Christopher Booker's Notebook
Panic at Defra over waste disposal rules EU plans to borrow the Royal Navy Only inches from death 'Democracy' defies the people
Crisis talks were taking place last week at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over a Brussels regulation due to come into force in less than three weeks' time. This threatens to inflict such chaos on almost every sector of Britain's food industry as to make last year's blunder over fridges seem trivial by comparison.
Margaret Beckett's Defra officials only recently began to wake up to the implications of the "animal by-products regulation", 1774/2002, which will affect nearly a million businesses, from farmers and supermarkets to zoos and circuses, and which in practice is so unworkable that they have already had to plead with Brussels for permission to delay implementing some of its more damaging requirements until, at the latest, 2005.
Supposedly designed to protect human and animal health, this unbelievably cumbersome 95-page regulation lays down complex new procedures under which any "animal waste", including meat, fish and eggs, can no longer be landfilled but must either be incinerated or "pressure-cooked" (rendered) before it can be put into the ground, composted or turned into what is called "biogas". Farmers can no longer bury dead stock on their farms. Supermarkets can no longer send millions of pre-packed meals to landfill when they have passed their sell-by date. Abattoirs can no longer sell blood to be spread on fields as a natural fertiliser.
Defra itself admits that businesses "directly affected by the Regulation" include 200,000 livestock producers, 8,300 food manufacturing premises, 411,000 catering outlets, 35,000 retail outlets, 662 abattoirs, 109 petfood plants, 293 hunt kennels, 35 maggot farms, 93 zoos and one circus. Caught out by the speed with which the regulation was rushed through, Defra's officials have not even published it as British law. Instead, they expect every farmer and market stallholder to consult the Brussels website, before reading the attendant Defra regulation which informs them that any infringement can be punished with an unlimited fine or two years in prison.
What the Brussels and Whitehall officials overlooked was that there is simply no system in place to make the law workable. Britain's 14 industrial incinerators are already working flat out. Farmers, no longer allowed to bury "fallen stock", are now expected to put dead lambs into wheelie bins or pay up to #250 for a dead cow to be trucked 100 miles to the nearest rendering plant (every detail of each transaction being recorded in triplicate to provide an "audit trail").
For supermarkets, with millions of pre-packaged meat products to dispose of, the problem is worse, because rendering plants cannot take packaging, so that every unwanted chicken tikka will have to be separated from its wrapping. Although Defra blithely estimated the cost of all this at #100 million, it soon became clear the true cost will be many times higher - the NFU estimates that removing dead farm animals alone will cost #72 million - and that a whole new industry must be created just to carry out all the transporting and separating.
At least the supermarkets have persuaded Mrs Beckett's officials that the system is unworkable until Britain has built dozens more huge incinerators, with chimneys up to 320 feet high, and therefore Brussels has granted a "transitional" exemption for packaged waste until 2005. But for hundreds of thousands of smaller businesses, the new law will still come into effect on May 1, with results which for many will be catastrophic. Some of the worst hit, according to Richard Ali of the British Retailing Consortium, will be small butchers' shops or farmers' markets which, in disposing of a few pounds of fat or offal trimmed off their joints of meat, may incurbills of hundreds of pounds for transportation costs to a renderer.
Faced with the likelihood that such astronomic costs will force small farmers and abattoirs out of business, Defra's only response is that it "is for the livestock industry, like other industries, to work out how best to deal with its waste problems and to pay their associated costs" - even though this "problem" is one created solely by Brussels and Defra themselves. This could not be better demonstrated than by the fact that "animal products" in domestic and most catering waste, such as from pubs and restaurants, are exempted. These will continue to be landfilled in huge quantities as if nothing had changed.
The day is getting closer when we shall see a Royal Navy captain having to sail his ship under orders given by a French or Spanish official standing next to him.
As I predicted last year, the European Commission has at last announced its plans to set up a Community Fisheries Control Agency, to enforce the regulations of the Common Fisheries Policy directly on EU fishermen. But until the EU has its own navy it will do this using the existing fisheries protection vessels of member states; and buried away in a Commission document is a proposal that, to ensure impartiality, such vessels could be ordered to carry on board officials of another nationality, who would be empowered to give the captain instructions.
The setting up of yet another Commission agency along these lines highlights how rapidly Brussels is moving into the job of enforcing its own laws. Already the enforcement of food law throughout the EU is supervised by the EU's Food and Veterinary Office in Dublin. Its proposed new Aviation Safety and Maritime Safety Agencies will take control over a vast range of activities, from dictating aeroplane design and allocating airport slots to the running of ports. But much of their work on the ground will continue to be carried out by officials of the member states, acting under Brussels's supervision.
The advantage of this system is that it allows Brussels to assume control while member state officials do the work, paid for by their national taxpayers. Civil servants of the Department of Trade and Industry are thus to be recruited to enforce EU competition laws, acting directly on orders from Brussels, which means that the cost of employing them will not fall on the EU's own budget.
The joy of the new Fisheries Control Agency, from the EU's point of view, will be that the Royal Navy and others will continue to provide ships and crews, paid for out of national defence budgets, while their enforcement activity is dictated by EU officials. A detail yet to be decided is whether Her Majesty's ships will be required to fly the EU's "ring of stars" flag above the White Ensign.
An interesting detail of the BBC's war coverage has been to see how quickly, when reporters come under fire, they forget the usual BBC rules about weights and measures.
Normally they spoke of US forces advancing "300 kilometres", while the BBC website dutifully reported the dropping of a J-Dam bomb weighing "907 kilograms" (reluctantly translated as 2,000 lb.) But when John Simpson came under "friendly fire" last Sunday, he was soon reporting on air how he had seen the bomb fall only "10 or 12 feet away from where I was standing" (in a newspaper account next day he extended this to "about 10 yards").
I hope he had a stern note from the BBC's metric police instructing him that when in future he reports on being 10 feet from an explosion, it should be described as "3,045 millimetres away".
Alas, it seems that the only people who will publicly take an interest in the battle over John Prescott's bid to give elected assemblies to England's "Euro-regions" are the House of Lords and myself. This is a shame, since the struggle grows more confused by the day.
Last week Lord Waddington, a former home secretary, raised in the House the odd way that the North-West Assembly had responded to a QC's opinion given to Lancashire county council. The QC had advised that it was unlawful for ratepayers' money to be spent on a political campaign to establish an elected assembly.
The council was told in return that the Assembly had passed a resolution that "we, the North-West Assembly, declare our intention to become an elected Regional government", and that it was actively campaigning for a referendum to bring this about. In other words, we don't give a fig for any QC's opinion, and if you want to take us to law we shall be happy to spend even more ratepayers' money defending our position.