Booker Notebook

A fascinating battle is developing over the extent to which opponents of the euro in any referendum campaign will be allowed to argue the case in the way many would wish. Under the Referendums Act, the new Electoral Commission will have to appoint official umbrella organisations to represent the 'Yes' and 'No' camps, each limited to spending £5 million (although political parties will be allowed additional spending). The groups likely to front the official 'No' campaign, headed by Lord Owen's 'No to the Euro' and the Tory Party, will be keen to accept Mr Blair's view that debate should be limited to the economic case against the euro. They wish to downplay any wider political arguments for fear of being branded as hostile to the European Union. They will therefore be anxious to distance themselves from all those who believe the real case against Britain joining the euro is political, and that the currency's chief purpose is that it is the key building block towards welding the EU into a single state.
Those who argue that the real case against handing over control of our economy is that this would mark a final surrender of Britain's democratic right to run its own affairs include the Yorkshire businessman Paul Sykes, trade unionists, peers such as Lord Pearson of Rannoch and Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and the UK Independence Party, which polled 700,000 votes at the last Euro-elections. But the official 'No' campaign is desperately anxious to see such people excluded from the debate, for fear the case against the euro might be portrayed by 'Yes' opponents as just a front for wanting Britain to leave the EU. One puzzle of the legislation is how far it can be used to prevent rival 'No' campaigners from mounting what one last week called the "Real No campaign". The Electoral Commission's formal answer is that, however much businessmen such as Mr Sykes might wish to contribute to such a campaign, it would be limited to spending no more than £500,000. But I gather the Commission is worried that this might seem an indefensible constraint on democracy, and is now looking at a possibility that the Act might permit a rival 'No' campaign to spend considerably more.
All this will become more relevant as moves towards EU integration become increasingly blatant, as was shown by President Prodi's call last week for the EU to take a further "giant step" towards political unification, with its own armed forces, police force and taxes. Mr Blair is desperate to join the euro, since he knows Britain will otherwise be excluded from that leading role in the new state he craves. But whether he dare risk a referendum, despite the recent Labour poll showing a softening of the 2 to 1 opposition to the euro consistently shown by others, remains doubtful.
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PIC STORY A year ago Andrew Lincoln, a Norfolk van driver, was asked by a national delivery service to take a vanload of seeds to a farm. He noticed they gave off a horrible smell, and when he arrived farm staff were shocked that he was not wearing protective clothing. The seeds had been treated with toxic chemicals. Mr Lincoln drove on to another delivery, but before long had to stop because he felt violently ill and dizzy.
He eventually returned to the farm to take details of the seed-dressings, labelled as dichlofention and thirame. He then drove to Norwich hospital which rang the national poisons information unit in London, recorded in his notes that he had complained of 'smelly fumes' and told him to see his GP for a blood test. Still feeling so ill that he could not work, Mr Lincoln set out to discover what had caused his illness. He found that dichlofention is an organo-phosphorus pesticide which, according to data freely available on the internet, can not only cause all the symptoms he experienced but can cause death by respiratory failure. Although not licensed for use in Britain, it had originally been licensed in France, where the seeds originated. Even though this license had expired, by one of those loopholes familiar in the regulation of toxic chemicals it was not illegal to import it into Britain. Mr Lincoln was so shocked that he asked the Health and Safety Executive, with its duty to regulate workplace safety, to investigate. The HSE eventually produced a report that Mr Lincoln had suffered minor hand injuries "which would have been avoided with the use of gloves". "No further action" was planned. Mr Lincoln's experience is all too familiar to all those who have been injured by exposure to toxic chemicals. Why is our regulatory system apparently so secretive about their dangers and so reluctant to investigate their consequences? Earlier this year I reported how in 1991 the HSE had carried out a secret study which confirmed the serious dangers to health of certain organo-phosophorus sheep dip compounds, used by tens of thousands of farmers; and even in 2002 was still denying its findings, although I had a copy of the report in my hand. In January this year Mr Lincoln had a letter from Dr John Osman, chairman of the HSE's Pesticides Incidents Appraisal Panel, informing him that his experience had been placed in the 'confirmed' category, and that "cases in this category provide valuable information to the HSE about the health effects of pesticide use. I would like to thank you for bringing your concerns to the attention of HSE and for allowing the Panel to have access to the information it needs to do its work". Since a year later Mr Lincoln is still suffering the after-effects, one wonders quite what work it is the HSE thinks it is meant to be doing.
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Some 200 Sunday Telegraph readers answered my recent appeal for contributions to the fund launched by Dorset villagers, after their pub, the Rose and Crown in Trent, had been fined £5000 for six offences against hygiene rules. West Dorset council has been crowing after their 'victory' over Nancy Marian-Crawford, who was taken to court because, after the collapse of a similar case brought by the council against her husband Charles nine years ago, the judge ruled the council was never to prosecute Mr Marian-Crawford again. Also crowing has been the Environmental Health News, the weekly paper of the 'hygiene police', which described the case as a victory over the Sunday Telegraph for giving coverage sympathetic to the pub. What EHN did not tell its readers was that when Mrs Marian-Crawford last year applied for a judicial review on grounds that the conduct of the case by the officials had breached their statutory code of practice, the High Court judge expressed "considerable sympathy" but ruled that these points should be argued in the Crown Court. When the case came up, Mrs Marian-Crawford was at the last minute advised by new lawyers provided under legal aid that, despite the High Court ruling. it would be better for her simply to plead guilty to a reduced number of charges, and she could expect to be treated "leniently". Reluctantly accepting this advice, she was fined £5000 with £5000 costs. This meant that, although three days had been set aside for the case, the counter-charges against the council were never heard. But at least Mrs Marian-Crawford has been consoled by the "wonderful generosity" of her neighbours and Sunday Telegraph readers, which she says has "restored her rather badly shaken faith in human nature".
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Some remarkable revelations are emerging from Cumbria county council's inquiry into last year's foot-and-mouth disaster, not least the formal evidence given by Longtown, Britain's leading sheep market. In the first days of the epidemic Longtown was identified as the source of 22,000 sheep sold that February which had carried the virus all over the country. Nothing could have been more crucial to halting the epidemic than tracing those animals; and when officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food visited the mart on February 26, by 10 am they had been given exact details of where every sheep had gone. A month later MAFF rang to say it had "lost the information". Could it be re-supplied? In August, MAFF rang again to say it had lost the second set of records. It is hardly surprising Mr Blair was so desperate to avoid that independent public inquiry.
May 26 2002