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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 21/11/2004)


The battle of Hastings
The new electrical rules will be a shock
With a friend like Brown, our industry needs no enemies
Don't mention the fraud

The battle of Hastings

The strange case of Paul Joy, the leader of the fishermen in Hastings, Sussex, strikingly llustrates the gulf between our fishermen and the ministers and officials of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who rule their lives on behalf of Brussels. Mr Joy and his colleague Graeme Bosom face criminal prosecution and possible fines of 50,000 for breaking fishing quota rules - even though Defra admits that there are no quota rules for them to break.

The small boats daily hauled down the Hastings shingle constitute the largest such beach-based fleet in Europe. They have been fishing like this in Hastings since the Middle Ages, and in 1588, for their services in repelling the Spanish Armada, the local fishermen were granted the right to fish the neighbouring grounds in perpetuity.

The Hastings boats are small, less than 10 metres long, so they are not subject to many of the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy that apply to larger boats. As Franz Fischler, the EU's former fisheries commissioner, has confirmed, they do not have to keep logbooks or have special permits. Nor do they require individual quotas to fish, though their catches must remain within an annual limit allocated by Defra from the total cod-catch permitted by Brussels in the Channel (of which French fishermen receive 18,000 tonnes and English fishermen 1,750 tonnes).

In September 2003, cod were so abundant in the waters off Hastings that whenever Mr Joy was out fishing for plaice he could not avoid pulling in a "by-catch" of mature cod. He was not troubled by this, since Hastings was still way below its yearly allocation, and each catch was registered by a Defra inspector.

It was not until the following month that Mr Joy was told he faced criminal charges for breaching his licensing conditions by landing too many cod. Defra, it appears, had decided that the annual cod allowance for the Hastings fishermen should be divided into 12 equal portions, each to be regarded as a "monthly allocation".

Both Mr Joy and Mr Bosom, similarly charged, are on legal aid. The mystery to be unravelled by their lawyers, who include experts in both European and criminal law, is how they can be charged for exceeding a notional "monthly allocation" when, at the time of their alleged offence, three-quarters of the way through the year, only 53 per cent of their annual allocation had been caught.

The case is so puzzling that Mr Joy and his colleague have won cross-party support, from both their Labour MP, Michael Foster, and the local prospective Tory candidate, Mark Coote, who has also now been backed by the Tories' front-bench fisheries spokesman, Owen Paterson MP. Mr Foster, himself a lawyer, has written to the fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, asking why, across the EU, it appears to be only in Britain that small inshore fishermen are penalised in this way.

Mr Paterson, who recently visited Hastings as part of a nationwide tour of fishing communities, says: "At every port I visit, from Shetland to Newlyn, from Fleetwood to Whitby, I find similar anomalies, as evidence of a ministry which seems to have declared war on our fishermen." Meanwhile the fate of Mr Joy and Mr Bosom will be decided in Lewes Crown Court in January.

The new electrical rules will be a shock

Last Monday, inspired by a recent report in this column, Radio 4'sYou and Yours programme devoted its lead item to the chaos that will be unleashed on January 1 when John Prescott's new Part P regulations come into force, applying to all domestic electrical work. The programme-makers had rung me for contact details of the electrician Clive Brittain, featured in my column, who then played a lead role in their own item.

When I briefed the BBC, I told them they could not do a properly professional job on covering these new regulations without explaining why they were being so hastily and chaotically introduced to comply, under an EU directive, with standards laid down in Brussels. Knowing the BBC's reluctance to admit that unpopular legislation emanates from Brussels, I was not surprised when the sole explanation offered for this controversial edict was that, thanks to faulty electrical work, "people are killed, fires are caused and people are injured on an annual basis".

This may also explain why the programme also made no mention of the new colour-coding for electrical cables, also due on January 1, which many electricians fear could actually increase the risk of such accidents. The new system reverses the old coding whereby red indicated a live wire and black stood for neutral, so that black now indicates a live wire and neutral is blue. This could lead to confusion, as the Institute of Electrical Engineering acknowledges, but it tamely concludes that "it is generally considered that the risk is a manageable one".

Naturally the BBC could not risk crossing its own wires by mentioning this, since it could scarcely have avoided mentioning that this change is also necessitated by the requirement - you've guessed it - to "harmonise with Europe".

With a friend like Brown, our industry needs no enemies

Much excitement was caused last week by a Treasury report by Alan Wood, the chief executive of the engineering group Siemens. It was billed as being a great attack by Gordon Brown on the failings of the EU's "procurement rules", under which public bodies are required to put all but their smallest contracts out to tender to firms all across the EU. I have many times reported in this column how the UK loses billions of pounds a year by meekly complying with these directives which other countries, notably France, Germany and Italy, usually ignore. Only last summer I described this as "one of the greatest, if largely unreported scandals of the EU".

The most obvious way to test the one-sidedness of the system is to analyse the EU Official Journal's daily list of contracts. Some years back, when the Institute of Civil Engineering did this, it found that 50 per cent of all the engineering contracts advertised came from the UK.

The Wood report did not repeat this exercise, but it did make some trenchant, if generalised, complaints about how the market is rigged against Britain. Where the press got it completely upside down, however, was in claiming that the report was attacking the EU. On the contrary, its main recommendation was that the Commission should be given more powers, to ensure that procurement rules are enforced more fairly.

If Gordon Brown is really interested in protecting British interests, he should ask the Ministry of Defence to explain why it is only allowing a German firm, Man-Nutzfarzheuge, to bid for one of our largest ever defence contracts, to re-equip the British Army with trucks at a cost of 1.8 billion. The chief rival bidder was an Anglo-US consortium, including three British firms. By deciding in favour of the German firm, whose truck design many defence experts believe is less fitted for the task, thousands of jobs will be lost to Britain, at UK taxpayers' expense. And this extraordinary decision has still aroused scarcely a squeak of protest from our press.

Don't mention the fraud

It became obvious yesterday that Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party's MEPs, had pulled off quite a coup in the European Parliament. Last Thursday in Strasbourg he revealed that the EU's new transport commissioner, Jacques Barrot, had been given an eight-month suspended prison sentence in 2000 for his involvement in a French political funding scandal. Mr Barrot's role transfering 2.5 million of taxpayers' money into party funds had been hushed up by the grant of a "presidential amnesty", making it illegal under French law to mention his conviction. But on Friday the Commission's president, Jose Manuel Barroso, clearly embarrassed, admitted that he had not known of Mr Barrot's criminal record when appointing him as a Commission vice-president. By yesterday the leaders of both the Liberal and Socialist groups in the European Parliament, who had initially scorned the UKIP leader's revelations, were reluctantly supporting him.

Tomorrow Mr Farage plans to throw more fuel on the fire. He will raise questions about the record of other commissioners approved by the Parliament last week, most notably Siim Kallas, now holder of the anti-fraud portfolio. In the late 1990s Estonia's former finance minister, previously a leading Communist, faced a long-running trial for the theft of $10 million from Estonia's Central Bank during an oil-trading scam in 1993. He was eventually acquitted, but again it will be asked how much Mr Barroso was aware of this before he chose Mr Kallas to root out fraud in the EU.

Even before starting work, it seems Mr Barroso's team could be facing embarrassments as great as those which led to the resignation of the entire Commission in 1999. How apt, it may be thought, that this was set in train by a party which wishes to see Britain out of the EU altogether.