Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 15/06/2003)

Battle is joined over rebel's pile of rubble
The question is not 'whether' but 'which Europe?'
Botswanan president faces protests over bushmen's fate
The customer is always wrong

Battle is joined over rebel's pile of rubble

Geoff Bean, a respected Yorkshire dairy farmer, last February bought a few lorryloads of builder's rubble to make repairs round his farm. He little realised that he was about to be drawn into a stand-off with officials of the Environment Agency which deserves to become a classic in the annals of the struggle between bureaucracy and the citizen.

Shortly after delivery of the rubble from a demolished garage in nearby Kirkbymoorside, Mr Bean had a letter from Steve Williamson, a "Special Enforcement Officer" of the agency in York, stating that, since his land did "not have the benefit of a Waste Management Licence", this depositing of "waste" was in clear breach of the law. Mr Bean must submit to a formal interview under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) to "establish" his "involvement in this unlicensed waste management operation".

Mr Williamson cannot have been prepared for Mr Bean's reply. "I am in receipt of your pompous and ill-informed letter," he wrote. "How dare you write to me in such terms, as if you were addressing a common criminal." The "waste" for which he had paid good money was about to be put to valuable use replacing the floor of a barn and resurfacing his farm tracks.

"Were I a one-legged homosexual Afghan refugee/terrorist living on the welfare state, you and your ilk would not dare write in such a manner for fear of having all the human rights lawyers in creation round your necks, but as you are speaking to an honest, hard-working and overstressed Englishman, you appear to think you can behave like all too many of the vast and ever-increasing army of totally useless, non-productive, arrogant and bloody-minded officialdom, who are now only too successfully doing more damage to this once great and free nation than was ever achieved by Adolf Hitler".

It seemed something of a culture-clash had arisen. Legally Mr Williamson had some right on his side, since the Waste Management Regulations 1994, implementing EC waste directive 91/156, introduced into UK law some very odd rules on waste disposal, such as the one which prohibits burning wood except on land where it was grown. Almost every communal Guy Fawkes Night bonfire is thus a flagrant breach of criminal law, a fact which Environment Agency officials conveniently manage to ignore.

Mr Williamson repeated that Mr Bean must submit to interview "under caution". Mr Bean agreed to spare some of his valuable time to assist Mr Williamson in his "futile attempt" to justify his "bureaucratic red tape", but reminded him that, since slavery in this country had been abolished, he would expect reimbursement at "£150 an hour or part thereof, plus VAT".

In further exchanges Mr Williamson eventually agreed to a preliminary interview not conducted under PACE rules. Mr Bean insisted on payment of £100 for each occasion on which he was forced to write another time-wasting letter. Finally, a week ago, agency officials arrived at the farm to take samples of the "waste material" for "independent testing and analysis", to "confirm its suitability or otherwise for the purposes you propose". By this time most of the rubble had already been put to good use around the farm. As to whether Mr Bean will face criminal charges for his breach of EU law, the agency cannot yet comment.

The question is not 'whether' but 'which Europe?'

Alastair Campbell may have run into some flak recently but it seems he has lost none of his old cunning. The spin that his team has given to the issue of a euro referendum ensured that last week the Tory leadership repeatedly fell into the same trap - namely, to pledge that they will never, in any circumstances, support British withdrawal from the EU.

Knowing that some form of referendum may be unavoidable, particularly if Mr Blair fails to prevent President Chirac holding one, and knowing that a vote on the euro or the constitution would be unwinnable, Labour now favours the "nuclear option": a "yes" or "no" on whether Britain should stay in the EU at all.

Michael Howard, Michael Ancram and Iain Duncan Smith have been persistently caught out by this question. For fear of looking utterly foolish, in a referendum of this form they would be forced to line up sheepishly alongside Mr Blair in what would be a repeat of the 1975 vote, when all three parties supported Britain's continued membership of the Common Market.

The only way to escape this trap, it was being urged on the Tory leadership behind the scenes last week, is for them to seize the initiative. Asked the question "would you leave Europe?" their reply should be "which Europe do you mean?" - since there are at least three contradictory models locked in deadly rivalry.

The response might continue along these lines: "If you mean the supranational Europe on the classic Monnet model being pushed by Prodi, run by the Commission and the European Central Bank, we are opposed, because it is totally undemocratic and doesn't work. If you mean the semi-intergovernmental hotchpotch favoured by Chirac, essentially with himself in charge, we can't see how that helps anyone. If you mean a true 'Europe of Nations', based on full intergovernmental co-operation and the democratic wishes of national parliaments, then we are wholly in favour (and incidentally, we can scrap the Commission and that charade of a European Parliament, and forget the euro)."

Only with such a positive, wholly "pro-European" alternative can the Tories avoid being boxed into a corner. At the moment they look like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights, as the truck marked "Constitution", with Blair in the back, thunders down to run them over.

Botswanan president faces protests over bushmen's fate

Oxford University famously refused to give an honorary doctorate to its old alumna, Lady Thatcher. Last week its University College had no such qualms in giving an honorary fellowship to its former student President Mogae of Botswana.

Unfortunately the president's visit to Britain, as a guest of the Foreign Office, was dogged at every turn by protesters against a policy that has attracted worldwide condemnation. For the past seven years Botswana's government has been evicting the last remaining bushmen from their ancestral homeland in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

The president led round with him the government-appointed "headman" of the notorious resettlement camp at New Xade, outside the reserve, known to the bushmen as "the place of death". Any hope that this might help to disarm criticism was undermined by a message from Roy Sesana, the spokesman for the 100 or so "free bushmen" still managing to cling on in the reserve, who expressed the "wish that the honourable president will not forget to tell the British that some of our people were relocated forcibly against our choice and wishes". Mr Sesana was too polite to mention the tortures and killings that accompanied this "relocation".

Diamond-rich Botswana is the wealthiest country per capita in Africa, so President Mogae can rest confident in continuing support for his policies from the Foreign Office and the European Commission, which at one point threatened to suspend its 14 million "wildlife and conservation management" scheme in Botswana unless evictions were stopped.

More recently Koos Richelle, the director-general of the commission's overseas aid division, assured Stephen Corry of Survival International that the resettled bushmen were entirely free to return home "provided they request a permit to do so". President Mogae last week put this rather more robustly when he told an Oxford protester there was no way the bushmen would be allowed to return home. The game reserve, he said, "is for animals, not people".

The customer is always wrong

Once upon a time we had local government which served the community, paid for by ratepayers who could call their councillors to account at election time. Now we have galloping inflation of up to 22 per cent in council taxes to pay more and more for less and less, from councils run by officials accountable to no one.

In Bradford thousands of council taxpayers are receiving letters threatening that, unless they pay up immediately, council bailiffs are already armed with distraint warrants entitling them to enter taxpayers' homes to seize any goods they wish, to be sold at knockdown prices until any debt is paid.

These letters are going out from Bradford's "department of customer services". Apparently it cannot wait to inform its "customers" that it wishes to "serve" them by stealing their furniture.