It was a telling comment on how our country is now governed that in just four days last week the European Parliament considered more items of legislation than appear in a Queen's Speech and that most of this went wholly unreported.MEPs punched buttons hundreds of times, to approve 40 directives and other proposals, which will impose costs on Britain's economy amounting to billions of pounds. Yet there is little or nothing our Westminster Parliament can do to influence this flood of legislation in any way.
One directive, for instance, will outlaw the sale of vitamin and mineral supplements, except those on a list approved by the European Union, meaning that thousands of harmless products used by millions to balance their diet will have to be withdrawn. Another will knock £1 billion off the income of Britain's post office, which says it will be forced to add several pence to the price of a stamp. A directive imposing new limits on airport noise, however welcome to those who live near airports, will bring a significant rise in the cost of air travel. This is quite separate from the Physical Agents (Noise) directive, also approved by MEPs, which will make it virtually impossible to run a teenage dance club or for an orchestra to play Beethoven's Ninth Symphony unless all the musicians wear ear plugs. This in turn is not to be confused with the Physical Agents (Whole Body Vibration) directive, approved last week in Brussels, which will make it illegal to operate almost any kind of machinery, from heavy goods vehicles and tractors to chain saws and road drills, for more than a few hours or even minutes a day.
It has not been generally noticed that there has recently been a significant mutation in the nature of legislation pouring out of the EU. For a long time all these directives remained comfortably remote from the lives of most people, affecting only comparatively small sectors of the population, such as fishermen, farmers or abattoir owners. But today, as the EU moves towards the final stages of political integration, its legislators feel free to pass laws which will have much wider effect, like those which will impose costs amounting sometimes to hundreds of pounds on anyone wishing to dispose of old vehicles, television sets or any type of electrical equipment
Other proposals voted on by MEPs last week included a tranche of new directives on financial services, taxation and power supplies, to celebrate the EU's assumption of control over financial and energy markets. They approved the creation of a European Data Protection Supervisor (how they love those capital letters) to ensure the enforcement of data protection law in the EU. They voted for moves towards welding the EU into a "single judicial space", with a single system of justice based on the continental model. Finally they welcomed a proposal to give the European Union its own "legal personality" as a sovereign country, able to claim representation at the UN and to sign treaties in its own right. Since to a great extent we already live in that country it must be remembered that its laws can only be proposed by the European Commission, over which we have no democratic control. The role of the MEPs, punching their little buttons, is only to rubber stamp what the Commission proposes. In other words, we increasingly live in what is in effect a one-party state. Whatever doubts we have about the version of democracy represented by Mr Mugabe, are we really in any position to wax so self-righteous?
Three High Court judges may last Friday have rejected a judicial review of the Government's refusal to allow an independent inquiry into the foot-and-mouth catastrophe, on the bizarre argument that people are free to pronounce on the Government's handling of the crisis "through the ballot box". But the Government's remorseless efforts to suppress any proper investigation have inspired ever more of those professionally involved in this disaster to come up with their own findings on what they saw at first hand. One particularly powerful report is that drawn up by Dr Sheila Crispin, a leading light of Bristol University's veterinary department, who last year volunteered to help with fighting the crisis in Northumberland. Her conclusions on the shambles in which she found herself caught up (it can be read on www.warmwell.com) are devastating not least because they are put with such authority.
Dr Crispin reports on the chaos resulting from the bureaucratic centralisation of the handling of the crisis; on how panic in Downing Street "turned a crisis into a disaster"; how the army was "extremely professional" but how many soldiers "expressed the private opinion that Government policy appeared irrational". She excoriates the way the direction of the crisis was handed over to "some rather unusual and inappropriate scientists" with no veterinary experience, and how their contiguous cull policy contributed to the spread of the disease. She records how she was converted to the scientific arguments in favour of vaccination, pointing out that the NFU "did not represent those farmers at the heart of the crisis" and how its spokesmen were so "woefully ignorant" on this issue that "they should not have entered into the debate".
She is above all withering about the arrogant incompetence shown by many Government officials, leading to immense and unnecessary suffering both by animals and people. When she ends by pointing out that if the Government succeeds in ramming its Animal Health Bill through Parliament it will merely give the same people power to repeat such "appalling" mistakes on even greater scale, her words burn off the page. They will doubtless be quoted when peers have a final chance to halt this scandalous Bill in ten days time.
It was interesting to see Labour MPs dutifully echoing the propaganda put out by two immensely powerful multi-national companies when last Thursday a Tory front-bench spokesman Geoffrey Clifton-Brown tried to raise the scandal of the great 'white asbestos hoax'. What was striking was the fanatical ignorance of the MPs who jumped on Mr Clifton-Brown, including the minister Alan Whitehead, who showed how well he had done his homework by citing a "reprehensible series of articles appearing in the Daily Telegraph (sic) under the by-line of Christopher Booker".
The essence of this issue is simple. The entire case against white asbestos depends ultimately on a single study done in the 1980s, by a scientist who it later emerged had been looking at the wrong kind of asbestos. The study by Julian Peto claimed to have found evidence that workers in Rochdale were suffering from the lung disease mesothelioma after working with white asbestos. But Peto had not examined their lungs. When an electron microscopist, Professor Fred Pooley, did so, he found they contained not white asbestos but the deadly blue variety, a wholly different chemical.
Yet, solely on the basis of this mistaken diagnosis, the Health and Safety Executive now proposes what could be the most costly piece of legislation this country has seen. Not a single MP last week showed any sign of having read the evidence, or at any of the scientific studies which show the HSE is wrong, including two commissioned by the HSE itself. As the MPs shouted abuse, their every word would have been cheered by the two companies, Eternit of Belgium and Saint-Gobain of France, which have poured huge sums into lobbying against white asbestos, to justify the millions of pounds they have invested in producing asbestos-substitutes which may well be much more dangerous to health than the harmless asbestos-cement products they are designed to replace. All Mr Clifton-Brown was asking for was an independent review of the evidence before the HSE is allowed to pass its absurd law. It is not surprising the MPs resorted to abuse, because neither they nor the HSE have a leg to stand on. ******* No doubt we shall all sleep more soundly in our beds for knowing that the European Parliament last week passed a lengthy resolution on "women and fundamentalism". Among many other points, it demanded that the Romanian Patriarch and the Pope should change their attitude to lesbians, and called on the EU "to withdraw recognition" from any country which has no women in its government. That should put Saddam Hussein in his place.