Christopher Booker's Notebook


(Filed: 05/01/2003)

FSA prosecutes abattoir for its help in emergency
The rush to a referendum
A sporting chance
Metre readings

FSA prosecutes abattoir for its help in emergency

During the 1990s, when Britain's abattoirs were forced out of business in droves by the crippling expense of complying with our government's fanatical enforcement of European Union "meat hygiene" directives (which even the government eventually admitted had little to do with hygiene), the only slaughterhouse in Monmouthshire which survived was that in Raglan, run by William James and his family.

There was no way they could afford to pay #63 an hour for a government vet to hang around all day contributing nothing to food safety. To stay in business they had to opt for a "low throughput" licence, restricting them to only 20 "EU livestock units" a week (they had previously been killing up to 1,000).

But under Bill James's son Neil, they showed the kind of enterprise which has enabled others to survive, by concentrating on quality meat from rare breeds and organic farms which has built up a flourishing new business with local butchers and farmers' markets.

When the foot and mouth epidemic erupted in 2001, Monmouthshire's farmers and vets were only too grateful that the Raglan abattoir had survived. Animal movement restrictions had faced them with a welfare crisis. The only place to which healthy animals could be moved was a slaughterhouse and, to the delight of ministry officials, the Jameses came to the rescue.

After spending thousands of pounds on equipment necessary to comply with biosecurity rules, they were soon working flat out to meet the crisis, even though this sometimes meant slightly exceeding their weekly limit. But everyone was happy, including the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS), part of Sir John Krebs's Food Standards Agency (FSA), which stamped the meat as fit to eat.

More than a year after the crisis was over, however, Bill James was astonished to be summoned on a string of criminal charges. He was to be prosecuted by the FSA for having several times during the crisis killed a few more animals than his licence allowed - even though he had only done so with full official support, including that of Wales's rural affairs minister, Carwyn Jones, and the MHS's own inspectors. Apparently the FSA hierarchy was now afraid that it might face legal action from the EU's Food and Veterinary Office for not having strictly enforced the terms of Mr James's licence.

Last month, when Mr James explained to Newport magistrates why he had exceeded his limit, they gave him a conditional discharge, and ordered him to pay only #250 of the #2,268 costs demanded by the FSA's barrister, Ian Thomas. Mr Thomas pompously observed that the laws that Mr James had broken were only there to ensure that hygiene standards were not endangered; scarcely relevant since the MHS had certified all the meat as perfectly safe to eat.

So, at 74, Mr James has a criminal record for committing a technical offence, which could only be seen as such by some frightened bureaucrat, and which he had only committed to help the community in a way which had the approval of all the officials involved.

The rush to a referendum

It became only too noticeable last week how a big new push is being made, through the BBC and elsewhere, to promote the euro. What is not being explained is just why Mr Blair is now so desperate to hurry us into the euro, especially when most informed observers, including the European Commission in its annual economic report, admit that it is in many respects a shambles; and that, without much greater central control and probably EU-wide taxes, the currency is not going to work.

The real problem that Mr Blair sees looming is the EU constitution, a draft version of which should be ready by early summer. This will make it obvious that the purpose of the EU is to become a unified state, and Mr Blair is afraid that, if he postpones his referendum, British voters will finally see what is afoot. This is why he needs to get on with his referendum, and his greatest trump card, he hopes, will be Gordon Brown. If even the supposedly sceptical Chancellor can be presented as having been "won over", the scheming runs, that might tip the scales.

What Mr Blair is also aware of is that, in behind-the-scenes negotiations on the constitution, Britain has got nowhere in urging caution in the drive to final integration. In the working group on the common foreign policy, for instance, our chief delegate, Peter Hain, has been treated with scarcely-disguised contempt. When he expressed reservations at a kind of integration that would make it impossible for Mr Blair to follow his present independent, pro-American line on Iraq, these were simply airbrushed out of the group's final report.

In other words, what is to be decided over the next 12 months, and to a far greater extent than most people have yet realised, is whether Britain is to become no more than a subordinate part of a new United States of Europe. This is why Mr Blair is so eager to get that referendum on the currency out of the way: before the British people finally wake up to the awesome dimensions of what it is committing them to.

A sporting chance

Last September I reported how I had been landed with a "red tape folly" all of my own when the tiny Somerset village cricket club of Litton, of which I am vice-captain, was faced with a "business rate" demand for #700. This equated to #116 for every home game. Repeatedly I was summoned to court for non-payment, while trying to explain to Mendip district council how, for a club with subscription income of only #80 a year and a battered wooden shed serving as a pavilion, this seemed a trifle steep.

I was further intrigued to discover that, whenever I had summonses purporting to come from the council offices in Shepton Mallet, down the road, they in fact came from a private company, Capita, in south London, to which our council has contracted out the running of its non-domestic rates.

After many exchanges I am delighted to report that our cricket club has now been granted 100 per cent rate relief, and that when our case again comes before the magistrates next week they will be told that our "payments have been made in full". So a happy new year to all at Capita, and to our councillor Bill Mackay for his help on our behalf.

Alas, it may not be so happy for all amateur sports clubs, as I discovered from the correspondence my article drew from others in a less fortunate position. Despite Gordon Brown's pledge in his last Budget speech that the Government would do all it could to support such sports clubs, the rugby club in Banbury, Oxfordshire, for instance, was landed with a massive non-domestic rates bill, totalling #100,000, that forced the club to sell its ground and go into liquidation.

Metre readings

Just before Christmas, Times readers were delighted to see a news report that greater mouse-eared bats found in Sussex "can weigh up to 30kg", which, at 66lb, makes them an impressive mammal. This is not the first time The Times has got into a muddle through the politically correct insistence of some of its staff that all weights and measures must be metricated (although others, as in reports on last week's flooding, wisely give them in the measures most readers understand, with metric conversions in brackets).

Earlier last year the paper reported that a new skyscraper proposed for Aldgate would be 1,050 feet high, translated elsewhere on the same page as "217 metres" (only 338 feet out). Some time back, when John Prescott had an office in Marsham Street, The Times solemnly recorded that this was "only a kilometre" from Downing Street. In fact it is a mile, but someone must have thought a kilometre was much the same.

Another trap into which the thought-police of The Times frequently fall is giving measurements in centimetres (as in that famous bat tale, where the creatures' ears were said to be up to "3cm long"). A stiff memo should go out from the editor to remind his journalists that, under the EU version of the metric system that they are so keen to promote, centimetres are not a legal measurement. Those bats' ears are nearly 30 millimetres long (or, if you prefer, an inch).