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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 12/09/2004)

Councillors silent on subjects they care about
Vital document slips through minister's net
The not-so-great debate
Transatlantic metrication

Councillors silent on subjects they care about

Now that the conduct of local councillors is being policed by the Standards Board of England (with its army of Ethical Standards Officers on 61,000 a year), it has become increasingly baffling for those prepared to serve their communities in this way to know what it is safe to say.

Members of South Cambridgeshire district council, for instance, have recently been told by their "monitoring officer", Chris Taylor, that they may be disqualified from discussing the siting of a mobile phone mast if they themselves use a mobile phone. Neither may they pronounce on a park-and-ride scheme if they drive a car; nor speak out against a proposed wind farm if they have previously made known their doubts about wind power.

All this has sparked serious concern among South Cambridgeshire councillors (five of whom are currently the subject of complaints to the Standards Board), following an incident involving a long-serving member of the council, Robin Page, a farmer and writer who runs the Countryside Restoration Trust. No issue is more sensitive in South Cambridgeshire these days than the pressures for new development, not least in that, thanks to John Prescott's housebuilding policy, the area faces the prospect of three new towns of between 10,000 and 18,000 homes each.

When Mr Taylor, as the council's legal officer, told councillors that they must not hesitate to voice the faintest suspicion that any of their colleagues might be allowing themselves to be unduly influenced by developers, Councillor Page echoed his concerns. "In my opinion," he told a committee, "the relationship between some councillors, some officers and some developers is far too close." Even if no money changed hands, "this could be interpreted as a form of corruption".

Mr Page, as a journalist familiar with the laws of defamation, was careful to keep his comments general. But he was immediately instructed by senior councillors that he must be more specific. He therefore indicated, as an example, that a certain councillor might have been reckless in attending a "soiree" given by a local developer which is planning a controversial scheme that Mr Page had opposed.

When the councillor objected, pointing out that it had not been a "soiree" but merely a private meeting at the developer's office, Mr Taylor himself complained about Mr Page's conduct to the Standards Board. Their investigations have now lasted for more than a year. Aware that more of his fellow councillors are now the subject of complaints, Mr Page asked Mr Taylor for a clearer definition of what councillors are permitted to say.

Mr Taylor has now set out his guidelines in a memorandum, including the suggestion that members with a mobile phone may consider themselves ineligible to discuss the siting of phone masts (this he equated with using influence to get a relative on to the housing list). So convoluted are these guidelines that councillors are more baffled than ever as to what they can or cannot say, although it appears that Mr Taylor is arguing that they must remain "open-minded" even on issues on which they campaigned for election.

Certainly, his councillors are unsure as to quite why such heavy-handed interference with their freedom of speech is necessary. As one put it to me last week (insistent he should not be identified): "In the old days this sort of thing was sorted out by councillors themselves. Now it is getting so Orwellian that we no longer know if we speak our minds whether we will be risking a year-long investigation or not."

Vital document slips through minister's net

The less our ministers understand of the complex system of government we are being sucked into by our involvement in the EU, the more they try to hide their ignorance behind petulant bluster. An example last week was the mess that the junior fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, got into when a Commons committee was discussing the Community Fisheries Protection Agency now being set up in Vigo, Spain, to direct enforcement of the Common Fisheries Policy.

Anyone who has got to Key Stage One on the CFP knows that the crucial information about the role of this agency is a Commission document called COM (2003) 130 Final on "uniform and effective enforcement of the CFP". This sets out how the new agency is to play the lead role in directing enforcement policy, to the point where it will be able to give orders to Royal Navy ships as to where they sail and what they must do.

When the Tories' fisheries spokesman, Owen Paterson, asked why MPs had not been given a copy of this document, Mr Bradshaw first claimed he was not aware that it existed, then said that he was "not interested in some communication by the Commission to the European Parliament which I have not seen". In fact, not only is COM130 the key text on the subject that Mr Bradshaw is paid to know about, but it was addressed last year to the EU Council of Ministers, of which Mr Bradshaw is supposed to be a member.

When Mr Paterson asked why the new agency has been sited in Vigo (described by Charles Clover, The Daily Telegraph's environment editor, in his recent book on the disastrous management of fisheries as "the world capital of illegal fishing"), Mr Bradshaw waved this aside, saying: "I am aware that Vigo was suggested at some stage, but it has yet to be confirmed."

Obviously his officials had not bothered to inform him that the choice of Vigo had been confirmed by the European Council last December, and that it has been in the process of being set up for several months. Since the whole purpose of Wednesday's debate was to discuss this agency, should we not wonder what it is that Mr Bradshaw actually gets paid for?

The not-so-great debate

One might not have guessed last week that one of the most important political debates of our lifetimes was finally creaking into gear, with the publication of documents by the Government and the Tory party on the proposed EU constitution. Just why, as taxpayers, we should fund the Government's White Paper is a mystery. It is simply empty propaganda, and almost every line cries out for a commentary to show which bits are half-truths, which wholly false and which just laughable.

It is all very well to claim that, thanks to the EU, we are free to take holidays on the Continent, and that, without the EU, we would be unable to introduce legislation to "protect consumers". But it is hard to see what relevance this has to supporting a constitution which merely confirms the setting up of the EU as a new state - one which is already empowered to make most of the laws that govern us.

The problem for the Tories opposing this nonsense is that, because they are all in favour of staying in the EU, they must pretend that it is only the new constitution that makes it unacceptable. But the more trenchantly they attack the constitution, the more they draw attention to the fact that it is only an extension of what we have already. They will thus have to fight the campaign with one hand tied behind their backs.

If we are really to have a serious national debate on a referendum unlikely to take place until 2006, these vacuous opening shots are not a very promising starting point.

Transatlantic metrication

For those of us who derive amusement from the way our media contort themselves in quasi-religious reverence for the metric system, the BBC's coverage of Hurricane Frances was a delight. As reporters stood in the howling storm prattling about windspeeds of "150 kilometres an hour" and rain falling in "centimetres", one could only marvel at the trouble they had taken, in the non-metric United States, to work out all the conversions, into measures that most of their audience would find hard to grasp. Unfortunately, the BBC still fails to understand that, under EU law, the centimetre is not a legally approved unit.

A newspaper which does understand the approved language is The Times which recently, in its "On This Day" slot, reprinted a report from 1912 on "the wettest August on record". With glorious disregard for history, the item asserted that the month had seen "more than 193 millimetres of rain" - a translation of 7.6 inches which would have made as little sense to most of its readers today as to their predecessors 86 years ago.