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Christopher Booker's Notebook


(Filed: 08/12/2002)

Another village falls victim to the Post Office
Millions of pounds go up in cow-smoke
HSE blunders in new law
Blunkett backs metric martyrs

Another village falls victim to the Post Office

The residents of a Buckinghamshire village are dismayed by the determination of the Post Office to close down the sub-post office and shop which provides a central focus for their communal life, apparently in breach of both the Post Office's code of conduct and ministerial policy. Last week, only a day after the minister responsible, Stephen Timms, stated on the Today programme that the Post Office had been ordered not to close local offices unless this was absolutely unavoidable, the sub-post office at Chesham Bois, near Amersham, was given notice that it will be shut down on January 29.

What is startling about this decision is that it seems to fly in the face of the Post Office's declared policies to maintain village post offices as "an essential part of everyday life". The Chesham Bois branch, serving a village of 3,000 people, is part of a shop run by Maggie Joyce which sells everything from groceries and stationery to home-made cakes, and even includes a small cafe. It has ample parking space and is particularly appreciated by residents of the village's three care homes. It is used by 200 pensioners to collect their pensions, by 300 local businesses and more than 600 other regular customers.

The Post Office wants the people of Chesham Bois, including the elderly and wheelchair users, to use one of three post offices in the town of Amersham. For many customers, including the blind, all three are out of the question. Even the nearest can involve a half-hour journey on foot, and it has no proper parking. The other two, as much as an hour's walk away, are inaccessible to the disabled.

The villagers only heard indirectly about the plan to close their post office earlier this year. When a temporary sub-postmaster was appointed to replace the retiring incumbent, the owner of the shop, Maggie Joyce, applied to be trained herself as a sub-postmistress. She was turned down on the grounds that the Post Office was not taking on any more applicants for training - which turned out to be untrue.

When the implications of the Post Office's decision sank in, villagers were up in arms. Their local councillor, Mimi Harker, has been a co-ordinator of the protesters, many of whom turned out in the rain last Friday to be photographed for The Sunday Telegraph. Also present was Cheryl Gillan, the local Tory MP, who will make the closure the subject of a Commons debate next week.

According to the Post Office's Code of Conduct, closures only take place when "a Post Office branch is thought to be no longer needed in that locality" or "because no suitable applicant can be found to operate it". This was reiterated by the minister last week, who said that closures should only occur when "there is absolutely no one in the village to take over". "Where it can be avoided it will be avoided," Mr Timms said on Today, "and we've imposed that requirement on the Post Office."

The case of Chesham Bois would seem to make complete nonsense of the minister's words. Before that Commons debate, he has just three days to decide that common sense should prevail.

Millions of pounds go up in cow-smoke

If Gordon Brown is worried about how to find money to pay the firefighters, he might cast his eye over last week's figures from the Department of Health showing that deaths from variant CJD have fallen from 28 in 2000 to only 15 so far this year. This confirms that the great BSE/CJD epidemic which government scientists predicted would kill up to 500,000 people is not going to happen. There seems to be no evidence of a link between beef and vCJD.

One of the panic measures taken by the Government when the BSE hysteria was at its height in March 1996 was to ban consumption of beef from any animals more than 30 months old. Not even the scientists ever recommended this ban. It was brought in by the then-agriculture minister Douglas Hogg as a result of lobbying by the supermarkets, to "restore consumer confidence", then offered as a sop to the European Union in a vain bid to persuade Brussels to lift its ban on British beef exports.

Despite the fading of the hysteria, the Over Thirty Months Scheme (OTMS) has remained in place, destroying around 900,000 animals a year at a cost of nearly £500 million to the taxpayers. The total number of cattle which have now gone up in smoke is nearly five million, at a total cost, the agriculture ministry confirmed last week, of £2.86 billion. Three firms, led by Prosper de Mulder, share the contracts to render down the slaughtered animals into meat and bone meal, which is then incinerated, fed into power stations or piled up in vast mountains of powdered cattle-remains, the storage of which has in itself cost taxpayers £60 million.

Now that it appears more certain than ever that there is not the slightest justification for this obscenely wasteful scheme, the Treasury should insist it be halted: thus saving around half a billion pounds a year for more useful purposes.

HSE blunders in new law

An astonishing scientific blunder by the Health and Safety Executive has exposed a fatal flaw in the Government's new asbestos regulations. The law, which came into force last month, will impose costs on businesses likely to run to many billions of pounds for the surveying, management and removal of asbestos from all workplaces. But because HSE officials failed to take proper scientific advice while drafting their new law, it has now emerged that by far the greater part of the asbestos-related products that it was intended to cover are not included in its legal definitions.

Eighty-five per cent of the asbestos products in place in Britain are in the form of white asbestos cement, used in roofing materials, wall panels and many other forms. The regulations refer to this only as chrysotile, a term for white asbestos in its raw state, ie magnesium silicate. But a number of recent international studies, pioneered by a team of Russian academics in 1999, have shown that when white asbestos is mixed with cement it becomes a wholly different compound, calcium silicate, almost identical with a substance known as Wollastonite.

As anyone who looks up Wollastonite on google.com will see, there is not the slightest reason for public alarm at this blunder. Wollastonite is used for a wide range of industrial purposes and, as the HSE itself concedes, it is about as safe as any product can be. But as a result of the oversight, 85 per cent of the products which the HSE's officials have been assuring ministers are covered by the new law actually fall outside its scope. If the HSE is ever foolish enough to bring a prosecution in relation to white asbestos cement, by mistaking it for "chrysotile", the lawyers should have a field day.

Blunkett backs metric martyrs

When Cherie Blair and David Blunkett recently attended the Camelot "True Grit" awards at the Globe Theatre in London, among those shortlisted for the campaigning award was the witty and robust Neil Herron, who masterminded the "Metric Martyrs" campaign. When the Home Secretary was handing out the prizes, he won the biggest cheer of the night for observing that all 32 nominees were deserving but his own personal favourite would have been the Metric Martyrs - although in this he might not have the full support of his Cabinet colleagues.

As they were being photographed together afterwards, Mr Blunkett told Mr Herron, "I am right behind you."