stock, including millions of dead chickens, most farmers have been forced, with Defra's tacit consent, to break the law.
Defra has made forlorn attempts to install a "national disposal scheme", even setting up a Fallen Stock Company to organise it, although EC rules on "illegal state aid" limit the subsidies available to pay for it to a hopelessly inadequate £10 million (rules which France ignores). But because Britain still has not enough incineration capacity, Defra has concluded that its scheme can only work if hunts continue their traditional service to farmers by collecting larger animals, estimated by the Countryside Alliance at up to half a million sheep and cattle a year. Of 186 premises approved by Defra to collect on behalf of its Fallen Stock Co, 93 - exactly half - are hunt kennels.
The shambles of Defra's disposal scheme can be illustrated by the experience of Andrew Brown, a Leicestershire farmer, who, like any sheep farmer, recently lost a good few lambs during the lambing season. When he rang Defra, they said they could only collect sheep more than 18 months old and which had not been dead more than 24 hours. But they were closed from Friday to Sunday. Although they could not help with his lambs, Mr Brown did also have three ewes to dispose of. Next day a lorry arrived from 30 miles away to take them to Stratford-on-Avon, where they were put on another truck to be taken to a renderer 150 miles away in Exeter. Here their heads were removed and trucked back to Stratford, to be tested by Defra scientists, under more EC rules, for scrapie.
Such madness would only be multiplied by a ban on hunting, leaving Defra's scheme wholly unworkable. The minister, Alun Michael, suggested to MPs that, even if hunting were banned, the kennels might remain open as "a business proposition", not realising that kennels can only help farmers with stock disposal because hunts subsidise this by £4 million a year. Even if hunting remains legal, kennels must still incinerate what remains, and, under yet more EC rules, most of their incinerators will soon become illegal. Whichever way Mr Blair plays it, it seems he will soon be looking at a colossal fine - while thousands of farmers must continue acting as criminals because they are given no alternative.
One of the blessings to be showered on us if we sign up to the proposed EU constitution is that it will become compulsory to celebrate today, May 9, as "Europe Day". This is because on May 9, 1950 someone called Robert Schuman read out a piece of paper written for him by Jean Monnet, proposing a European Coal and Steel Community, which Monnet then announced as "the first government of Europe".
A few years back, MEPs proposed that bank holidays throughout the EU should be "harmonised". Whichever day was a bank holiday in one country should be made a bank holiday in all the others. Their scheme came unstuck when it emerged that there was only one day in May which was not a bank holiday in some country or other. European citizens would have to be given the entire month off, reducing Community GDP by even more than the EU was achieving anyway.
So instead we shall celebrate "Europe Day" together, dancing round maypoles decked with the ring of stars to the tune of our "European anthem". Might we even consider calling it the "European Central Bank Holiday"?
One of the most fiercely-guarded rules of the House of Lords is that peers wishing to speak must declare any "interest" they may have in the subject under discussion, however peripheral. For instance, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who has a mentally handicapped daughter, was sternly instructed that he must declare this as an "interest" in any debate touching on the plight of the disabled.
Pearson was particularly struck, therefore, when he noted a glaring exception to this rule. Around a dozen peers regularly receive generous payments as former employees of the European Union, including six former Commissioners on EU pensions of £60,000 a year. They are bound by the rules to uphold the EU's interests at all times, on threat of losing their pensions. Yet whenever they speak in favour of the EU and all its works, which they tirelessly do, this does not count as an "interest" which must be declared.
After relentless prodding from Pearson, the House Committee for Privileges grudgingly agreed to look into the point. A sub-committee under Lord Browne-Wilkinson, a law lord, commissioned their chairman to produce a legal opinion. Lord Browne-Wilkinson opined there was no reason why receipt of money from Brussels should be considered a financial "interest". When his committee was divided over his opinion, two against two, he exercised his casting vote as chairman in favour of his own report.
Pearson has now put in for an hour-long debate on the matter. He will doubtless be opposed by a phalanx of ex-commissioners, bursting with indignation at the thought that receiving £60,000 a year on condition that one shows loyalty to the EU could conceivably be considered an "interest" to be declared. Certainly it cannot be compared in any way, for instance, with a duty to declare that one might be interested in speaking about the problems of the handicapped because one has a disabled child.
When the chairman of Glen Parva parish council in Leicestershire proposed that a grant of £300 should be made to a village club for retired people, Councillors Button and Pearce "declared an interest", as club members. They did not speak or vote. But because they did not leave the room, an anonymous complaint was made to the Standards Board, set up to enforce the new "code of conduct" for councillors, that they and two others were in breach of the rules.
The investigation lasted nine months, culminating in a full hearing involving 15 people, including lawyers, district councillors and a senior "enforcement officer" of the Standards Board (salary £61,000). The hearing lasted four hours, including a free lunch. All four Glen Parva councillors were found guilty and sentenced to a course of "training" in how to follow the rules. The whole charade cost tens of thousands of pounds.
The Standards Board has issued a pamphlet encouraging members of the public to complain about councillors' conduct (and reminding councillors themselves of their duty to report on misconduct by each other). The booklet twice underlines that complaints can only be made about councillors, not about officials - even those who think it sensible to spend thousands of pounds of public money investigating a wholly innocuous grant of £300.