Christopher Booker's notebook
Patent Office defies Blair with new rules on art sales
Tony Blair and his ministers have been treated with contempt by officials of the Patent Office, in the uniquely damaging way they have chosen to implement an EC directive long resisted by the Government as destructive to Britain's art market. Other foreign governments which supported Mr Blair are amazed to see his officials going out of their way to exceed the requirements of EU law by making the directive much more harmful to British interests than it need be.
It is more than 10 years since Brussels first proposed, on a French initiative, to make EU-wide the so-called droit de suite system, whereby living artists and the heirs of those who have died in recent decades receive a percentage whenever their works are resold. This was strongly opposed by successive British governments, on the grounds that it would particularly disadvantage this country's art market, which is easily Europe's largest and, after the US, the second largest in the world.
The British Art Market Federation (supported by many well-known artists) argued that this would simply drive out business to those countries where droit de suite doesn't apply, and they made their case so powerfully that in 1999 Mr Blair told his fellow heads of government it would be crazy for the EU to impose the system unless countries such as the US and Switzerland agreed to follow. He even spoke of using the "Luxembourg Compromise", a device invented by de Gaulle, giving a country the right to veto EC legislation it considers a threat to a "vital national interest".
Although the British, Dutch and Austrian governments won concessions, such as a postponement until 2012 of the really damaging application of droit de suite to dead artists, such as Picasso, they were outvoted. The European Parliament then ratcheted up its effects by squeezing down the threshold at which it applies to just €3,000 (£2,070), much lower than the €10,000 (£6,830) that the UK wanted to see.
But the paperwork involved in droit de suite is so complex that, on a transaction of €3,000, the administration costs to dealers - along with the fee due to a body called the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS) for disbursing the money - will be as much as the amount passed on to the artists themselves. The trade minister, Lord Sainsbury, described this last year as "an absurdly high proportion".
Only at the very last minute, just before Christmas, did the Patent Office publish its regulation on how the directive, due to come into force two weeks later, was to be applied. Astonishingly, following deft lobbying by the DACS, this has lowered the threshold even further, to a mere €1,000 (£683). At this level the cost of collection will be double the amount that the artist will receive (while the DACS will continue to collect its fees, and many more of them).
This is extraordinary. No other country is introducing the directive in this way. Indeed, ironically, the French, who set this whole process going, are themselves so irked by the directive they have postponed implementing it. We are thus left with the situation where, thanks to the Patent Office and the DACS, a directive bitterly opposed by our Government is to be applied much more damagingly than is necessary, in a way which makes a fool of both Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, who recently attacked such "gold-plating" as imposing "additional and unnecessary burdens".
The regulation cannot take effect until it has been discussed by the Lords on January 24, then by a Commons committee. If only for the sake of Mr Blair's amour propre, they should chuck it out and tell those mad officials to stick to EU law.
The accidental origin of species
If he were not so dour, Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist and fanatical atheist, might be a major comic figure of our time. On his Channel 4 series The Root of All Evil, he explained why religion (notably of the Christian rather than Muslim or Jewish varieties) has been the chief cause of all the world's ills.
What is delightful about his scornful view, that religion is based on blind faith without sufficiently questioning the evidence, is how neatly this mirrors the extent to which his own views are based on blind faith without sufficiently questioning the evidence.
Twenty five years ago I wrote a number of articles for The Spectator which pointed out some of the more obvious holes in the Darwinian explanation for the workings of evolution. Prof Dawkins was made so cross by my claim that Darwinians believe the creation of life arose by accident that, by way of rebuttal, he sent me a copy of his book The Selfish Gene.
So I was able to respond with a citation of his own book - on page 16 of which he argues that the first self-replicating molecule, the key to the creation of life, came about, yes, by "accident".
No, Winifred, the 'asbestos in the organ' scam is not 'very rare'
It was flattering for this column to be cited by the BBC's You And Yours programme as the source of a story which has never actually appeared here, particularly since it was so powerful. Last September St Mary's church in Hunton, Kent was closed when surveyors claimed to have discovered that it was contaminated by asbestos from the organ. The church was quoted "well over £100,000" for the asbestos to be removed (of which £20,000 would go to the surveyors), more than it could conceivably afford.
Fortunately, since the Sunday Telegraph is read in Hunton, the church authorities contacted John Bridle of Asbestos Watchdog, the firm launched through this column to fight the nationwide racket whereby surveyors and contractors are making millions of pounds by exaggerating the dangers of white asbestos.
Further samples showed that there was no asbestos problem in the church, which has now been re-opened. Instead of using this horrifying example - only one of thousands being investigated - to expose just how widespread this racket has become, the programme then, in typically amateurish BBC fashion, chucked the story away. The presenter, Winifred Robinson, fell over backwards to suggest that this kind of incident must "surely be very rare?" Much of a 20-minute item was given over to a representative of the asbestos removal industry, muddying the waters with irrelevances about how scrupulously honest most of his colleagues are.
The discussion, which included a senior Health & Safety Executive official, was allowed to ramble so inconsequentially that no one could have guessed how concerned the HSE itself is becoming by the scale on which public confusion is being exploited. Again the BBC fell back on that silly trick of allowing the various parties to an argument to state their contradictory views, and leave the listeners none the wiser - instead of doing enough homework to tell the story properly.