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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 27/11/2005)

 Spin and silence at the end of the special relationship

Last week moved up by several notches the slow-motion catastrophe unfolding over Britain's defence policy, ending our "special relationship" with the US and committing us to total dependence on our EU partners. First, EU defence ministers confirmed their moves towards creating a "European defence industry", which is in practice committing Britain to waste billions of pounds buying equipment from our EU partners, when we would formerly have bought superior and cheaper equipment made in the US or Britain.

Second, President Bush had to cave in to the US Congress's wish to end the release to Britain of sensitive technological information, on the grounds that we can no longer be trusted not to pass this on to other EU countries or China. This spells an end to such joint Anglo-US defence projects as the F-35 joint strike fighter.

Third, the Ministry of Defence provided "non-answers" to questions put by MPs, including the Tories' front-bench spokesman Gerald Howarth, on the recent decision, revealed in this column, that we are to lose our last explosives-making facilities, making us wholly dependent on explosives imported from abroad. The MoD refuses to say where all the explosives for Britain's Armed Forces will in future be made.

Meanwhile the National Audit Office covered up for the MoD by producing a joke report on various recent defence projects. It congratulated the MoD for bringing in on time the Javelin anti-tank missile, without admitting that this has been available since 1996, and that we only bought it from the US after wasting 109 million on a Continental version that did not work.

The NAO approved the Army's biggest ever truck purchase from the German firm MAN, without pointing out that the trucks failed to meet specification and that better vehicles could have been bought from two US-British consortia. The report congratulated the MoD on "saving 157 million" on its order for a French missile for the Eurofighter, without pointing out that it could have saved 900 million by buying the US equivalent.

The NAO also fell for MoD spin that it had "saved 145 million" by reducing the efficiency of its three planned Type-45 destroyers, equipped only with French anti-aircraft missiles and costing 1 billion each. It did not explain that we could have followed the example of the Australian Navy by buying US-designed ships, British-built and equipped also to fire cruise and anti-submarine missiles. Complete with missile systems, these would have cost only 600 million each, saving 1.2 billion for much more capable ships.

Finally the Queen gave Royal Assent to the MoD's scrapping of our last county-based infantry regiments, to be merged into new "large regiments" to fit the British Army to the needs of the "European Rapid Reaction Force".

Not a good week. But the Government gets away with it, not least because defence now arouses so little interest. The BBC was more interested, through its Money Programme, in exposing the business record of Paul Drayson, the junior defence minister who in recent years has been one of the Labour Party's biggest contributors, and has not only been given a peerage but put in charge of Britain's arms procurement. For the rest of us it has not been a bargain.

A crazy kind of 'reasonable'

For 80 years, Barnard Bros mill in Ipswich has been selling every kind of animal feed and bedding. All day, Terry Nunn and his four staff are in and out of the building, humping sacks to vehicles, and dressed accordingly. What happened on a cold day last April, when they were visited by Karen Dunne, a new council health inspector, provided a perfect vignette of modern England.

Ms Dunne measured the temperature of the open building at 10 degrees (50 degrees Fahrenheit). This, she said, was in breach of health and safety regulations, under an EC directive, which decree that the minimum temperature of a workplace must be 16 degrees. This month Ipswich magistrates found the firm guilty, fining Mr Nunn 1,000 and giving him a criminal record.

In vain did Mr Nunn explain that he and his staff were warmly dressed, since much of their work was outside. The only employee indoors was sitting in a well-heated office. The firm has now had to instal a heating system for the whole building, to waste thousands of pounds pouring out heat into the surrounding air, in defiance of government pleas to save energy.

What makes this episode odder is that the EC directive on which the law is based says only that workplace temperature must be "adequate for human beings, having regard to the working methods being used". The regulations putting this into UK law state only that temperatures must be "reasonable". To make Mr Nunn a criminal, Ms Dunne had to rely on the "approved code of practice" which defines "reasonable" as not less than 16 degrees, regardless of circumstances.

Under the directive and regulations, Mr Nunn was not committing an offence. But Ms Dunne made a sanctimonious little speech about how exposing employees to cold can give them frostbite and hypothermia, and those politically correct Ipswich magistrates doubtless went home thinking they had done a good day's work.

We'll keep the blue flag flying

Olive Brown, the Europhile former leader of a Co Durham council, hopes to replace the flag of St George currently flying outside her council offices with that of the EU. To the chagrin of Ms Brown, a member of the EU's Committee of the Regions, Wear Valley council had to haul down the "ring of stars" on one of its three flagpoles, when it was pointed out that this was illegal without planning permission. On Thursday the council voted unanimously to give itself permission to fly the EU flag, although 19 members of the public had lodged objections, with none in favour.

In pursuit of 'The Great Deception'

Last weekend, at the annual conference of the Bruges Group, Dr Richard North and I launched a new paperback edition of The Great Deception, our best-selling history of the EU (Continuum, 9.99). This has been extensively revised and updated, to include the story behind the rise and semi-fall of the EU constitution.

When the first edition appeared in 2003, it was praised by historians and commentators as by far the fullest and most revealing account of the "European project" to date, and sold more than 10,000 copies.

Last weekend all 50 copies of the new edition on sale were snapped up. But anyone who tries to order it via Amazon must be careful to look for the new subtitle "Can The European Union Survive?" Thanks to the legendary idiosyncrasy of that computerised bureaucracy, it still shows the cover of the old edition, by which some readers have already been misled.