Huge numbers of 'recreational sky users', from pilots of light aircraft and hang-gliders to hot air balloonists and even sky divers, will be very angrywhen they learn that, in seven years time, they will each have to carry what is known as a 'Mode S transponder', complete with its own power supply. At present these 'squawk boxes', which cost £6000, need only be used by commercial aircraft flying under instruments, to keep in touch by radar with air traffic control. But in 2008 their use will become mandatory for all 'aerial vehicles', including sky divers.
What has this in common with the biggest reform of our local government in history, under which Britain is to have 12 regional governments, county councils will be abolished and most cities will follow London in having a directly-elected mayor? The answer is that the initiative for both these schemes is coming from shadowy, undemocratic Europe-wide bodies which are not part of the European Union, although the EU is only too happy to endorse their efforts.
The 'squawk box' scheme, as reported by Nigel Everett in the December edition of Pilot magazine, is the work of Eurocontrol, a mysterious regulatory body made up of the national aviation authorities of more than 30 countries. "It may seem extraordinary" says Mr Everett, "that Eurocontrol should be so insensitive to the position of recreational pilots that it should even contemplate such a draconian and unacceptable edict". The decisions of Eurocontrol, he explains, are made by committees accountable to no one but then become binding on all member states. In this case, they have come up with something which is not only ludicrously costly and impractical, but will become even less relevant as radar-based control gives way to a system based on satellite readings.
Similarly the real motor for the reform which is dividing Britain between 12 regional governments, it turns out, is not the EU but something called the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe (CLRAE), part of the Council of Europe covering 41 countries. In 1994 this body commissioned a European Charter of Regional Self-Government, published in 1997. Even though this document, requiring all member states to set up regional governments, has still to be ratified, our present Government has already been working to its blueprint, by dividing the UK into 12 self-governing regions. Four, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, already have their own elected governments, with the eight English regions to follow. As is explained by Dr Richard North, who is working on a detailed study of this shadowy revolution as research director for the European Parliament's Europe of Democracies and Diversities group, 'the initiative for these reforms is not coming from Brussels but from people working inside local government across Europe and from Europe-wide bodies like the Conference of Local and Regional Authorities. Here in Britain a key role is played by the Local Government Association, and by individual councillors such as Ken Bodfish, leader of Brighton and Hove Council".
"In the past" Dr North continues, "such a revolution in our system of local government would have occupied the attention of Parliament for months. Now it all goes on behind the scenes and no one even bothers to explain what is happening".
What is also interesting, however, is how bodies like Eurocontrol and CLRAE which have no overt connection with the EU seem nevertheless closely linked with it in other ways. Eurocontrol is scheduled to play a key part in the plan to set up an EU air traffic control agency to patrol a 'single European sky'. There is extensive overlap between the memberships of the CLRAE and the EU's Committee of the Regions. It seems clear the EU has found a clever way to use such arms-length bodies to further the only real agenda behind everything it does: that holy task of ever-closer 'European integration'. And, as always, to be democratic, accountable, honest and open is the very last thing on its mind.
In the High Court last week Mr Justice Sullivan struck a trenchant blow for common sense by ruling that, on several counts, the Government acted unlawfully in fining lorry drivers £14 million for unwittingly bringing 'clandestine immigrants' across the Channel. But this still leaves the equally crazy injustice of the similar fines imposed on English Welsh and Scottish (EWS), our main cross-Channel rail freight operator. As I reported in May, EWS has no control over the trains until they arrive for inspection at its terminal near Dover. Nevertheless, under a Home Office regulation issued in March, it is then fined £2000 for each immigrant it discovers. The problem has now been reduced by the drastic remedy of reducing by two-thirds the number of trains operated, since this is the maximum number their French state-railway counterpart is prepared to police. EWS has thus lost two-thirds of its previous annual £40 million-worth of business. Many customers, including the Scotch whisky trade, have been driven to move their goods across the Channel by other means.
At least EWS has so far refused to pay any fines, now totalling over £1 million. But as with the road haulage operators, Home Office ministers and officials still cannot grasp what Mr Justice Sullivan last week tried to explain to them: that to fine people for offences which they have no power to avoid committing does not just defy common sense, it is in breach of basic principles of law.
At a family funeral the other day I had three conversations with people unaware of my professional concerns. The first was the former head-teacher of a local primary school, who said he had recently taken early retirement. "For the first 30 years" he said, "I loved teaching. But in recent years the job has become nothing but red tape and diktats from central government. It just became impossible to teach. Getting out was the best thing I ever did".
My next exchange was with a Gloucestershire couple who said their 23-year old daughter was coming to the end of her nursing training at their county hospital. "Sadly she is not going to continue", they said. "So much of her job is taken up with red tape and paperwork she feels it no longer seems to have any connection with the reasons why she wanted to be a nurse".
My third conversation was about a 20-year old cousin who, when I last met him, was looking forward to a career in the police. "Oh no" I was told, "his sister's fiancee is a chief inspector and warned him 'whatever you do, don't become a policeman. These days it's nothing but bureaucracy and red tape. The last thing you can do is police work'".
Politicians argue about how many more billions they want to spend on education, the health service and crime. But isn't it odd how they never seem to address what, to the rest of us has so obviously become the chief reason why all three state industries are in such a tragic, wasteful mess? If the Tories really want to make an impact on these issues, the very first thing on which they should focus attention is why so many people with vocations to teach, nurse or uphold law and order no longer want to.
It may not have been the Oscars, but British nominees won more than their share of the awards handed out at a grand dinner in Brussels last week by the magazine European Voice. Thanks, it is said, to some deft footwork by Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair was electronically voted by its readers 'European Leader of the Year'. Chris Patten topped the poll as 'European Commissioner of the Year'. But the night's biggest upset, thanks not least to readers of the Sunday Telegraph, came in the award for 'European Campaigners of the Year'. Winners by a landslide were two Sunderland market traders, Steve Thoburn and Neil Herron, on behalf of Britain's 'Metric Martyrs'.
Mr Herron announced the award was not just for them, because there are "57 million people standing behind us". An inaccurately-briefed EU-lover in the audience shouted "there are only 55 million people in your country". Mr Herron called back "sorry, I forgot those two million illegal immigrants". He was lucky not immediately to be extradited to Greece on charges of xenophobia and plane-spotting.