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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 07/09/2003)

We are in the grip of the full Monti
Defra given carte blanche to kill
Helmets off for hearse

We are in the grip of the full Monti

It is not often that a Premiership football programme quotes a Roman historian in the original Latin. An exception was last Sunday's message to fans from Rupert Lowe, the chairman of Southampton FC, when his team beat Manchester United 1-0. Mr Lowe's extract from Tacitus - "corruptissima republica plurimae leges (the most corrupt republics have the most laws)" - came in a protest at how the finances of England's Premier League, the most successful in Europe, are being threatened by the officials of Mario Monti, Brussels's competition commissioner.

At issue is how the Commission has done everything in its power "to interfere and meddle" in how the league packages and sells its televison rights. Some time back Mr Monti's officials ruled that the league's current £1 billion-a-year contract with BSkyB was in breach of EC competition laws, even though rights had been freely offered to the highest bidder in a deal endorsed as legal by Britain's restrictive practices court in 1999. Brussels officials ordered that next time television rights came up for auction, they must be divided into separate "packages", to enable other bidders, such as the BBC and ITV, to bid for at least part of them.

The Premier League did as instructed, but Sky still won all four main packages (not least because the BBC decided to concentrate its budget on buying internationals and the FA Cup). Mr Monti's officials decided that this was not good enough. Although the next contract should long since have been settled, they still have not worked out how to move the goalposts yet again. Whatever they come up with, however, is likely to have a devastating effect on the Premier League's income. First likely to go to the wall will be the £60 million devoted each year to schemes, such as the Football Foundation, that encourage football at the grass roots.

What enrages the Premier League, in Mr Lowe's words, is that a small group of unelected officials in Brussels "are able to put at risk the future of a culturally important part of British life". He is particularly alive to the implications of this unbridled power since, in 1997, he was one of the most successful candidates for the Referendum Party.

In fact the havoc wrought on British life by Mr Monti reaches ever wider. It was Monti who was behind directive 2002/77 (sorry for my misprint of its number last week), which recently created the "118 directory enquiry" shambles by ordering BT's 192 service to be abolished. It is Monti's competition rules that threaten to end Ryanair's cheap flights from Britain to 18 French cities, thus restoring the monopoly of Air France (which the Commission allowed to receive an illegal £2.4 billion state subsidy).

Monti's most damaging decision was to outlaw a scheme that enabled billions of pounds' of redevelopment on former industrial sites in British cities, by ruling that it was illegal to give taxpayers' money to clean up the sites for re-use.

Most alarming of all, as Mr Lowe points out, is the way that Mr Monti and his officials enjoy such arbitrary power, without any political control or accountability. But this is what the British people voted for in the 1970s, after repeated assurances from by Edward Heath and others that joining the Common Market would have no effect on our national way of life.

Defra given carte blanche to kill

Two law professors, in a trenchant paper in one of Britain's most respected law journals, confirm what was often reported in this column during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic: the "pre-emptive cull" under which eight million healthy animals were slaughtered was wholly illegal.

Prof David Campbell and Prof Robert Lee, of Cardiff University, show in their paper, "The Power to Panic" (reproduced on www.warmwell. com), in Public Law, why the cull policy constituted perhaps the greatest criminal act ever perpetrated by a British government.

The Animal Health Act 1981, under which the killing was authorised, empowered the Government only to destroy animals that were infected or had been directly exposed to infection. The "pre-emptive cull', ordered by officials of the EC's Food and Veterinary Office in March 2001, went way beyond that power, by ordering mass slaughter merely to stop the disease spreading. This policy, described by the Cardiff professors as having "no relevant epidemiological, agricultural or indeed regulatory experience", was endorsed by Prof Roy Anderson when he was appointed as the Government's chief adviser on foot and mouth on March 21.

The Government was aware that the policy was illegal, as its chief vet, Jim Scudamore, confirmed to the Anderson Inquiry in 2002. This was why in nearly 200 cases, when the policy was challenged, the ministry backed down. One unsuccessful challenger was Janet Hughes, a Welsh teacher, who in August 2001 asked the High Court to declare illegal a Welsh Assembly plan to slaughter 20,000 healthy sheep on the Brecon Beacons.

When the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) joined the case, Mr Scudamore told the Court of Appeal that 140 sheep on the Beacons showed "clinical disease", indicating "a heavy weight of infection". When, however, Miss Hughes produced test results showing that only "one antibody" had been found, this evidence was ruled inadmissible. After spending her life savings on the case, she was pursued by Defra for £17,000 legal costs, and in January this year bailiffs arrived to seize all her property, including toys belonging to her 12-year-old son.

After months of stand-off, Defra has agreed to drop its claim in return for £4,000, which was sent to Miss Hughes by wellwishers from all over the country, including readers of this column. In their meticulously-documented paper, Prof Lee and Prof Campbell confirm that her reading of the law was correct, as implicitly did the Government in bulldozing through the Animal Health Act 2002 giving it the powers it did not have in 2001. The new Act entitles officials to kill any animal they wish, without having to explain why. It also makes it a criminal offence to challenge the officials in any way. So in any future epidemic Miss Hughes might not only be faced with the seizure of her child's toys but a prison sentence into the bargain.

Helmets off for hearse

When the time came to bury Dick Howell, a veteran motorcycle enthusiast from Mere, Wiltshire, his coffin was driven down the A303 to Yeovil crematorium by the Rev David Sinclair in Britain's only three-wheeler "motorcycle hearse". En route, police halted the cortege because Mr Sinclair was not wearing a helmet; it then had to be pointed out to them that the law does not require drivers of "three-wheeled motorised conveyances" to wear helmets.

At least Mr Howell himself was properly equipped: his helmet was on top of his coffin.