Christopher Booker's notebook
EU directive delivers a nasty shockTo Tony Blair, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy, "Europe" is a lofty abstraction which, for various reasons, they don't much wish to talk about. But for Dave Walker, a 43-year-old electrician in Bristol, it has become a very frightening reality, forcing him to wonder whether he and his family can afford to go on living in their home.
Last February, Mr Walker was asked by Mrs Godfrey, a pensioner living in a council flat, to fit a heated towel rail in her bathroom. Up to January this would have presented no problem. He could have carried out the work quickly and efficiently, charging her around £60.
Now, however, Mr Walker was aware of the new "Part P" building regulations, rushed through last summer by John Prescott to comply with EC directive 98/34, under which Britain had to harmonise with various European electrical standards. This meant that, to carry out all but very minor domestic electrical work, Mr Walker had two choices. Either he would have to be certified as a "competent domestic installer" by the Government-approved National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting (NICEIC). Or, to carry out wiring or any work in a bathroom or kitchen, his work would have to be approved and inspected, for a fee, by his local council.
Mr Walker therefore applied to NICEIC to be certified, on a yearly basis, which currently costs £877.50. He even sent a cheque. But he was told he could not be certified unless NICEIC could inspect his work on a whole house. Since his work consists only of small jobs for homeowners, and the only house he had wired was his own, which did not count, NICEIC was unable to certify him and sent back his money.
Despite the fact that he has full City & Guilds qualification, which required five years' theoretical and practical work, and has done his job for years without complaint, Mr Walker had to tell his customer that, under the new rules, since the towel rail was for a bathroom, she would have to ask the council's permission.
Bristol city council replied, in what it calls "a standard letter", that it had "no objection to the installation of a heated towel rail". To get approval, though, Mr Walker would have to provide a certificate guaranteeing the safety of all the electrical installation in her home. This, he calculated, would involve more than a day's work, inspecting and reporting on all her wiring and each plug and light socket, and would cost about £600 - which was plainly out of the question. After further consultation with the council, the problem was solved by placing the towel rail outside the bathroom.
But Mr Walker now finds himself disqualified from doing do much of the work which until recently provided most of his income. If it were not for the money he gets for fostering two children, he says, he would be unable to keep up his mortgage payments.
According to NICEIC, the purpose of the new regulations is to stamp out the "cowboys" who do faulty and dangerous work. But the effect, it seems, is the opposite. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many small electricians are either surviving only by ignoring Part P, or are giving up. (When Mr Walker went to the Jobcentre he was told many electricians had been in asking about other work.) This creates an opening for precisely the "cowboys" Part P was intended to eliminate. It seems many householders must choose between a "competent" electrician who has had to raise his charges to pay for certification, or a "cowboy" who can do it on the cheap.
What few homeowners have grasped is that Part P applies equally to do-it-yourself electrical work. To carry out any work in a kitchen or bathroom without council permission is an offence punishable by a fine of up to £5,000. And to have it inspected will cost you an average £65. Thank you, Mr Prescott - and of course those diligent civil servants who pointed out directive 98/34 to him.
Barroso faces questioning by parliament
Considering the excitement in the German, Spanish and Italian press last week over a drama that was set in train by a British Euro-MP, it seems strange that it has almost been ignored here. The story centred on the holiday that Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, spent last August on a yacht owned by Spiro Latsis, the Greek billionaire (on another of whose yachts Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have been enjoying their honeymoon).
In February Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party members in the European Parliament, wrote to Mr Barroso asking whether he had enjoyed any hospitality which might give rise to a conflict of interest. Mr Barroso declined to reply. But when a German newspaper, Die Welt, unearthed the story of his holiday, he explained that Mr Latsis was an old friend of 30 years' standing, while the Commission's chief spokesman said that Mr Latsis's empire had not "benefited from EU funding" and had "no business ties with the EU".
But the EU's ramifications are so extensive that, regardless of funding, it is hard for a European business to have no dealings of any kind with it. There was no reason why Mr Barroso should have known about it, but at the time of his holiday the Commission had for months been discussing an application for permission under "state aid rules" for the Greek government to pay €10.3 million to the Lamda Shipyard, which refits expensive yachts. The yard is 75 per cent owned by Lamda Developments, in which the Latsis family has a 65 per cent interest.
In September, the subsidy was approved by Mario Monti, who was competition commissioner under Mr Barroso's predecessor, Romano Prodi. It was this decision, apparently qualifying the Commission's claim that there had been no connection between the EU and any Latsis companies, which persuaded Mr Farage to put down a motion of censure, calling on Mr Barroso to appear before the Parliament to clear up the affair.
Pressure not to sign Mr Farage's motion was brought on MEPs by several of the larger groups in the Parliament, including the European People's Party, to which Britain's Conservative Euro-MPs are affiliated. An angry Hans-Gerd Pottering, the EPP's leader, pledged that no member of his group would sign the motion. But when the deadline came on Tuesday, the motion had more than enough support to guarantee a debate on May 25. Five of the signatories were EPP Tories. When the motion was given to the Parliament's secretary-general, ensuring a debate just four days before the French referendum on the EU constitution, he acknowledged that this would not be helpful to the cause. Pressure is now being applied by all the main group leaders to get Euro-MPs to withdraw their names.
No one has alleged any impropriety over the Greek government's shipyard grant. The fire is directed at Mr Barroso (whose name in Portuguese means "muddy") for being insufficiently frank in his dealings with the Parliament. But the determination of the five Tories - Roger Helmer, Christopher Heaton-Harris, Martin Callanan, David Sumburg and Daniel Hannan - to stick to their guns has embarrassed Timothy Kirk-hope, their party leader in Brussels, and again highlights the absurdity of the link between the Tories and the fanatically integrationst EPP.
This row is also potentially embarrassing to the new shadow cabinet in London, which - after last week's "putsch" by the Europhiles, including the new Party chairman, Francis Maude - has let it be known that MPs must talk about "Europe" as little as possible. Yet another flurry of publicity over the Barroso affair, with Tories playing an important part, will not be regarded as "helpful".
The sole measure
Radio Four's Today programme facetiously reported the discovery in Somerset of an "Iron Age shoe". Its length, they solemnly intoned, was "30 centimetres". It might have been interesting to observe that this meant the shoe was a foot long, hence the name given to that measure which BBC reporters are forbidden to mention. But someone ought to point out to the BBC thought police that, under EC law, centimetres are no more a legally approved measure than feet and inches. The only correct description for what those Iron Age cobblers created was a shoe 304.8 millimetres long.