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Booker's Notebook

Sunday Telegraph March 19 2006

The signs are that Prescott's code is completely cracked

When Bridget Hobhouse was deputed to the planning committee of Sedgemoor district council in Somerset to represent her parish council's views on a contentious planning issue, she was amazed to hear the councillors being advised that any of them who knew her must leave the room, because this gave them a "personal" or "prejudicial interest". Because she had been on the district council herself for years, this meant that eight of the 11 councillors present had to consider whether they should leave. When five nevertheless remained, the chairman eventually suggested that only those who had "shared a meal" with her should be excluded.

Similarly farcical but often much nastier scenes have been unfolding in councils all across the country since John Prescott imposed his new Code of Conduct in 2001, enforced by a "monitoring officer" in each council and ultimately by the Standards Board for England and its teams of "ethical standards officers" (on more than 60,000 a year).

Such a climate of fear and confusion has been created in local government, where over-zealous monitoring officers egg on councillors to lodge complaints against each other, that councillors don't know whether they are coming or going. In one council alone, South Cambridgeshire, no fewer than 11 complaints have been lodged with the Standards Board. If these are upheld they can lead to suspension (as in the recent case of Mayor Ken Linvingstone) and even permanent disqualification.

In Aylsham, Norfolk, Alan Quinn, a former Ofsted inspector, has resigned as a town councillor after a row about the design of a new Tesco. He was excluded from discussing it, on the grounds that he had opposed the original proposal. The Standards Board decided it would be "unreasonable" to say this meant he had a "prejudicial interest" in how the store itself should look - but its ruling was sent back to the monitoring officer of Broadlands district council who had recommended Mr Quinnn's exclusion in the first place. She has chosen to interpret the board's opinion as confirming her original judgment.

One of many MPs who have expressed concern over the chaos created by this regime is Gerald Howarth, who last summer wrote to David Prince, the Standards Board's chief executive, about two cases in his Aldershot constituency. Two councillors had been excluded from debates because they wished to express the very views on which they had been elected, and these were deemed to constitute a "prejudicial interest".

Mr Prince's response was wonderfully equivocal. Although he did not wish to rule out the possibility of councillors putting the views of their electors, this must not contradvene the principle in common law that councils must reach their decisions impartially, having taken account of all points of view.

But this is just the point. Unless councillors who represent a particular view are allowed to be heard, the council cannot be said to be observing the very principle the Standards Board claims to be upholding. The truth is that Mr Prescott's system, based on confusion over the law, bullying and sneaking, is creating havoc, poisoning the atmosphere of local government and making a mockery of democracy.

To see its self-defeating absurdity, as Mr Howarth pointed out, one has only to imagine what would happen if the same rules were applied to MPs. The Commons would end up being empty - as our council chambers soon may very well be.

When it comes to defence, there is no Opposition

That new double-act of British politics, our Labour Government and the Not-the-Conservative Party, was to the fore in Washington last week when Lord Drayson, the defence procurement minister, addressed the Senate Armed Services Committee, supported by Tory defence spokesman Liam Fox. They "warned" senators that, unless the US lifted its embargo on the electronic "source codes" necessary to operate the Joint Strike Fighter, the British would pull out of this last major Anglo-US military project, the aircraft intended for the Royal Navy's two planned "super-carriers".

From the way it was presented, it seemed that this problem was all the fault of the Americans. But no one bothered to explain the background. As my co-author Dr Richard North has been reporting since June 2004 (on www.eureferendum.blogspot), the reason our US allies have become so wary about giving us military secrets is our increasing defence entanglement with our EU "partners", particularly France.

Since 2000 we have been treaty-bound to hand on our military secrets to the French, who in turn have become ever closer to the Chinese, America's greatest potential enemy. So the senators that Lord Drayson was addressing fear that any secrets shared with the British may end up in Beijing.

For some time now, it has been evident that the Ministry of Defence was anticipating an end to the Joint Strike Fighter project and its replacement by the French-made Rafale, which the French plan to use on their own "super-carrier", as part of our joint contribution to the European Rapid Reaction Force. The only significance of Drayson's visit to Washington was that at last he openly admitted this.

Thus does the MoD's stealthy campaign to end our "special relationship" with the US in favour of European integration continue. Because the Tories fail to grasp what is happening, Government spin is again allowed to prevail. The media just echo the spin.

Baroness Tonge gives tongue

A sad feature of the 20th century was the gullible Western progressives who trotted round the Soviet Union lapping up all they were told about the wonders of Communism. A contemporary equivalent is Jenny Tonge, a Lib Dem peer who for some years has been an apologist for Botswana's eviction of the bushmen from their homeland in the Kalahari.

Last week in the Lords, Lady Tonge was at it again - only days after a UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination published a withering report on Botswana's persecution of the bushmen. The baroness praised Botswana for dragging these "primitive", "Stone Age" people into the 21st century, claiming that this was what most of them wanted. She brushed aside as "unsubstantiated" the widely reported cases of torture and shootings of bushmen, and of course made no reference to their dread of the inhuman settlements into which they are forced.

Baroness Tonge bases her view on what she was told when she visited Botswana in 2002, as a guest of the company which plans to mine diamonds in the Kalahari. Fortunately a fellow-guest on that trip, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, was present in the Lords. He was able to explain that, as the only member of the party with his own interpreter, he was aware of the gulf between what the bushmen were telling them and the version that was passed on by an official, and believed by Baroness Tonge.

Remember the mad cow scare?

Wednesday will mark the 10th anniversary of our costliest-ever food scare, unleashed by Stephen Dorrell's claim that there might be a link between eating beef and the brain disease CJD. The Observer predicted a million dead by 2016. The Government's top BSE scientist thought that deaths could reach half a million and that it would be a catastrophe "worse than Aids". This column was alone that week in proposing that, on epidemiological evidence, there was no link between beef and CJD.

A decade on, having wasted 4 billion on slaughtering millions of healthy cattle, we still do not know the causes of BSE or CJD. But the total of vCJD cases is still only 150. The incidence curve has declined virtually to zero. It was the epidemic that never was.