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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 11/05/2003)

Herbal ban to be tested in High Court
A stable door, a bolted horse
Another blow to Prescott's pride

Herbal ban to be tested in High Court

The actress Jenny Seagrove and an association representing 426 health food shops have mounted a High Court test-case to challenge one of the more bizarre riddles of our time: why are our regulatory agencies so fanatical in their wish to outlaw harmless herbal remedies and vitamin supplements safely used by millions of people, when they seem happy to allow the continued sale of licensed drugs made by pharmaceutical companies which kill thousands of people every year?

Miss Seagrove and the National Association of Health Stores (NAHS) have applied for a judicial review of the statutory order which since January 13 has made it an offence to import or sell kava-kava, taken from a Polynesian shrub used for thousands of years to make a soothing drink similar to tea. Miss Seagrove is part of the action because she believes the Medicines Control Agency and the Food Standards Agency had no legal right to forbid her to use a herb which helps her to relax and sleep.

The case prepared by Rhodri Thompson QC, of Matrix chambers, argues that both the decision to impose the ban and the way it was reached by the MCA and FSA make a complete mockery of the law. Its essence is that, under European Union and human rights law, the agencies can only override people's rights to trade in a substance like kava-kava if they can demonstrate clear public health reasons for such a ban. He argues that they have not only signally failed to make such a case, but seem wholly to have ignored their legal obligation to consider evidence given them during the statutory consultation process.

The case for a ban on health grounds appears so flimsy as to be a parody of science. Although kava-kava is regularly drunk by millions of people all over the world, the officials can only come up with 70 "possible" or "probable" cases of supposed adverse reaction associated with its use, four of which are claimed to have been fatal (none in the UK). Of these, one was an 86-year-old American who died in his sleep after drinking a cocktail of herbs, only one of which was kava-kava. It turned out that he was a diabetic with severe heart problems and under heavy medication. The three other claimed "fatalities" are similarly dubious.

On these grounds, the MCA claims its ban will prevent "one UK-based death per annum" (so far there have been none), which it claims will save "#1.4 million" a year, with further unquantified savings for the National Health Service on the treatment of liver complaints - for which it offers not a shred of hard evidence. What carries such claims into the stratosphere of absurdity, however, is that the officials who are prepared to ban this harmless herb are happy to allow the continued sale of a whole range of pharmaceutical products, licensed by the MCA itself as safe to use, from which thousands die, while hundreds of thousands more report adverse reactions.

Non-prescription pain-killers alone kill 2,000 people a year, 83 of them patients waiting for hip operations. Adverse reaction rates recorded for many licensed drugs are far higher than those claimed for kava-kava without their being banned, quite apart from the continued sale of other potentially toxic products - such as peanuts, which cause around six deaths a year, alcohol and tobacco.

The FSA and the MCA (which is funded by the pharmaceutical companies through license fees) will no doubt defend their case in the High Court with all the lavish resources at their command. But the only official response so far received by Ralph Pike, the ex-policeman who runs the NAHS, has been a letter from the MCA pointing out that it has now changed its name to the "Medicines and Herbals Regulatory Agency".

A stable door, a bolted horse

When Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, was in court last week facing criminal corruption charges, he sought to defend himself by making counter-allegations of corruption against his predecessor Romano Prodi, now president of the European Commission. Alain Juppe, the former prime minister of France, faces corruption charges for supposed irregularities on behalf of Jacques Chirac, who would also face criminal charges if he did not enjoy immunity as president of France.

All this is reported by the British press under the heading "world news", as if it were happening in faraway countries whose affairs do not directly concern us. Yet these men are as much a part of the governing of Britain as Tony Blair. These are the politicians who pass an ever-increasing proportion of the laws which govern our lives. There are now whole departments in Whitehall - for example, those that run trade, industry, employment law, the environment, agriculture, and fisheries - that do almost nothing but administer policies and laws decided in Brussels by men such as Prodi, Chirac and Berlusconi. Yet one of the European Union's most brilliant achievements is the extent to which it has taken over the governing of our country without it being noticed.

The Daily Mail last week devoted the whole of its front page and two more inside to a huge "shock horror" expose of the "Blueprint for Tyranny" which it claimed is being drawn up in Brussels by the convention drafting an EU constitution, reducing Britain to just a small, comparatively powerless part of a United States of Europe.

It was fascinating to work out just how much of the coup d'etat that the Daily Mail was warning of has in fact already come about. This is what makes it so odd to see the European political scene still reported as "foreign news" when it now represents the government of our country, with considerably more power than remains to that sad little "museum of democracy" on the Thames.

Another blow to Prescott's pride

John Prescott's hopes that the North-East would lead the way in fulfilling his flagship policy to set up elected assemblies for the eight English "Euro-regions" have received a highly embarrassing rebuff.

The day following the recent council elections, the district auditor for the North-East, David Jennings, sneaked out his verdict on complaints made against Mr Prescott's front-organisation, the North-East Assembly. The assembly, made up of appointed members, was accused of making unlawful use of ratepayers' money given by 25 local authorities, by campaigning for an elected assembly in advance of a referendum on the issue. Neil Herron, campaign director of the North-East Against A Regional Assembly (Neara), had formally complained that this breached the Local Government Act, which prohibits ratepayers' money being used to promote politically controversial causes.

Already two QCs, one acting for Mr Herron's own council, Sunderland, have advised that public money cannot lawfully be used for such purposes. Now the district auditor has upheld Mr Herron's complaint, putting the assembly in a very tight spot. Last year, Mr Prescott's local government minister, Nick Raynsford, advised that the NEA could not use central government money to promote an elected assembly. Now, it seems, the door has been slammed on the rest of the assembly's income, that derived from ratepayers.

In Newcastle last week Mr Raynsford ducked questions on what happens next by saying he had not yet seen the auditor's ruling. The chairman of the NEA, Tony Flynn, Newcastle's ambitious council leader and a fervent advocate of elected assemblies, has gone strangely quiet ever since the controversy began.

Round one has definitely gone to Mr Herron and his growing band of supporters. Watch this space.