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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 23/02/2003)

Par for the course
Millions spent for Malta's Yes
Too many laws to tell us about
Top-class British engineers derailed by regulation

Top-class British engineers derailed by regulation

A world-leading British industry is about to be wiped out by an EU directive simply because Brussels officials had never heard of them, and therefore drafted a law in a way that makes it impossible for them to comply.

Although the six men and one woman who make copper boilers for model steam engines supply them to customers all over the world, and build them to a British safety standard twice as exacting as that imposed by the EU's Pressure Equipment Directive (PED), the Brussels law (certainly as interpreted by our own Department of Trade and Industry) makes no provision for such a tiny industry. It must therefore go out of business.

Britain's seven self-employed copper boilermakers - including Trevor Tremblen who worked in Swindon's engine sheds and on North Sea oil rigs; Pete Carr who worked for Westlands and Rolls Royce; John Ellis, who also worked for Rolls-Royce and Lucas Aerospace; Ian Stock, a retired farmer; and Helen Verrall from Somerset, the world's only woman boilermaker - have no rivals. They have customers lining up for their products from Japan to Oregon, USA. But so specialised is their craft that when Brussels drew up its directive to set EU-wide safety standards for pressure vessels, no one thought to consult them.

When the boilermakers finally learned about the new directive, which they were told would allow them to trade freely throughout the EU's single market (something they have been doing for years), they realised that it gave them no way to meet its requirements. What made their situation even more bizarre is that, although the EU has given exemptions to amateur boilermakers and those who build "heritage" steam engines, the professional craftsmen who make them more expertly than anyone else are being forced into extinction.

The PED is one of a phalanx of directives that require a wide range of products to be given a "CE" mark (for Communaute Europeen), to certify that they meet EU safety standards. These are granted by what are called "notified bodies", commercial organisations which, in return for an accreditation fee, buy the right to supervise the testing and voluminous paperwork needed to win a CE mark, charging #700 a day for their services.

The problem for the copper boilermakers was twofold. First, they had to provide certificates guaranteeing the content of each piece of copper they use. But because copper is a "base material", these certificates do not exist. It is too expensive for manufacturers to supply them. The only alternative is to have each component separately analysed at #80 per item, adding prohibitively to the cost.

Even worse was that when, with great difficulty, they finally managed to get a response from some of the "notified bodies" recommended by the DTI, it was soon obvious that these corporate bureaucrats knew nothing whatever about copper boilermaking and were wholly incapable of understanding the problems. CE marking is not designed to apply to the craft manufacture of individual items, but to mass production where, once a product has acquired a CE mark, at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds, it can be placed on millions of replicas. The DTI's idea of a small business making pressure vessels is one employing 20 people with a #2 million turnover and paying out #32,000 for CE marking - more than the entire yearly turnover of these self-employed boilermakers, to whose craft the system is wholly irrelevant.

Worst of all, however, was the boilermakers' experience last June when they were invited to London to meet the junior industry minister Lord Sainsbury. He treated them with barely concealed impatience and showed no more ability to understand their difficulty than the DTI official in charge of their case. He twice told them that, if they could not discover for themselves how to comply with the law, they would just have to go out of business.

Recently the net around the seven has been tightening. Customers not only in Europe but all over the world have told them that, unless each boiler has a CE mark and the mass of documentation which goes with it, orders must be cancelled. Insurance companies are free to insure boilers made to a lower standard by amateurs, because these are exempted. But professional products without a CE mark are uninsurable.

Short of miraculous intervention by a politician who can see just how insane is the situation that these decent, desperate people are faced with, it seems a world-beating British industry is about to be wiped out, for no reason whatever.

Too many laws to tell us about

Last month Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked the Government how many regulations Brussels had issued since Britain joined the European Community in 1973. This means diktats which, unlike directives, are immediately binding. Lady Symons, the deputy leader of the Lords, gave year-by-year figures showing the total as 101,811. In answer to Lord Stoddart's request that details of these laws be made available, she said "given the volumes of regulations involved, it would incur disproportionate cost" to inform members of the British Parliament what laws have been imposed by a higher level of government.

Curiously, President Prodi in Brussels has also just come up with a figure for the amount of space these regulations occupy in the EU's official journal (again this excludes the thousands of directives which must be put into national law by means of statutory instruments). Regulations alone, he says, cover 97,000 pages. At an average of 1,000 words a page, this makes nearly 100 million words of law, all of which have to be translated into 11 languages, totalling some 1.1 billion words or 1,466 times the length of the Bible. It is not surprising the Government claims it would be too expensive even to supply a list of these laws. But we still have to obey them.

Millions spent for Malta's Yes

Much ribaldry was provoked in Malta by a recent letter to this newspaper from Dr Joseph Bonnello, a Maltese, who objected that outsiders had been asked to help the "No" campaign in the island's March 8 referendum on EU membership. If this got Dr Bonnello so upset, it was suggested, he must be 100 times more angry with Brussels for sending in more than €4 million (#2.6 million) of EU taxpayers' money to swamp the island with glossy propaganda for the "Yes" campaign, compared with the mere #20,000 being spent by the "No" camp.

When Dr Bonnello says the Maltese need no outside help in reaching their decision, he is doubtless apoplectic at the stream of Brussels politicians and officials coming to Malta to propagandise for the EU, including President Prodi and his "enlargement commissioner", Gunther Verheugen, who, during a recent five-day visit, threatened that if Malta voted "No" it would face dire consequences.

Despite echoes of Britain's 1975 referendum, when the "Yes" campaign, with unanimous media support, spent #1.8 million against only #133,000 for the "Noes", polls indicate that Malta's vote is likely to be close. Following my recent appeal, nearly 80 generous readers sent help to the No2EU group, whose organiser, Sharon Ellul Bonici, says: "Unlike Dr Bonello we do not try to hide the support we have had from outside in our battle to keep Malta democratic and independent. We are very grateful."

Par for the course

It is curious how often those who fall foul of one example of mad bureaucracy seem to attract others. As a keen golfer, Trevor Tremblen last year paid #100 to Swindon borough council for a yearly concessionary ticket to its golf course, entitling him to play each round at a reduced rate of #7.80 instead of the usual #19.10. Last Sunday when he produced his card he was told it was no longer valid, even though its expiry was clearly marked "March 31, 2003". The council had introduced a new "Swindon card" and, since he did not have one, he must pay the full #19.10.

So angry was Mr Tremblen at what seemed like flagrant sharp practice that he decided to report it to trading standards, the body entrusted with protecting the public against such skulduggery. "Normally," they replied, "this is the sort of thing we could follow up. But since your complaint is against Swindon council and we are also Swindon council, there is nothing we can do."