Christopher Bookers' Notebook

(Filed: 05/10/2003)

Rulebook scuppers UK yard
EU draft made clear for less
Pear tree saved - in triplicate
Pig ignorant

Rulebook scuppers UK yard

Last Tuesday, when receivers went into the Appledore Shipbuilding yard in North Devon, the last medium-sized shipbuilding company in Britain closed its doors. This put the firm's 550-strong workforce on the dole, at a cost of £1 million a month to the taxpayer. Only 53 years ago Britain built more ships than any other country in the world. In 1989, when the present management took over, Appledore was one of 10 such companies surviving in Britain. Now there are none.

There have been many reasons for the decline in British shipbuilding, but one of the most glaring has been the uniquely dutiful way in which British governments have obeyed Brussels's rules to reduce shipyard capacity by drastic cutbacks on state aid.

Appledore has supplied nearly 40 ships in the past decade, including fisheries protection vessels for the Irish government. It has, however, been frozen out of one contract after another by the Ministry of Defence - in one instance when its bid was only 60 per cent of that of the winning tender. Another Government contract went to a Dutch firm, which then subcontracted the work to Ukraine.

A last straw was the Department of Trade and Industry's refusal to extend a loan guarantee for a £40 million contract because this would break EC rules on state aid. Yet Brussels has just approved the French government's £2 billion bail-out of Alstom, the firm that recently launched the QM2, the world's largest liner. Another subsidised French firm is to be given a big share in the contract to build two aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy. Italian and Dutch shipbuilders, backed by their governments, use every kind of creative device to get round the rules on state aid.

Last year I reported another example of how the EC approved a hefty subsidy to an east German shipbuilder, Mecklenburger Metallguss, which enabled it to undercut Stone Manganese, the Birkenhead company that has built the propellers for almost every famous British ship of the past century. This company's board includes Jim Wilson, Appledore's managing director. Stone Manganese still survives as a design office on the Mersey, but it has had to transfer its manufacturing to China.

Last week, Amicus and GMB, the unions fighting the Appledore closure, insisted it was time our government learned from other EU countries how to work the system in looking after our national interest. Meanwhile, taxpayers will have to foot the bill for keeping Appledore's workforce on the dole.

EU draft made clear for less

As battle commences in Rome on the constitution for Europe - the constitution that Tony Blair said in 2000 was wholly unnecessary, but which he now supports almost unreservedly - it is understandable that opinion polls are suggesting that the vast majority of the British people think that the constitution should be put to a referendum. Yet we have been living under such a constitution for years, by way of the succession of treaties setting up the EU.

The draft prepared by Valery Giscard d'Estaing and his constitutional convention may recognise more openly than before that the EU constitutes a wholly new form of government in our lives, and may in various respects propose a significant extension of its powers. But already, as this column weekly attests, the existing surrender of national power to the Community's institutions has brought about a revolution in the way we are governed and in how our laws are made.

Someone who has long recognised this is Brig Anthony Cowgill, of the British Management Data Foundation. He has for 11 years been publishing versions of our evolving European constitution, as represented by successive treaties. These are used by businessmen, lawyers, MPs and even ministers, as they are by far the most useful, comprehensive versions available.

Brig Cowgill's project began when a Foreign Office minister in John Major's government, Tristan Garel-Jones, ruled that it would be "presumptuous" for the Government to publish a full version of the Maastricht treaty until after it had been ratified. Only thanks to Brig Cowgill were MPs able properly to read the treaty before it was debated.

In another tour de force, Brig Cowgill has published a version of the Giscard d'Estaing draft constitution (with its 465 articles, compared with only 33 in the US constitution), with full analysis and relevant papers. This is available from tomorrow for £15, including postage (call 01452 812 837), compared with the £36 the Government charges for the bare text of the draft and its White Paper, which is little more than a glossy propaganda brochure. For anyone wanting to follow the battles over the constitution in the months ahead, Brig Cowgill's version and analysis will be an invaluable guide.

Pear tree saved - in triplicate

John O'Hara, who lives in a block of flats in St John's Wood, London, was recently sent three fat envelopes from Westminster city council. Each contained the same 13 pages, addressed to him by his name, as The Owner, and as The Occupier, telling him that the council wanted to place a preservation order on a pear tree some way from where he lived, preventing its unauthorised felling or lopping.

Mr O'Hara discovered that the council had sent the same 39 sheets to each of the other 83 flats in his block, so that, as he says, "to save this pear tree from a grisly end, the council has sent 249 envelopes and 3,327 pieces of A4 paper, weighing 20.75 kilograms (45.6 lbs), to my block alone, and no doubt to thousands of other residents". Mr O'Hara asks whether there might be a link between this and the fact that council taxes have risen there this year by 28 per cent.

Westminster might say that it must notify everyone by order of the same central government that has this year cut its grant, only allowing it to keep £70 million of the £800 million a year raised in business rates. But even this does not explain why residents should receive so much paper just to save one tree.

Pig ignorant

Zac Goldsmith, the editor of The Ecologist and son of the late Sir James Goldsmith, keeps a herd of pigs on his farm in Devon. For some years, whenever he has wanted to convert one into pork chops for his family table, he has called in a professional slaughterman, one of thousands put out of work when John Selwyn Gummer's bizarre interpretation of an EC meat directive made it too expensive for most of Britain's rural abattoirs to stay in business.

Recently, however, the farm was visited by an official of the State Veterinary Service who said that, on the advice of Sir John Krebs's Food Standards Agency, this was no longer permitted. According to the FSA, the slaughterman was supplying meat "for sale", which was against European rules. The only person who could be permitted to kill the pigs was the farmer himself.

Apart from the obvious point that the slaughterman is not supplying the meat, but only his services, it seems that, according to the FSA's reading of EC hygiene rules, it is perfectly all right for an inexperienced, untrained farmer to kill animals for human consumption, but for a qualified expert to do the job is a criminal offence. Mr Goldsmith looks forward to seeing how Sir John Krebs will defend this.