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Christopher Booker's notebook

By Christopher Booker (Filed: 10/07/2005)

Europeanisation of the British Army is coming on the double

In what must rank as one of the most bizarre events in the history of British defence policy, a junior minister recently admitted that the cost of a single vehicles-and-weapons project for the British Army has soared in less than a year from 6 billion to 14 billion, making it by far the most costly military equipment programme ever planned.

On a day when the front-bench defence teams were in Portsmouth for the Trafalgar review, only two MPs were present in Westminster Hall: Don Touhig, the minister, and Ann Winterton, the Tory MP who initiated the debate.

What made this even more astonishing is that the project itself, planned as part of the EU's rush to establish its own integrated armed forces, independent of Nato, rules out any future British military partnership with the US, thus spelling an end to the Anglo-American "special relationship".

The subject raised by Ann Winterton was the Future Rapid Effect System (FRES), the Ministry of Defence's plan to equip the British Army with a new generation of satellite-coordinated vehicles and weapons systems.

Although planning for this project has been shrouded in secrecy, the aim of FRES - a cut-price version of the Future Combat System being developed for the US Army - is to equip the British Army to take part in the EU's 60,000-strong "rapid reaction force".

Planning for this is being co-ordinated by the new European Defence Agency (EDA), set up in Brussels in January under a former MoD civil servant, Nick Witney. It was also for this purpose that the Government last year announced the restructuring of the Army, involving the abolition or merger of 19 historic regiments.

On June 28, Mr Touhig dropped into his reply to Ann Winterton the admission that FRES will now involve the purchase of 3,500 vehicles at a cost of 14 billion (4 million per vehicle). He did not add that this represents a massive escalation of the plan announced last year to spend 6 billion on 900 vehicles.

The procurement cost now therefore equates to 600 for every taxpayer in the country. Furthermore the total "lifetime cost" of the original 900 vehicles, over 30 years, was given last year as 49 billion. When I asked the MoD last week for the "lifetime cost" of the 3,500 vehicles now proposed (which pro rata should be over 100 billion) it failed to reply.

Mr Touhig also assured Ann Winterton that FRES would not rely on Galileo, the satellite system planned by the EU as a rival to the US's GPS. Galileo, he insisted, is only intended for civilian use. His officials clearly did not tell him that FRES must be built to a "European standard", which will ensure that it must rely on EU satellites rather than GPS and other US systems.

This will make it impossible for FRES-equipped forces to operate alongside US forces in a battle zone, since each system will identify the units that are not integrated with it as potential enemies.

The speed at which Britain is now being sucked into the new "European defence identity" is breathtaking. In another recent series of parliamentary questions, Ann Winterton eventually forced the MoD to come clean about another 166 million Army contract, for light multi-purpose vehicles to replace its Land Rovers and Saxons.

The MoD originally stated that this was to be built by British Aerospace (the division which was formerly Alvis). But further questioning revealed that these 401 "Panthers" are in fact to be purchased, all but the roof, from an Italian firm Iveco, at 413,000 each, twice the cost of a Rolls Royce and four times that of the equivalent US Humvee.

This follows the MoD's remarkable but almost unreported announcement last November that the Army's biggest ever trucks order, worth 1.6 billion, was going to Man-Nutzfahrzeuge in Germany.

To the dismay of military experts, this was in preference to bids from two US-British consortia offering trucks of superior performance - which would also thus have retained thousands of British jobs - because EU defence procurement policy now insists that contracts with wholly "European" firms should be preferred to those with a US component.

If the 20 billion we are shelling out for the useless Eurofighter, thanks to Michael Heseltine back in 1986, seems a high price to pay for EU defence integration, we can now see this was only the start of it. What is even more startling is the lengths to which our Government will go to hide it from view.

Prosecuted for passing himself off as himself

A funeral director in a Dorset village last week applied to the House of Lords for leave to appeal against a court ruling that he must no longer trade under his own name, as he has been doing for 40 years. He is forbidden to tell anyone what he does for a living, and is told that if he answers the telephone he cannot even give his own name.

During the decades that Richard Adlem has been burying his neighbours around Sixpenny Handley, he has won such a local reputation that those whose funerals he organised included a former prime minister, Lord Avon (Anthony Eden) and Cecil Beaton, the photographer.

In 1993, Mr Adlem took on a partner, Stephen Beckwith, hoping he might one day carry on the business. For a nominal 10 he sold him part of the business, the chapel of rest which adjoins Mr Adlem's farmhouse. For seven years they worked happily together until Mr Beckwith decided to emigrate to Canada.

He told Mr Adlem he had sold his share in the business to Newman's, a large firm of undertakers in Salisbury. Mr Adlem was then astonished to receive a letter from Newman's solicitors, telling him he could no longer carry on the business under his own name, since it had been sold to Newman's.

Mr Adlem replied that he had never sold his name to Mr Beckwith, as was confirmed by their original contract. He intended to carry on as usual.

From here on the story became truly bizarre. Clients of Newman's protested to trading standards officials and to the Advertising Standards Authority that they had been misled into thinking their family funerals would be carried out by Mr Adlem. Newman's themselves replied in writing that they had no intention of preventing Mr Adlem carrying on under his own name.

Then in 2003, out of the blue, Mr Adlem found himself summoned to the High Court in London to face an action for "passing off": namely passing himself off as himself. The judge, a specialist in this field of law, had no hesitation in finding in Mr Adlem's favour. The case, he ruled, was so straightforward there were no grounds for appeal.

Newman's solicitors thought otherwise. When they applied to the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Jacob first gave leave, then reappeared as one of three judges to hear their appeal.

He expressed impatience at the fact that Mr Adlem was not represented by a proper barrister, but by an unqualified neighbour. A second judge, Lady Justice Arden, found firmly in Mr Adlem's favour. Jacob and a third judge, who had no experience in "passing off" law, supported Newman's.

Mr Adlem thus found himself in the curious position, as he has been tirelessly reminded by Newman's solicitors (three more letters arrived last week on one day), that he must stop using his own name in any connection with his business.

He cannot even announce his name when answering the telephone. He faces a legal bill of more than 200,000. Encouraged by outraged support from almost the entire population of Sixpenny Handley, he last week lodged papers with the highest court in the land, hoping that common sense may prevail.

The HiFlier's fate hangs on the word of a Eurocrat

Last week brought a remarkable glimpse of how Britain is now governed, when a British MP had to fly to Cologne, to plead with an EU civil servant to stop British officials closing down a world-beating business run by one of his constituents.

For two years, alongside this column, Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, has been battling to save a business run in Oswestry by the Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand from the Kafka-esque nightmare which followed when, in 2003, the power to certify all aircraft in the EU was handed to the new European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

Thanks to a quirk of British law, this meant that Dr Lindstrand's main product, the HiFlyer, a 500,000 passenger-carrying balloon which rises up and down on a wire, could no longer be sold in the EU. UK law classifies them as "fairground rides" not aircraft, leaving the market open to his only competitor, a French firm.

For 18 months the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) put one obstacle after another in the way of allowing Dr Lindstrand's product to be reclassified as an aircraft. In March his plight was raised by the MEP Ashley Mote with EASA's certification director, Dr Norbert Lohl, who then personally signed the certificate that Dr Lindstrand needed.

But the CAA came up with further obstacles. When I reported this, the authority wrote to this newspaper claiming that he was now free to sell his product. This remains wholly untrue.

Last Thursday, Mr Paterson took Dr Lindstrand to see Dr Lohl, who, emphasising that the CAA now acts under his orders, promised that he and his staff would do all they could to resolve the problem.

The story is not yet over. But what it reveals is that the CAA, once respected across the world, is now just a resentful branch office, with little obvious concern for the interests of Britain's aviation industry (85 other firms face similar problems). British ministers have abdicated all responsibility.

The power now lies with a newly-recruited team of technocrats in Germany, to whom all problems must be referred. It is up to them to show that a real crisis for Britain's aviation industry can now be averted.

Her Majesty's ship

There was unhappiness recently when, in the Solent, the Queen had to review the fleet from a "bus shelter" perched on top of the icebreaker Endurance.

To provide her with a new Royal Yacht would have cost 60 million. This equates to two days' worth of Britain's 11.5-billion-a-year payments into the EU budget.