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Christopher Booker's notebook

(Filed: 27/03/2005)

  • A law that stinks to high heaven
  • Please may we be governed in English?
  • 'Deepnet' leaves fishermen reeling
  • Not to be sneezed at
  • A law that stinks to high heaven

    Graham Morris, a farmer near Builth Wells in mid-Wales, is an angry man. Like thousands of other sheep farmers, as the lambing season approaches its height, he is confronting for the first time the horrendous implications of one of the greatest regulatory shambles Brussels has ever created.

    Large numbers of lambs inevitably die or are stillborn on the hills, but farmers are no longer permitted to bury them or leave them to be eaten by foxes and birds. Under the EC's Animal By-Products Regulation, 1774/2002, all "fallen stock" must be gathered up and placed in sealed containers, to be collected by contractors, at a cost of up to 50 an animal, then transported, sometimes hundreds of miles, to be rendered down or incinerated in a licensed plant.

    This scheme is so hopelessly impractical that for nearly two years, in defiance of EC law, ministers turned a blind eye and allowed farmers to continue disposing of their stock by natural means, as they have since time immemorial. But this year the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its Scottish and Welsh counterparts are insisting the law must be obeyed, on pain of fines up to 5,000 for each offence.

    Farmers must thus wait up to five weeks to have carcases collected, often by vehicles so filthy that they make a mockery of hygiene or "biosecurity". As Mr Morris says, this "not only risks spreading infection among farms, but could be a hazard to human health; for instance by exposing pregnant women to the risk of infectious abortion".

    The front page of this week's Farmers Guardian is devoted to the "fallen stock shambles". It pictures an Anglesey farmer burying a dead sheep in defiance of the law, so that Easter holidaymakers are not exposed to the "filth and stench" from rotting carcasses.

    But the farmers' crisis is only part of the disaster brought about by this regulation, which was introduced by Brussels in 2002 in hysterical over-reaction to fears of BSE and foot and mouth. In 2003, when the ban on landfilling any "animal by-product" was due to come into force, it became clear this would be catastrophic for the retail trade, which every year must throw away hundreds of thousands of tons of meat and dairy products.

    When Tesco and other firms pointed out that it would be impossible to separate all these foodstuffs from their packaging, which rendering plants cannot take, their clout was sufficient for Brussels to give food retailers an exemption until December 31 2005. But with that date fast approaching, there is still no way large parts of the retail trade in Britain and across Europe can comply, as the British Retail Consortium last week explained to me. A BRC food scientist said that technology is being developed to split food from wrappings, but "we are still two or three years from having a workable system".

    The regulation was so ill-drafted that the retail trade has had to wait months for a precise definition from the Commission of an "animal by-product". Does it, for instance, include "honey nut flakes", because they contain honey?

    Last week Defra confirmed that the Commission is adamant that the law must come into force by December 31, even though it still has no idea what quantities of food this will involve. Those lambs rotting on Welsh farms are a fitting memorial to the obscene absurdity of a law which in every respect defies reason.

    Please may we be governed in English?

    A poignant plea has gone from Westminster to Margot Wallstrom, the vice-President of the European Commission charged with "selling" the EU to the peoples of Europe. It is signed by Jimmy Hood, the Labour MP who chairs the European Scrutiny Committee, which sits, in secret, examining the deluge of new legislation which pours out of Brussels, so it can go through the charade of being rubber-stamped by the UK Parliament.

    Each year tens of thousands of pages pass across the desks of the MPs on this committee, all written in impenetrable Euro-speak, liberally sprinkled with those buzz-words - "sustainable", "transparent", "stakeholders" and so on - that are now de rigueur in our system of government. But one document was such a bureaucratic self-parody that the MPs asked their chairman to write to Ms Wallstrom, pleading for something to be done to "improve the way in which the Commission communicates with the public".

    As an example they singled out this passage: "The complementarity between the Agenda and both the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy and the sustainable development strategy makes it necessary to ensure close dovetailing with other Community policies on the internal market, competitition and trade.

    "This approach implies taking full account of social and employment dimensions in other Community policies, and vice versa. The Integrated Impact Assessment tool developed by the Commission provides a valuable methodological contribution. Accordingly, the Social Agenda draws its inspiration from the Constitutitional Treaty, which proclaims the importance of an integrated approach."

    Alas, extruding such gobbledegook is so much second nature to Commission officials that they will not begin to understand the point our MPs are making.

    For instance, the Commission's recent package on "Better Regulation" included a proposal to "improve the intrinsic quality of the impact assessment of EU legislation by ensuring on a case-by-case basis the ex ante validation of external scientific experts of the methodology used for certain impact assessments".

    The UK businesses that now pay out 100 billion a year as the cost of EC-inspired red-tape (the Commission's own estimate) might love to think something could be done to reduce it, But I fear that, like the MPs, they may have a long wait.

    'Deepnet' leaves fishermen reeling

    Britain's fishermen have been shocked by a report, Deepnet 1, from the North Atlantic Fisheries Commission exposing an ecological disaster now unfolding in the deep waters off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Up to 50 large fishing vessels, mainly Spanish "flag boats" registered in the UK, are leaving up to 5,000 miles of gill nets hanging in the water unattended, then clocking in at Milford Haven or other British ports to legitimise their presence in UK waters, before returning to pick up their harvest.

    Up to 70 per cent of the catch, including monkfish and sharks, is so badly rotted by the time they return that it must be discarded. As much as 20 miles of netting is abandoned on each trip, continuing to snare fish for no purpose (what is known as "ghost fishing"). Stocks of different species have been reduced by up to 80 per cent.

    This week's Fishing News carries the headline "Minister takes action over Deepnet report". What this means, it turns out, is not that our fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, will be sending out Royal Navy fisheries protection vessels to stop this illegal practice in UK fishing waters. Mr Bradshaw merely says "I will be raising these issues with the European Commission".

    As it happens, the Council of Ministers, including Mr Bradshaw, has just approved the setting-up of the new European Fisheries Control Agency, to take over all law enforcement in EU waters. It is to be in Vigo, Spain, once described by the environmental journalist Charles Clover as "the world capital of illegal fishing". We can be confident that halting the "Deepnet disaster" will not be high on its agenda.

    Not to be sneezed at

    A Cheshire reader sends me the instruction leaflet for an illuminated electric peppermill, costing a few pounds and powered by four AA batteries. This insists that the "lightbulb should only be replaced by a qualified electrician".

    Last week it was revealed that to have two light bulbs changed by an outside contractor, the BBC paid 57 a time. But knowing the call-out cost of electricians in some parts of the country, I think the BBC got a bargain which peppermill owners might envy.