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Christopher Booker's Notebook


(Filed: 31/08/2003)

The EU's hidden hand on our telephones
Whitewash for crop sprays
Defra fouls up a poultry fair

The EU's hidden hand on our telephones

In all the acres of coverage of the great "118 directory inquiries fiasco" one rather significant point was missing. This was an explanation of just why in the first place we had to abolish the old "192" system in favour of a mad multiplicity of call centres providing numbers, often with laughable inefficiency, at up to 2 a time. The answer is that the new system resulted from a European Union directive - yet another example of "hidden Europe", whereby our government does something only because it has been ordered to do so by the EU, but then goes out of its way to conceal the fact.

The abolition of the "192" inquiries service was made mandatory by directive 2002/49 - article 5 of which, headed "directory services", laid down that steps should be taken to ensure that all exclusive rights to provide telephone directories or inquiry services were abolished. This is part of the same "deregulation" policy under which all EU countries were told to adopt the same "112" number for emergencies. In the first year after its introduction to Britain in 1994, this led to 500,000 calls of which only 500 proved genuine. Most were either "silent calls" or resulted from misdialling, yet the police had to waste untold hours answering each one. Fortunately, in defiance of the law, Britain also retained her old "999" system, so the nuisance has since abated.

Last week I reported how a similar policy for postal services has resulted in private firms being allowed to cream off postal business on terms which will lose Royal Mail 650 million a year. Again there was no mention of the fact that this stemmed from an EC directive. There are scores of similar instances of "hidden Europe". Consider, for example, that ministers will never admit that their control of policy on GM crops was surrendered to Brussels in 1990. Similarly, they conceal Britain's outlay of billions of pounds in order to comply with absurd EC standards on water quality - money which could much more usefully be spent on replacing crumbling 19th-century infrastructure.

One of the most glaring examples of "hidden Europe" was the separation of the ownership of rail track from the companies operating the trains, which is widely blamed for the chaos besetting our railway system. It was even vigorously denied that this decision had any connection with the EU, despite the fact that the regulation enacting it was put through under the European Communities Act, to comply with EC directive 91/440.

Oddest of all, however, is the fact that the ministers who go out of their way to conceal all this are supposed to be enthusiasts for the "benefits" Britain derives from the EU. If they are so keen on this new form of government, should they not proclaim how much of our legislation comes from the system they admire, rather than try to hide it?

27 August 2003: Connected: Hidden charges mean new 118 services fail to live up to hype

Whitewash for crop sprays

Around a quarter of a million people in Britain, it is estimated, live next to farmland which is sprayed with toxic chemicals. Many experience the kind of damage to their health which is compatible with chemical poisoning, ranging from headaches, abnormal tiredness and memory loss to asthma and cancer. Among them is Georgina Downs, a young singer, who eventually learned to associate the persistent ill-health she and her family suffered with spraying of the field adjoining their garden near Chichester, Sussex.

Miss Downs was startled to discover that there is no legal protection for those forcibly exposed to chemical spraydrift in this way. Farmers are under no obligation to warn neighbours when spraying is to take place, nor to reveal what chemicals they use. She therefore launched on a determined campaign which last December brought her together with two ministers, Lord Whitty and Michael Meacher.

As a result, the Pesticides Safety Directorate is staging a "consultation exercise" to discover whether the law on crop spraying should be changed. The problem is that all pesticides are licensed as "safe" by the Government. It cannot possibly afford to admit they are harmful, for fear of massive compensation claims.

Sure enough, when the PSD published its list of 758 "consultees", all but a handful were chemical companies or organisations opposed to any new restrictions being placed on the use of toxic chemicals. Repeatedly in its accompanying letter the PSD emphasises that the chemicals are entirely safe. Professor David Coggon, head of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, has even suggested that those who think they experience adverse symptoms after exposure to chemicals may simply be imagining them, as a result of being told that toxic chemicals might possibly be dangerous.

All the evidence indicates that this "consultation", due to end next month, is yet another cosmetic to cover the real issues of toxic chemicals. On the one hand, the Government must insist that there is no problem; on the other, faced with a campaigner as redoubtable as Georgina Downs, it must go through the motions of showing concern. Anyone who wishes to add to her mounting pile of evidence to the contrary can email her at georgedowns29@yahoo.co.uk.

Defra fouls up a poultry fair

One of Dorset's more popular charity events is a twice-yearly "goose auction" organised by Trevor and Jan Marpole, who run the Gaggle of Geese pub in the village of Buckland Newton. Poultry breeders come from far and wide to sell their geese, ducks and pedigree chickens in a field adjoining the pub, and have raised more than 50,000 over the years for local charities, such as the Somerset and Dorset air ambulance service. The next sale is set for Sunday 14 September.

A fortnight ago Mr and Mrs Marpole were visited by a Dorset trading standards official and a veterinary official of Defra, the "department for the elimination of farming and rural affairs", clutching a copy of the Welfare of Animals at Markets Order 1990, signed by no less a luminary than John Selwyn Gummer. Under section 13, the officials pointed out, Mr and Mrs Marpole, as "market operators", were under a duty to ensure that all animals in their market were kept in "covered accommodation provided by the market authority". In other words, the poultry in the 500 cages at the sale would have to be protected from the rain, even though the birds spend much of their lives pecking about in the open air.

The officials kindly suggested that a solution to the problem might be to erect a series of plastic "gazebos". But Mr and Mrs Marpole discovered that to do so would consume most of the funds which would otherwise go to charity, and that to erect them would take longer than the five hours of the sale itself. They have now devised an ingenious and rather cheaper solution which they believe meets Mr Gummer's requirements. But anyone who wishes to know what this is will have to attend their sale in a fortnight's time.

French connection

When I flew from London to Strasbourg four years ago to visit the European Parliament, I was astonished to discover that Air France, which enjoyed a monopoly on the route, charged 550 return. MEPs and others were naturally delighted with Ryanair's rival service, charging as little as 40 - until last week, when Air France won a French court ruling that it was in breach of EU competition rules.

This distaste for unfair competition is a new one. A few years back, the European Court of Justice ruled that a French government subsidy of 2.4 billion for Air France was illegal. After a quiet word from Paris, however, the European Commission reframed the rules and the subsidy suddenly became legal after all.