Christopher Booker's notebook
An extraordinary impasse has arisen in the North-East, following the referendum last November in which voters threw out John Prescott's plan for an elected regional assembly by an overwhelming margin of four-to-one. Last week the unelected North-East Assembly, made up of councillors and representatives of local bodies, announced that it was to set itself up as a limited company under a new name. The reason publicly given for this by the Assembly's chairman, Alex Watson, was that they wished "to engage with the public better than we have done".
What Mr Watson did not reveal was the real reason for this new policy. It is now more than a year since Neil Herron, the leader of the campaign against an elected North-East Assembly, uncovered the embarrassing fact that, since the unelected assembly was an unincorporated body, its members were personally responsible for all its financial obligations, including the contracts and pension rights of its employees. Between them they had thus unwittingly taken on liabilities amounting to millions of pounds.
Initially the assembly tried to deny this, but Mr Herron's point was subsequently confirmed by lawyers, including those for North Tyneside council. Since this unfortunate fact came to light, the assembly has been seeking to set itself up as a limited company, in the hope of relieving its members of this burden of personal liability. But when they tried to set up the North-East Assembly as a company, they found that Mr Herron had got there first. He had already registered that name.
Worse was to come, because Mr Herron then pointed out that, under the 1985 Companies Act, for them to set up such a company would not absolve them of their existing obligations. And then Mr Herron produced his trump card. Since the councillors who were members had voted for their councils to provide the assembly with funds, they were in breach of the 1972 Local Government Act, because they had voted to give public money to a body in which they themselves had a financial interest.
So it appears that the councillors on the North-East Assembly have not only taken on a personal liability from which it is impossible for them to extricate themselves, but Mr Herron is now asking the police to investigate evidence that they also have been acting in clear breach of the law. Since it appears that similar breaches of the law have taken place in other English regions, he is also making available a set of searching questions (via email@example.com) for voters to put to their own councils.
When Mr Prescott sought to impose by stealth his scheme for elected regional governments, he could hardly have foreseen the tangled web in which it would end up being ensnared.
There was extensive media coverage last week of the European Court of Justice's ruling in favour of the Brussels directive on vitamin and mineral supplements. The choice of the 21 million people in Britain who use them will be drastically restricted when thousands of products are forced off the shelves, because it will cost between £80,000 and £250,000 for testing to allow each preparation to continue to be sold.
I have often written about this since 1994, when the directive first came into view, because it provides such a revealing case-study in how we are now governed. There is no scientific reason for the new law. Its greatest beneficiaries will be the pharmaceutical companies who have lobbied for it in Brussels, because it will drive thousands of their smaller competitors out of business. They have freely used bogus science to whip up a scare that misuse of food supplements can cause adverse reactions (albeit in only a tiny minority of users), while hiding away the fact that tens of thousands of people each year suffer much more serious, even fatal health damage from their own proprietary drugs, all licensed, at vast expense, as being safe to use.
The Brussels directive completely changes the basis on which food safety is regulated in Britain, by reversal of the burden of proof, as under Napoleonic law. In this country you may sell any food, but you face severe penalties if it proves to be damaging to health. Under the Continental system, the burden of proof lies with the seller. You may only sell what you are explicitly pemitted to sell. Only the 112 products on the directive's so-called "positive list" will therefore be legal.
Finally, the ECJ last week broke with its established practice and overruled the opinion of its own Advocate-General, who had supported those complaining that the directive breached European law. This was because the ECJ is less a judicial than a political body. Its judges are political appointees and many would not be qualified to sit as judges in their own country. Their primary role is to support the Commission. And if the Commission bows to the lobbying of the pharmaceutical industry and produces a directive which will shut down smaller competitors and deprive millions of Europeans of the right to take the vitamin and mineral products they find beneficial, then the ECJ knows where its duty lies.
Stephen Byers, in admitting that he had lied to a Commons committee over Railtrack, was not the only minister to be caught out in a falsehood last week. A furore also blew up in the West Country over remarks made on BBC television by the fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw. But what made Mr Bradshaw's conduct even odder was the vehemence with which he accused everyone else of lying, when the evidence that he himself was the guilty party was staring him in the face.
Mr Bradshaw's outburst was sparked by a report in the Western Morning News which, on a wide range of issues, from fisheries to windfarms, currently holds the prize as the most effective campaigning regional newspaper in Britain.
The paper had plucked from a report by Mr Bradshaw a proposal that small inshore fishermen should pay £1,000-a-year for a licence, as a contribution to the ever-growing cost of regulating their activities.
Not unnaturally local fishermen, so highly regulated that they find it hard to earn a living, were upset, so Mr Bradshaw was asked on the BBC's Politics Show to defend his proposal. Instead of doing so, he lashed out wildly in all directions, accusing the WMN of publishing "fiction", the BBC of "lies and scaremongering", and Sheryll Murray, also on the programme as a former councillor married to a fisherman, of talking "complete rubbish".
"I am well aware of the facts," said Bradshaw. "I happen to be the fisheries minister who wrote the report." The BBC presenter held up a copy, taken from Mr Bradshaw's ministry website, clearly stating that "It is currently Defra's policy to charge for regulatory services"; that it would therefore be "appropriate" to apply this to the inshore fishermen and that this "could raise around £2.5 million" a year.
So, on Mr Bradshaw's own admission, he was responsible for having written the very words he was now denying. His Tory opposite number, Owen Paterson MP, said: "I don't understand why Ben Bradshaw is throwing a tantrum over this. It took my secretary only 30 seconds to find the relevant passage on the internet." Mr Bradshaw himself later conceded that his report had after all made some mention of charging fishermen £1,000, but continued to deny that this was a "proposal".
One has to wonder what it is that can so isolate ministers from reality that they can claim in the most brazen manner that black is white in this way. Yet these are the men who have the power to both make and enforce the law.
It is not surprising that Britain's fishermen feel their industry has fallen into the clutches of an alien power which is determined to destroy them - and is apparently quite happy to tell lies as it does so.
A while back I reported that 35 remote Cornish villages had been deprived of their weekly visit from a mobile HSBC bank because the £500,000 cost of providing a vehicle compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act made it no longer viable. Last Wednesday, the 550 patients of a GP practice in the little village of New Radnor on the Welsh borders had a similar experience when they lost their local surgery.
The reasons for this closure, leaving the villagers furious, in fact provide an even subtler picture of how regulation is closing in on us all. The need to make the surgery compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act was only the start. The works for this then brought to light the fact that the old building did not comply with fire regulations. This in turn led the insurers to withdraw public liability cover, forcing the doctors to close their premises at once. The villagers must now find their way to the next nearest surgery at Kington, more than five miles away.
Meanwhile, in the village of Norton Fitzwarren in Somerset, the landlord of The Ring Of Bells last week had to take down the display of flower baskets that have four times won him the prize of Prettiest Village Pub in his borough, because Somerset County Council ruled that they were lower than the prescribed height of "2.5 metres" and did not allow the required "1.8 metre" space on the "footway". In both cases the villagers can, of course, rest assured that our regulators only ever do such things because they have our best interests at heart.