Christopher Bookers' Notebook
(Filed: 12/10/2003)

EU grants to revive an industry stifled by EU rules
Don't mention Europe
Lost truths of the Kalahari
Police demand cut of charity cash

EU grants to revive an industry stifled by EU rules

The European Union is making propaganda mileage out of its grant of 1.37 million (£950,000) to various bodies to research ways of re-establishing the manufacture of "Roman cement", a building material that, because of its unique setting and weathering properties, is highly-prized by conservationists. The Rocem project, designed "to restore built-heritage" under the "energy, environmental and sustainable development section" of the "Fifth Framework programme", is giving money to universities and others, to identify ways of reviving the production of this material, which could "help restore Europe's buildings to their historic splendour".

A decade ago I reported on the battle for survival of the Shillingstone Lime company, which made this cement in a Dorset chalk pit. Conservation experts and architects, including English Heritage, were concerned that their supplies of this invaluable product would dry up after the tiny firm was told by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution that, under an EC environmental directive, it would have to pay an "authorisation fee" of £9,150 to stay in business, and £4,500 a year thereafter. Its annual profit was only £7,000.

HMIP (now part of the Environment Agency) then told the company that it would have to pay £100,000 to fit "scrubbing" equipment to its kiln, to prevent the emission to the air of two tons of chalk dust a year - most of which fell within 50 yd of the chimney - even though the firm could quite legally supply 18,500 tons of chalk dust a year to local farmers to spread on their fields.

Thanks to the same legislation, three of the four firms making this cement in Britain had already closed, leaving only Shillingstone. Following the publicity and the outcry from so many conservationists, an amendment to the law was rushed through, transferring responsibility for "small-scale lime-slaking" to local councils and thus letting HMIP off the hook. But the damage had been done.

At Shillingstone today the ghostly remains of Britain's last producer of this prized cement have become the building site for a new country house. Meanwhile, Brussels showers money on universities in Bradford, Vienna and Warsaw, to research how to revive an industry killed off by its own legislation less than 10 years ago.

Don't mention Europe

One of the weirder aspects of last week's Tory conference was the way any discussion of "Europe" was carefully restricted to a short "debate" on foreign affairs, along with Iraq and other issues of foreign policy. This enabled party managers to confine discussion to Michael Ancram's call for a referendum on the forthcoming EU constitution and nothing more.

What makes this bizarre, of course, is that the EU is no longer a matter of foreign policy. It is now responsible in large part for the way our country is governed. We have ceded the power to make laws in a wide range of policy areas that might each have once had a debate to themselves, from farming, fishing and the environment to trade and industry. By pretending that the EU is merely a foreign policy issue, Ancram and his colleagues tacitly acknowledged that there is no point in discussing much of what constitutes the government of our country, since we no longer control it. Hence the concentration on health, education, police and tax. The rest has been given away.

If the Tories get the referendum that they are calling for, they may well be paid out for their efforts to narrow down the debate over "Europe". With Tony Blair, the Lib Dems and the "Tory big beasts", such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, all lined up in favour of a "Yes" vote, Iain Duncan Smith and Ancram would find themselves on the back foot, having to defend an absurdly inconsistent position. They are so keen to insist that Britain must remain in the EU that they will not dare to raise any of the larger issues concerning the extent to which the EU has become the government of this country. They would have to defend every surrender of power already made - mainly by Conservative governments - while trying to insist that the constitution is something quite different; and that, even if Britain did vote "No", we would remain members of a club whose rules we had rejected.

No wonder Mr Blair looks forward to the moment when he can give the Tories the referendum they want, because he thinks that, without any alternative strategy, they can be made to look weak and foolish. Which is why he also thinks that, unlike a referendum on the euro, this is one he could win.

Lost truths of the Kalahari

Last June five "heads of the EU mission in Botswana" produced a report on the plight of the Bushmen forced by the Botswana government out of their ancestral homeland in the Central Kalahari game reserve. No one was keener to read their findings than Survival International, which has waged a relentless campaign on behalf of the persecuted Bushmen. In 2001 it even extracted a solemn promise from Brussels that, if there was evidence that the Bushmen were being forcibly dispossessed, the EU would halt its development aid to Botswana's government.

After repeated requests to see the report, Survival has had a letter from Jacob Visscher of the Council of the European Union in Brussels to say that: "The General Secretariat has examined your request on the basis of Regulation (EC) No. 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of May 30, 2001 regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents . . . and the specific provisions regarding public access to Council documents set out in Annex II to the Council's Rules of Procedure . . . and has come to the following conclusion: The report you refer to was drafted by the EU heads of mission after their visit to the Central Kalahari Game reserve which took place from June 22 to 25, 2003. It is . . . classified as 'Restreint UE', which means that the unauthorised disclosure of the information it contains could be disadvantageous to the interests of the European Union."

The Council therefore considers, the letter goes on, that "given the nature and content of this document, its release would undermine the protection of the public interest as regards the EU's international relations. Access to this document must therefore be denied pursuant to Article 4(1)(a) of the Regulation."

In the proposed EU constitution, Article I-49 on "Transparency" lays down that any citizen of the Union shall have a right of access to documents of the Union institutions in whatever form they are produced. But, at the same time, any Union institution may draw up its own rules to limit that access. That's a piece of double-think that might have impressed George Orwell.

Police demand cut of charity cash

An annual highlight in my county of Somerset is our autumn carnival season, which raises funds for charity from the crowds who pack the streets of our towns to see processions of huge, brightly-lit floats. This year, however, the charities stand to lose tens of thousands of pounds, thanks to a demand by the police that they be paid exorbitant sums for the hire of traffic cones used in crowd control.

Just weeks before Wells carnival, the chief marshal, Martin Coppell, has resigned in protest at a police ruling that organisers must not only themselves take full responsibility for keeping order during carnival processions, but pay £1.80 to rent each cone. In Wells alone this will reduce the sum collected for charity by £4,500.

On the internet, a plastic cone can be bought outright for £3.70, little more than twice what the police are demanding to hire out cones, which have already been paid for by the public anyway.

Since, with the money they make from their speed cameras and cone-rental, the police now seem to view their role as little more than a profit-making business, has the time not come just to hive them off as a private company? We could then use the money saved to set up a new body charged with doing all those things the police no longer have time for, such as catching criminals and keeping public order.