Christopher Booker's Notebook
Bitter Pills Foot and mouth inquiry To the very last penny Academic qualification
A small but fast-growing Daventry company, which recently won a Government-sponsored award for making "a positive impact on society", is among thousands of firms likely to be put out of business by two European Union directives which mark a remarkable victory for the power of lobbying by big business.
Viridian, run by Cheryl Thallon and John Steenson, employs 13 people making 60 specialist vitamin and herbal products sold in 400 health stores nationwide. The company is dedicated to the highest health and environmental standards, and donates half its profits to children's environmental charities. It is, however, precisely the kind of business that will find it impossible to survive after the coming into force of the two directives on nutritional supplements and herbal remedies, now being rushed through the Brussels law-making process in time for EU enlargement.
The effect of the new laws, for which the pharmaceutical industry has been lobbying for years, places all herbal medicines and vitamin and mineral supplements on the same regulatory basis as mass-market drugs produced by the giant manufacturers. More than 300 widely-used minerals will be banned altogether and the costs of licensing each individual product - up to #2,000 a time - and further regulatory requirements such as laboratory testing of each batch, will be prohibitive for thousands of smaller manufacturers. More than 8,000 products used by millions of UK customers will vanish from the shelves, driving all but the largest health-food chains out of business.
The advantage for the drug manufacturers is obvious, as they hope to mop up a market worth #2.4 billion a year with the mass-produced vitamin and mineral products they alone can afford to license, and the synthetic drugs that will be the only substitute for the subtler herbal remedies, such as echinacea, ginseng and St John's wort, that millions prefer.
In recent years the commercial lobby has been in overdrive, with wild claims that vitamins such as B-6 and herbal remedies can be blamed for thousands of "adverse reactions", even deaths. Meanwhile, the regulators, the Medicines Control Agency and the EU's new Medicines Evaluation Agency - which are almost entirely funded by licensing fees from the pharmaceutical companies - remain strangely quiet about the thousands of deaths caused each year by synthetic drugs they themselves have licensed as safe to use.
Now the commercial giants are on the brink of victory. There was something peculiarly poignant last week about the petition carrying a million signatures, including those of Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Elton John, that was presented to Parliament, begging MPs to do something to stop these new laws. The power has now passed elsewhere, as those lobbyists know only too well.
Among those who will pay the price are thousands of small manufacturers such as Viridian; the hundreds of health stores that will have to close; and the millions of customers whose freedom of choice will be dramatically reduced, both in terms of products that they are no longer able to buy, and the often diminished quality and higher price of those that the regulators permit to remain.
There will be one glaring omission from the report of an EU parliamentary inquiry into the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, which, despite leaks from publicity-hungry MEPs, is not yet finalised. The report will savagely criticise many aspects of the British Government's inept mishandling of the crisis, and recommend that vaccination should play a leading role in any future epidemic. The MEPs' prime duty is not, however, to examine the record of national governments but to monitor the performance of the European Commission. And it is precisely on a critical failure by the commission that the report will remain most tellingly silent.
The MEPs were given all the evidence to show that the chief reason why last year's epidemic became such a shambles was a catastrophic breakdown in the system devised by Brussels in the early 1990s for handling foot and mouth in the EU. By EU law, Britain should have had a proper contingency plan, under which it should have been ready to use pre-emptive vaccination within days.
It was certainly an indictment of the Government that it did not have such a plan. But, since control over foot and mouth policy was handed over to Brussels, it was the duty of the EC to ensure that such a plan was in place. As official documents show, the commission lamentably failed in that duty, with the result that Britain was wholly unprepared for a disaster that it had been warned by the commission in 1999 was "highly likely". Not a word about this, it seems, will appear in the MEPs' report.
Because of this system failure, in March 2001 EU vets instructed Britain to fall back on the policy of pre-emptive culling, which resulted in the deaths of nine million healthy animals and was, under UK law, illegal. Under the 1981 Animal Health Act, ministers did not have the power to order the killing of non-infected animals without evidence that they had been directly exposed to infection. This the Government has tacitly conceded in its new Animal Health Act, giving ministers precisely the powers to order pre-emptive killing that in 2001 they claimed to have but did not possess.
Although ordered by Brussels, this policy thus amounted to one of the greatest acts of illegality for which any British Government can ever have been responsible. But on this too the MEPs will remain curiously mute.
Last week I reported on some of the problems posed to a Herefordshire farmer, David Delaney, by ever-burgeoning bureaucracy. A further example arose when Mr Delaney was settling the estate of his late mother with the Inland Revenue. Shortly after the account had been closed, he received a demand for "#0.01p". Despite being assured on the telephone that the account was indeed closed, he then received a fixed penalty demand for #100 for non-payment of his outstanding account, plus the 1p.
Despite further exchanges, he then received a second fixed penalty demand, bringing his bill to #200.01. Having sent the Inland Revenue a one-penny coin in full settlement, he has recently received a fresh statement showing not only that his #200 penalty had been waived but that he had overpaid his account by 1p. Unfortunately, he is not in a position to impose a fixed penalty, although he suggests that #1 million might be appropriate.
Some years ago, Mr Delaney became so intrigued by the proliferation of crazy red tape and misregulation in our society, not least that associated with the EU, that he launched a website (www.eurofollies. org.uk) to record its onward march. This now runs to 300 pages.
Due to a misunderstanding, the figures I gave last week for the number of goatkeepers in the UK who are now, like Mr Delaney, banned from selling their milk were not accurate. Since devolution, it is so difficult to track down statistics relating to the UK as a whole that my copy last week should simply have read "thanks to these EU rules only a fraction of Britain's thousands of goatkeepers can continue to provide milk to the vast number of people who need it".
A curious puzzle has arisen from my report two weeks ago in which I said that Prof John Tomaney, who holds the chair of regional government at Newcastle University, was a "Jean Monnet professor" funded by the European Commission. I have been asked to point out that Prof Tomaney is not and never has been a Jean Monnet professor, of whom there are more than 100 in British universities, funded by the commission on condition that their work is dedicated to the integration of the European Union.
Naturally I am happy to withdraw unreservedly the charge that Prof Tomaney is among their number. But I must point out in mitigation that the only reason why I believed otherwise was that he is still listed as a Monnet professor in two official documents published on the European Commission's own website. I trust the commission will take urgent steps to correct these errors, since it would clearly be a matter for regret if we could not rely on the accuracy of information it puts out.