Christopher Booker's Notebook
Greedy Defra eats up the village compost heap Lords hide EU interests Traders reclaim the streets A lie that will not lie down
Like other communities across the country, the villagers of Lympstone in Devon have for some years run an admirable collective composting scheme, whereby hedge clippings, vegetable waste and other organic refuse is collected from round the village, taken to a communal heap and sold back to villagers at £1.50 a bag. This popular scheme, run by Jenepher Allen, an occupational therapist, draws in 40 volunteers from all sections of the community.
Under European Union waste directives, which outlaw the use of compost except on land where it originated, schemes such as this would normally require villagers to pay £9,000 for a waste management licence. But because the schemes are seen as environmentally beneficial, Brussels has generously permitted the villagers exemption from this requirement.
For officials of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, however, this was a challenge they could not resist. They have produced a 132-page consultation paper on "exemptions" from licensing requirements, which emphasises the need to "allow and encourage genuine recovery operations". Defra adds that special consideration should be given to "small scale composting" schemes, which have "an important part to play in meeting Government targets".
Only at the end do the Defra officials come up with their masterstroke. Obviously what irks them most is the thought of all those villagers getting away with having to pay nothing at all. They thus propose that, in return for the privilege of being exempted from licensing, communal composting schemes must pay a "notification fee" and other charges, ranging between £833 and £1,633 in year one, and up to £1,502 for every year thereafter.
The trouble is that, with a mere £90 in the bank, there is no way the Lympstone scheme could afford to pay the officials £1,500 a year for the privilege of being exempted from waste management charges. So, without a drastic change of mind (the consultation ends this week), it looks as though almost all our community composting schemes will be forced to stop.
What was it that Edward Heath told us in 1971 about how joining the Common Market would in no way change our British way of life?
A remarkable characteristic of the new European political elite is that its members seem to think they are not bound by the rules that apply to everyone else. For example: there is a referendum today in Estonia on entry into the EU. During the campaign that has led up to it, European diplomats, including the British ambassador, blatantly promoted the "yes" campaign, in direct breach of the Vienna convention, which forbids diplomats to participate in the politics of countries to which they are accredited.
An instance nearer home was on view last week in the Lords. Normally, members of the Upper House are punctilious in declaring any financial interest before speaking on issues where this is relevant. For some years Lord Pearson of Rannoch has been asking why this rule does not seem to apply to those peers who receive generous pensions as former employees of the European Commission.
Last Monday, when Lord Pearson returned to the charge, he was greeted with a barrage of sneering comments from former commissioners, such as Lord Clinton-Davis and Lord Richard, who said "the idea that there is some residual allegiance in me to the Commission" was "absolute nonsense". Not for the first time, it seems, Lord Richard misled the House on this issue. The Commission staff rules, - which apply to himself and a dozen other peers, including Lord Wiliamson, a former head of the Commission's civil service - make clear that any former official must "conduct himself solely with the interests of the Communities in mind"; that this particularly applies to "any expression of opinion"; and that any former official who breaches this obligation may face "reduction or withdrawal of entitlement to retirement pension".
In the case of commissioners (such as Lords Richard, Clinton-Davis, Brittan, Tugendhat and Cockfield) Article 213 of the Treaty of Rome states that "both during and after their term of office" they must put "the general interest of the Communities" above everything else, and that for any breach an ex-commissioner can "be deprived of his right to a pension".
It would be hard to find a clearer example of the kind of interest that should be declared under the Lords' rules. Yet Lord Richard et al insist that the rule does not apply to them - and we taxpayers may not even know how much of our money they receive. It is not surprising they are so touchy whenever Lord Pearson tries to raise the matter.
As is customary in small towns, shopkeepers in Whitburn, Northumberland, were wont to display samples of their wares outside their shops. A few months ago, an official of South Tyneside council's "neighbourhood services department" ordered them to remove all these illegal "obstructions to the highway".
The results were dramatic. The town's flower shop closed down. Tim Williams, an antique dealer, lost so much custom that he put his mirrors and fireplaces and so on back outside, and was immediately threatened with prosecution. He then called in that doughty battler against officialdom Neil Herron, the former Sunderland market trader who led the Metric Martyrs' campaign.
Mr Herron noted that some of the worst obstructions to the highways of Whitburn were the property of the council itself, such as awkwardly-sited litter bins, or a bollard placed outside Mr Williams's shop. Council officials were reminded that a principle of their "enforcement concordat" was "uniformity of action", and that they should therefore act against themselves.
After coverage in the local media, Mr Williams last week received a letter from South Tyneside's "head of streetscape", Paula Brooks, advising him that for a trial period of six months he would be graciously permitted to put goods on the pavement, so long as they did not protrude more than "200 millimetres" from the wall. Furthermore, the council would look for ways to reduce its own contribution to pavement clutter. A modest victory for common sense, another campaign medal for Mr Herron.
The only entertainment to be derived from the glossy White Paper on the proposed EU constitution is to spot how many half-truths, lies and evasions it contains. One obvious example, on a page describing the benefits of EU membership to Britain, is the claim that "more than three million jobs" in Britain "depend on the EU".
This pseudo-statistic first appeared in 2000 when Britain in Europe used a report by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) to claim that, if Britain were not a member of the EU, 3.5 million jobs would disappear. Dr Martin Weale, the director of the NIESR, was so outraged by this misuse of his study that he called it "pure Goebbels", and said: "In many years of academic research I cannot recall such a wilful distortion of the facts."
His report had in fact concluded that almost all of these jobs would exist whether Britain were a member or not. This did not prevent Tony Blair, Robin Cook and others parroting the "three million jobs" claim ad nauseam, and the White Paper repeats this dishonesty just as if Dr Weale had never refuted it.
It is timely that, as the White Paper trumpets how easy it now is for British firms to trade in the single market, the Institute of Directors has published a study showing that more than 50 per cent of firms think that the single market has performed "poorly" or "very poorly". Nearly 50 per cent say that it has meant more paperwork; most say it is just as difficult or more difficult to trade in Europe as it was before the single market; and when asked which country put up the most obstacles to trade in breach of single market rules, 57 per cent named France. Quelle surprise.