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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 04/05/2003)

Prescott puts paid to parish councils
UK fleet loses 200 more boats
It's safer in a hive
An EU mystery tour

Prescott puts paid to parish councils

Dr John Bishop, a 78-year-old former deputy director of the Atomic Energy Authority, who has spent his 20 years of retirement in the tiny village of Brockhampton, near Hereford, is the sort of retired resident any English village might welcome. He has thrown himself into every kind of voluntary activity, from raising money for lifeboats to serving on the village hall committee. And until last Thursday he was both vice-chairman and clerk to the Brockhampton with Much Fawley parish council, unusually combining both posts because finding anyone to give unpaid time to parish business in a community with only 188 electors is not easy.

Dr Bishop is no longer on the five-member council, because he and two other long-serving members, including the chairman, were disbarred from standing again in last Thursday's council elections after refusing, by three votes to two, to accept the new statutory code of conduct imposed by what is now John Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Like thousands of other parish councillors across the country, they regarded as unnecessarily intrusive the obligation publicly to register any kind of "interest" that might theoretically influence their council duties, including all shareholdings and any gift, including a meal, worth more than £25.

Dr Bishop's plight is even worse. He was recently summoned to Leominster, 20 miles away, where he was questioned for two hours by two "Ethical Standards Officers" from a body known as the Standards Board for England, on two charges of "misconduct".

The first accusation was that he had refused to complete the mandatory register of "financial and other interests". His fellow "rebel", Mrs Betty Howells, who has served on the council for 16 years, has also been summoned next month to face the same allegation at a tribunal in Worcester, 25 miles away.

Dr Bishop's second alleged act of misconduct was that he remained in the room when the council agreed to an £800 grant to the village hall, because he is also on the hall committee; although if he had not been present, as clerk, the council would have broken the law by not having anyone authorised to take the minutes.

Although Standard Board officials have prohibited Dr Bishop from discussing the charges against him until the matter is resolved, they have spent more public money investigating the affairs of Brockhampton parish council than the council's entire annual budget of £1,600.

Nobody knows how many members of England's 10,000 town and parish councils were similarly disbarred from standing again last Thursday. The Standards Board website lists only one such councillor. But the total certainly runs into thousands. Some councils have been forced to disband altogether.

So much paperwork has been generated by this new bureaucratic monster that a number of councils have had to take on paid clerks, at salaries greater than their existing budgets. The Standards Board proclaims as its motto "Confidence in Local Democracy". As they see how Mr Prescott's new body is asserting its presence, the thoughts of villagers may well stray to the writings of the late George Orwell.

UK fleet loses 200 more boats

The news that an application has been made to scrap a further 200 UK fishing vessels under the latest £45 million "decommissioning" scheme will have been received with joy in Brussels. It means that the European Commission's strategy to wipe out most of Britain's fishing fleet is well on course. There will be particular pleasure at the prospect of losing 150 out of 186 Scottish whitefish boats, fishing for cod and haddock out of ports such as Peterhead and Fraserburgh, including some of the newest and safest vessels in the UK.

The weapon used by Brussels is to restrict fishing rights, in the name of "conserving cod stocks", to the point where it is no longer economical to continue. But the fishermen have realised that this is a cover for the Commission's real agenda: to eliminate the Scottish whitefish fleet, the largest sectoral fleet in northern Europe, and make way for the Spanish and eventually Polish fleets which have rights of "equal access" to all EU waters.

The cynical use of the conservation argument is demonstrated by the fact that the Commission has put no bar on the Danish "industrial" fleet, which still catches a million tons annually, of cod and anything else that moves, to provide fertiliser and food for fish farms. Every pound of farmed fish consumes 8 lbs of wild fish.)

West Country fishermen are reporting "more cod than at any time for 30 years", which they are prevented from catching by strict EU rules, although round the coasts of Cornwall and Devon they see their French competitors blithely ignoring the same rules.

The prospect of what Fishing News calls "the virtual end of the Scottish whitefish fleet", only a year after 100 Scottish boats were scrapped in the last decommissioning round, means that the Commission will soon have achieved its goal. John Ashworth, of Save Britain's Fish, predicts that within a year or two "the Commission will announce that the cod crisis is over, and the way will be clear for the Spanish fleet to enter the North Sea".

It's safer in a hive

Farmers have recently been reminded that, by law, they must give local beekeepers 48 hours' notice whenever they use pesticides that could prove harmful to bees. It is touching that the Government is so concerned about bee safety. But, curiously, it seems to show no such interest in the fate of human beings, as has been discovered by three victims of chemical poisoning, all featured in this column before.

Georgina Downs, a singer who has suffered permanent health damage from crop spraying of fields next to her family's home in Sussex, has established that farmers are not obliged to inform neighbours when they use chemicals that could prove harmful, nor to provide any information on which chemicals have been used. She recently had a letter from Timothy Walker, the head of the Health and Safety Executive, stating that such information obtained by HSE inspectors "can only be disclosed with the consent of the person who provided it".

This contrasts with a letter from the Department of Health to Margaret Reichlin, a retired art teacher, who has been battling for the public's right to know more about the toxic chemicals to which millions are exposed, ever since she suffered permanent damage from timber treatment in her Hampshire cottage 15 years ago. The DoH's Dr R J Fielder assures her that "if a complaint is made to the HSE relating to exposure to pesticides, you will be informed of the chemical nature of the spray", irrespective of any agreement as to whether adverse effects were connected with it. But Dr Fielder, who was only persuaded to respond after months of pressure, involving Miss Reichlin's MP, Sir George Young, then helpfully adds: "You really must take this up with the HSE."

Meanwhile, Hugh Berger, whose severe reactions to timber treatment products have made him unable to continue his work as an architectural conservationist, has learned that the housing association that owns the flat where he and his family live in Kensington, west London, is again planning to use toxic chemicals in the house. The Women's Pioneer Housing Trust has repeatedly refused to give him details of the chemicals its contractors plan to use, despite a letter sent to them by the HSE in 1997 stating that "your contractors failed to take all reasonable precautions to protect the residents of the flats", and warning that whenever toxic chemicals are used "residents must be notified".

It is good to know that the officials propose to enforce the law as it affects bees with all the rigour at their command.

An EU mystery tour

People in North Yorkshire have been intrigued to see a large white van touring the area, plastered with huge slogans reading "Can't make sense of legislation?", "Red tape, cutting through legislation", the number of a "red tape hotline" and the words "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah".

Tucked away on the back is a small "ring of stars", with the message "sponsored by the European Union".