Booker Notebook Sunday Telegraph 31 March
********When last January Linda Wilson went to visit the grave of her daughter, killed in a road accident, she was horrified to see hundreds of gravestones in the cemetery at Seaford, Sussex, including her daughter's, knocked flat by what she took to be an act of mass-vandalism. When Terry Jarvis found his son's gravestone smashed flat he assumed the same. Like many other distressed relatives they were then horrified to discover it was not vandals who had caused such desecration but Lewes district council. In February 200 residents heard at a public meeting how, in response to a circular from the Health and Safety Executive following accidents when children had been crushed by insecure gravestones, the council had hired a firm of tree surgeons to carry out safety tests with the aid of a device called a 'topple tester'. This resulted in 431 stones being pushed over, leaving some broken and others more dangerous than when they had been upright. Although the HSE is working to a German standard, and the 'topple tester' is made by a German firm, Pearson Panke, it seemed Lewes council had gone way beyond the guidelines, which clearly state that "the topple tester is not suitable for war memorials, crosses, angels etc" and that stones should only be tested when they are "above one metre high". Many memorials flattened at Seaford should have been excluded by these rules, including crosses and stones well below three feet in height.
What particularly angered relatives, who have now set up an action group, was the insensitivity shown by Lewes, which merely insists it is the responsibility of bereaved families to re-erect the stones in a safe manner. When Mr Jarvis asked one council employee how he could sleep at nights, having done such a thing, the official responded "I sleep very well, thank you".
A shocked local stonemason, Chris Groom, has been re-erecting stones at his own expense. But since the desecration has aroused such local outcry, Lewes has set up a sub-committee, including councillor Julian Peterson, who drew this chilling story to my attention, to consider what it should do next.
The action group has learned that this problem is far from being limited just to Seaford. Communities across the country are similarly affected. In 1998, when Newcastle-under-Lyme council flattened 426 gravestones, the Local Government Ombudsman ruled it was guilty of "maladministration amounting to injustice", ordering the council to pay 50 percent of the cost of replacing complainants' stones. On Thursday the Seaford action group agreed to ask their local MP Norman Baker to lodge a similar complaint.
When Mr Baker recently raised the Seaford scandal in the Commons, a junior Home Office minister Beverley Hughes observed that "memoralisation of the dead is an important aspect of our society", before giving a standard official reply. The scale of the problem was illustrated when, after a child was killed by a gravestone in a Harrogate cemetery two years ago, the local council spent £287,500 testing all the stones in its cemeteries. It found 7000 unsafe, and that it would either cost £1 million to replace them, or £500,000 just to remove the stones or bury them. The real moral of the story is that before councils venture on such testing, they should do so only with maximum common sense and sensitivity to the feelings of relatives. On both counts, it seems, Lewes has failed lamentably.
Appearing last week before the European Parliament's inquiry into Britain's foot-and-mouth disaster, Brussels Commissioner David Byrne came up with an extraordinary new twist to the story behind the "contiguous cull" policy, under which millions of animals were illegally slaughtered just because they were on farms within 'three kilometres' of infected premises. As I reported last week, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has now admitted that at least 98 percent of these animals were not infected. Under the Animal Health Act 1981 it did not therefore have the legal power to kill them. Until now it has been supposed that this "preventative slaughter" policy originated with its main champion, Professor Roy Anderson, who became the Government's chief scientific adviser on foot-and-mouth on March 23 2001. But Commissioner Byrne advised MEPs to look at the report on a visit made to the UK between March 12 and 16 by the European Union's powerful Food and Veterinary Office. When examined, this revealed that the EU inspectors had required such a preventative slaughter policy "to get ahead of the disease", before they left Britain on March 16. It is because Defra ministers knew this policy went beyond their legal powers that they were so desperate to rush through their Animal Health Bill, giving them the power to kill any animal without having to produce evidence of infection. But last Tuesday the House of Lords approved a motion by Lord Moran to postpone the Bill until after the official inquiries have reported. Lord Whitty and other ministers were said to be "incandescent" at this shock defeat, because it leaves them still without the powers they pretended to have when the 'contiguous cull' was launched. Twice in his blustering speech Lord Whitty referred to the "specious figures reported in the Sunday Telegraph" which confirmed that his ministry had acted illegally. But he did not deny them, which was just as well since they came direct from Defra's own website. What we also now know, however, thanks to Commissioner Byrne, is that it was not just the British Government which was responsible for this illegal policy. It was carried out in effect on the orders of Brussels.
Two weeks ago, on our letters page, East Yorkshire council's social services director Tony Hunter reacted angrily to one of my many reports on the scandalous way in which councils such as his own are helping to force the closure of hundreds of responsibly-run independent care homes for the elderly. I did not of course claim, as he suggested, that the crazy over-regulation imposed by the Care Standards Act, due to come into force tomorrow, was the fault of local authorities. But he went on to deny that his council had diverted funds directed at care of the elderly to other purposes and claimed that a recent social services inspectorate report had placed East Yorkshire among the top-performing social services departments in the country.
It was the Hull Daily Mail which reported on February 5 that, of £30 million Government money allocated to East Yorkshire to provide for people over 60, Mr Hunter's council is only spending £24-25.5 million on the elderly. That inspectors' report can be scanned in vain for Mr Hunter's suggestion that his council rates among the top 25 percent in the country. What Mr Hunter's letter also understandably failed to mention was the local outrage over a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers under which his council's senior officials are to receive huge pay rises. The chief executive gets a rise of £36,000 a year, taking his salary to £140,000. Senior officials such as Mr Hunter are to have rises of £20,000. Local action groups such as Pager (Pensioners Action Group East Riding) have asked in vain to see this report which, under the new 'Cabinet system' of local government, can only be shown to a handful of senior councillors and officials. Pager does, however, note that, shortly after the rises were announced, at a cost to ratepayers of £200,000, a council committee recommended that East Yorkshire could no longer afford its subsidy of £94,000 to pay for meals on wheels to the elderly and disabled.
In January I warned that the new Parish Councils (Model Code of Conduct) Order would lead to a mass-revolt among those good enough to sacrifice time serving their communities. This requires councillors to fill in a seven-page form listing all their shareholdings and solemnly to report every occasion on which they are taken out to a meal costing more than £25, before they can discuss the siting of the new village notice board. Last week it was revealed that, with two months to go, only 600 of England's 10,000 parish councils have so far agreed to comply. Typical are the seven members of Salwarpe parish council in Worcestershire, who say they are waiting to be dismissed. "We have decided not to sign" said their vice-chairman, Fred Randall. "The Government can then take whatever action they wish against us".