Notebook 14 septemberA further huge crisis is building up on Britain's 100,000 cattle farms, under a barely-noticed government scheme which will soon have cost the average British household £1000 in taxes. In a few months time farmers will be faced with having to look after nearly half a million cattle, which they will not have money to pay for or sufficient feed to keep alive. Because these are animals over 30 months old, a BSE-related regulation dictates that they should eventually be rendered down into powder, as has already happened to more than four million cattle since 1996, at a cost to taxpayers of £2.5 billion.
But Britain's rendering plants are now so swamped by the need to render down carcasses from the foot-and-mouth cull that they no longer have capacity to cope with more than a fraction of the animals covered by the 'over 30 month scheme' (OTMS). When grass runs out in November and cattle must be brought inside, farmers will not have the resources to look after them, at an average of £10 a week per animal, even if they can find hay and straw, already in short supply.
The ruling that cattle over 30 months should be excluded from the food chain and rendered into powder (most of which then has to be stored indefinitely in warehouses) has remained one of the more grotesque by-products of the panic over BSE in 1996. There was no scientific justification for withdrawing these animals from human consumption. The government's spongieform encephalopathy advisory committee (SEAC) merely recommended that, to play absolutely safe, meat from such animals should only be eaten after 'deboning'. But in the initial hysteria following Stephen Dorrell's fateful statement in March 1996, the supermarkets and the National Farmers Union called for a complete ban, to "restore consumer confidence". After initially resisting, the then-agriculture minister Douglas Hogg offered this to the European Union, in the hope of getting the EU's ban on British beef exports lifted. The EU agreed to set up the OTMS, under Commission regulation 716/96, but without of course lifting the export ban which was its only original purpose.
By the autumn of 1996 a crisis was already building up as farmers faced the prospect of having to feed 110,000 cattle, and it took a major effort to organise rendering plants into clearing the backlog. Since 1996 four million animals have been destroyed under the OTMS, at a cost to taxpayers of £2.5 billion, of which the EU has contributed £500 million. But now, thanks to the pressure on rendering capacity from foot-and-mouth, that 1996 crisis is about to be repeated on a much larger scale. The backlog of cattle awaiting destruction already stands at 200,000. Because they are still out to grass, this has not yet become critical. But once the grass runs out, and that backlog rises between November and April by 20,000 a week to a total of nearly 500,000, the farmers will be faced with an impossible situation. At least in former times they might have been able to shoot their cattle and bury them. But since, under EU environmental regulations, this is no longer allowed, it seems as if our increasingly complex system of government is about to present them with a riddle to which there appears to be no answer.
It was telling that the BBC allowed newsreader Peter Sissons to speak last Thursday of the devastation in Manhattan covering "many acres" and stretching for "hundreds of yards". If he had referred to the damage covering "many hectares", this might have struck a jarring note in such a serious context. But normally, of course, the BBC thought-police are ruthless in cracking down on any reference to imperial measures, except when members of the public are interviewed and happily talk about "inches", "feet" and "miles" as most people in Britain still do. The familiar BBC orthodoxy was predictably much in evidence in its latest nature series, Blue Planet, with David Attenborough's sententious voice-over droning on about blue whales being "30 metres long" and so forth. But suddenly, before the metric censors could intervene, came a reference to a whale-calf moving at "2 knots", followed by an American talking about whales being seen over an area of "30,000 square miles". It would of course be perfectly possible for the BBC to permit Attenborough to say "30 metres, or 100 feet", allowing most viewers to relate to what he was talking about. I was amused last week to hear two nine-year old girls telling a story in which they spoke quite naturally about "one-and-a-half inches" and "eighteen inches". But I recall a conversation many years ago with two civil servants working for the old Metrication Board, before it was abolished by Mrs Thatcher. When I asked why it was not possible to refer to both imperial and metric, one of these tight-lipped officials replied "ah, that was the mistake we made after the switch from fahrenheit to celsius. The weather forecasters continued to give temperatures in both. But if you allow people the choice, they are so intellectually lazy, they always go for the one with which they are familiar".
At least there was one benefit from the way tragic events in America deprived the TUC of having to slow hand-clap the cancelled speech by Mr Blair. This was that the prime minister did not have the chance, as the text of his planned speech showed, to repeat yet again the shameless untruths that "nearly 60 percent of our trade " and "three million jobs depend on our being part of Europe". If only Mr Blair would consult his government's 'Pink Book', on our balance of payments, he would see that, in 1999, the latest year for which figures are available, the percentage of our trade we do with our EU partners (exports and imports combined) was not "nearly 60 percent" but 48.2 percent. Similarly that often-quoted claim that "three million jobs depend on our being part of Europe", intended to imply that if we were not members of the EU our neighbours would immediately call a halt to any further trade, derives, it will be recalled, from a study made for Britain in Europe in 1999 by the National Institute for Social and Economic Research. When Britain in Europe immediately started squeaking that, if Britain pulled out of the EU altogether, all those jobs would disappear, no one was more angry than the NIESR's Europhile director Dr Martin Weale. His study, he pointed out, had said nothing of the kind. It clearly stated that, even if Britain were to leave the EU, almost all that trade and those jobs would remain, and for BiE to suggest otherwise, was "pure Goebbels". It is sad to see our prime minister still trying to emulate that celebrated propagandist two years later.
Several readers have drawn my attention to two features in the AA's otherwise splendid publication, '2001 Road Atlas Europe'. One is that this now dutifully divides up all the countries, including Britain, into their Euro-regions, such as 'East Midlands', 'Region Wallone' and 'Niedersachsen' ('England' of course has been wiped from the map). The other, rather more comically, is the way the route-map gives all motorways their new EU 'E' numbers; so that the M4 between South Wales and London is now part of the 'E30', which runs from Cork to Rosslare in Ireland, then turns left round London to Ipswich, continuing across Holland and Germany to Berlin. What we know as the M62 over the Pennines is in fact the 'E22', which continues on the continent to Lubeck. The road between Carlisle and Newcastle is now the 'E18' which begins between Sligo and Belfast, then continues between Stavanger and Kristiansund in Norway, and finally disappears somewhere in Sweden. This integrationism-run-riot stems from a mad Utopian scheme called the 'Trans-European Road Network', outlined in EU Council decision 1692/96. The Department of Transport insists that, as yet, there are no plans to change the numbers of Britain's motorways, although many on the continent already carry both national and 'E' numbers. But one cannot help noting that the same E30 we know as the M4 in fact carries on beyond Berlin as far as Moscow. Does the AA know something about the EU's plans for expansion to the east, or 'drang nach osten', that the rest of us haven't yet been told about?