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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 10/04/2005

Jowell ends our carnival tradition

An extraordinary blunder by Tessa Jowell and her officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) threatens to bring an end to one of the West Country's most spectacular traditions - the vast processions of brightly-lit carnival floats which parade each autumn through the streets of many Somerset towns, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity.

Thanks to an oversight in the drafting of Mrs Jowell's new Licensing Act, council officials fear that each carnival will now have to pay up to 64,000 for an annual licence - far more than they raise for charity - and making it impossible for them to survive.

When Mrs Jowell's officials drew up the 2003 Licensing Act, they made no allowance for the unusual character of the Somerset carnivals, which originated centuries ago in celebration of the defeat of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. At the centre of the processions are huge floats, up to 100 feet long, illuminated by tens of thousands of light bulbs.

Although the Act exempts moving floats, these are also accompanied by crowds of supporters in fancy dress, dancing, juggling and collecting money. It is this combination of floats with street theatre which has led council officials to conclude that, thanks to the vague wording of the Act, the carnivals can only be licensed according to the scale of the crowds drawn by these unique displays. Since the larger carnivals, such as Bridgwater's, attract 100,000 onlookers or more, this means they will have to pay the top rate of 64,000, bringing the total licensing bill to nearly 1 million.

This anomaly only came to light when Christian Lockyer, who reports for the Wells Journal and is himself a carnival club member, attended a recent meeting called by council licensing officers. Two hundred carnival supporters were horrified to hear of the sums they will be expected to pay from next November, when the new Act comes into force in mid-carnival season.

Jason Kirkwood of Mendip district council explains that the Act has presented Somerset's councils with a mighty headache. "The last thing we want to do is to stop carnivals", he says, "but the wording of the Act seems to leave us with no alternative but to charge larger carnivals at the top rate."

Mr Kirkwood approached the DCMS for guidance, but it appeared that its officials in London were unaware of Somerset's carnival tradition. A possibility suggested by the DCMS is that councils should take out the carnival licences themselves, then grant carnival committees permission to run them. One council department would thus pay the 64,000 to another. But as Mr Kirkwood points out, this would be "a political nightmare and would raise all sorts of liability issues. Anyway, it would take councils up to six months just to prepare a licensing application".

David Heathcoat-Amory, the Tory MP defending the Wells constituency for which he has sat since 1983, was so angered by the shambles that he has written to Mrs Jowell asking her to sort out "this absurd situation" as a matter of highest urgency. "Unless action is taken quickly," he says, "this could be the last year when Somerset's carnivals can be held. Thanks to bureaucratic bungling we shall lose a central part of our county's communal life."

In Europe, we have no peers

Even Europhile peers were shocked last week by the apparent contempt with which a Government minister, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, told them that, in relation to the European Union, they are no longer considered part of the UK Parliament.

The Tory peer Lord Marlesford questioned an obscure passage of the Government's European Union Bill, relating to the proposed "Constitution for Europe". The Constitution states that, should the Council of Ministers seek to abolish the few surviving national vetoes, on issues such as taxation and defence, and allow them to be decided by qualified majority voting, this could be done with the consent of the national parliaments, and without the need for any further treaty. The Government's Bill, however, puts this decision into the hands of the Commons alone.

Baroness Ashton, a junior minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, ex-plained that "since 25 nations are involved in the European Union, it is important that, if decisions are to be made on the voting system, 25 parliaments should make the decision, but not 25 parliaments plus 12 second houses".

The Lords, in other words, being only a "second house" - and "wholly unelected", as Lady Ashton emphasised - is no longer part of our Parliament. Or at least, not in the eyes of our own Government - which added this disqualification of our Upper House to the legislation of its own accord.

If this weird constitutional innovation in itself undermines the Prime Minister's insistence that taxation is one of his few remaining "red lines", it was further eroded last week when the European Court of Justice prepared to declare illegal a Treasury rule that companies cannot offsets losses in one EU country against their profits in another for tax purposes.

The tax repayments that companies such as Marks & Spencer, BT and Vodafone will be able to claim are so huge that, according to some tax experts, Gordon Brown could have to hand back up to 20 billion within a year or two - equivalent to 8p on income tax - blowing a further massive hole in the nation's finances.

But have no fear. Knowing how reluctant the Tories are to mention "Europe", and following the Howard Flight debacle, it is most unlikely that any Tory spokesman would dare raise such explosive issues in this election.

Defra strikes again in Hastings

There has been a further twist to the bizarre "war" being waged by local officials of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) against the Hastings fishermen who operate the largest surviving beach-launched fishing fleet in Europe. Next Thursday Michael Foster, a local solicitor, will take time off from campaigning to hold the seat he won in 1997 as Hastings's first-ever Labour MP, to appear in court, free of charge, defending the latest fishermen to face prosecution.

Last December Richard Adams's small fishing boat broke its propeller shaft when returning to shore. When this stopped him going back to collect his nets - worth thousands of pounds - he called on the assistance of his son Michael, who owns an even smaller boat used by sea anglers. After recovering two sets of nets, containing five fish which they gave to a helper on shore, they were told by a Defra official, Andrew Newlands, that they had committed a criminal offence by fishing from "an unlicensed vessel".

In vain did they protest, in somewhat vivid language, that the law only applies when fish are caught to be sold. Forbidden to fetch his remaining nets, Richard Adams lost them when a storm blew up. The two men were charged with four offences, including "harassing a fisheries officer" by using strong language.

This case follows one I reported in January when two other Hastings fishermen, Paul Joy and Graham Bossom, were fined 10,000 with 5,000 costs for catching more cod than they were allowed by their "monthly quota allocation", despite producing a letter from Franz Fischler, then the Brussels fisheries commissioner, confirming that "under 10 metre boats" such as theirs are not covered by quota rules.

Michael Foster argued in vain with the fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw that his officials appeared to be prosecuting the two men for an offence which did not exist. When he tried to get Mr Bradshaw to persuade his officials to take a more reasonable line over Richard and Michael Adams, the minister refused to intervene. Mr Foster is so concerned by Defra's conduct towards the Hastings fishermen that he has offered, whether or not he is re-elected, to represent the two men until their case is concluded.

Countryside dalliance

Defra may seem to be doing all it can to destroy our fishing and farming industries, but at least it has at heart the interests of one group in the countryside.

Hundreds of posters have been sent out by Prof Ian Rivers, of Leeds University's social inclusion unit, appealing for participants in "a research project focusing on the needs and experiences of lesbians, gay men and bisexual men and women living in rural communities". The "Rural LGB Project," Prof Rivers proudly explains, "is supported by Defra".