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Posted by Richard Sunday, January 30, 2005

It is relatively rare that Booker revisits the same story on consecutive weeks, much less giving them lead "picture story" status. But such has been the utterly vile and vindictive treatment of two Hastings fishermen, Paul Joy and Graeme Bosom, who featured in last week’s column, that Booker felt impelled to return to the case in his column this week.

As we left is last week, the two fishermen had been up in Lewes Crown Court being prosecuted by Defra for the alleged crime of breaking licence conditions by catching more cod in the month of September than was allowed under EU quota rules.

Paul Joy had been astonished because the quota rules do not apply to small inshore boats such as those launched off Hastings beach. These have yearly "allocations" from the ministry – and at that time only 53 per cent of the allocation had been caught. But Defra had decided the annual allocation could be subdivided into 12 monthly shares. Without warning, Joy was told that he had broken this new rule.

Last Tuesday, however, in the same Lewes Crown Court, judge Simon Coltart imposed a fine and costs of £7,500 on Paul Joy, more than the value of his small wooden fishing boat. When his colleague Graeme Bossom, ordered to pay £6,500, said he would have difficulty in raising the money, the judge advised him to get a second mortgage on his house. If the two men did not pay in full within a year they would be sentenced to three months in prison.

As a result, a furore has blown up in Hastings, with the local papers taking up the case where the judge is claiming to be upholding EU law in finding the men guilty, supporting fisheries inspectors of the Defra in creating a law which conflicts with rulings from the EU commission and which exists nowhere else in Europe.

The specific offence with which the two men were charged in October 2003 was that in the previous month they had illegally landed £2,570-worth of cod, in excess of their "monthly allocation". There was every reason for this coming as a complete surprise since the commission confirms that, "under 10 metre" boats are not given individual quotas and EC law does not recognise monthly allocations. There may be "yearly allocations" for certain species, and when that limit is reached a fishery may be closed. But until then, under EU law, there is no restriction.

Since, in September 2003, the small Hastings boats had only landed 53 percent of their yearly allocation, Mr Joy and Mr Bossom were therefore wholly unaware that they might be about to fall foul of the law. A local Defra inspector, Paul Johnson, was aware how much they were landing but said nothing, until, to their astonishment, he charged them with having gone over a putative monthly limit.

As a highly experienced fisherman who sits on the local Sea Fisheries committee, Mr Joy is in regular contact with Defra, and has often made the point that any system of monthly allocations for small inshore boats could not possibly be enforced, since unlike larger vessels they are not required under EC law to keep log books of their catches.

One odd feature of the trial was that Judge Coltart did not seem to grasp the distinction made in EC law between under 10 metre boats and larger vessels, which are subject to quotas and many more rules.He several times cited EC regulations which apply only to larger boats, and said he saw no reason why the under 10 metre boats should not carry log books, even though this is not a legal requirement.

Another unusual feature of the trial was that, although Defra’s barristers were permitted to report statements alleged to have been made by Mr Joy, and which he strongly contests, neither Mr Joy nor Mr Bossom were allowed to give evidence that they were being misrepresented.

Denied any chance to speak in their own defence, the two men were advised, when the judge ruled in favour of Defra's arguments, to change their plea to guilty. Even so, they were horrified when, after Defra was given a week to investigate their financial affairs, the judge ordered swingeing fines, comparing their conduct to that of drunk drivers, in that they had gone over the legal limit and should be punished accordingly.

The chief Hastings fisheries inspector Angus Radford has publicly proclaimed his "delight" at the judgement, and claimed on local radio that Mr Joy’s £5,000 fine amounted to only a quarter of his monthly earnings. In fact in September 2003 Mr Joy only grossed £5,000, and this was by far his highest monthly income of the year.

So great are the implications of this controversial case that it is being taken up by both Hastings's Labour MP Michael Foster and the Tories’ front-bench fisheries spokesman Owen Paterson MP. A local fund has been launched to support Mr Joy and Mr Bossom while they consider an appeal. It seems the case of the "Hastings Two" still has some way to run.

One seriously wonders about judges sometimes. At the height of the Edwina Currie-inspired egg scare in 1989, I took a case to the High Court, contesting the power of the then Ministry of Agriculture to slaughter hens claimed to be infected with salmonella, farmed by an order of nuns from their Daventry monastry.

To be more specific, we did acknowledge that the ministry had power to slaughter, but such was the haste with which a new, panic law had been drafted, they had forgotten to include power of entry for the purpose of slaughter. We presented examples dozens of acts and regulations where executive actions was permitted by officials and, in every single case, the powers given were accompanied by specific entry powers. We thus argued that, in the absence of a specified power of entry, there was no such power.

The judge, however, disagreed, stating that, without a power of entry, the ministry could not exercise its powers and, therefore, a power of entry must be "implied" – thus creating a law that did not exist.

In this Hastings case, the judge seems to have taken the view that, unless monthly quotas existed, he could not see how EU fishing rules could be enforced and therefore, despite there being no regulations which set monthly quota amounts for inshore boats, allowed Defra the case – once more creating law that did not exist.

Since 1989, I have never trusted judges and this case is yet another of many that cast serious doubts on the adequacy of our judiciary.

From such weighty matter, Booker then takes us to this week's report on the BBC, noting that while the Daily Telegraph’s headline was "BBC cleared of bias", the Daily Mail’s version was "BBC's pro-EU bias".

Over the past 12 years, Booker has regularly reported on the BBC’s partisan and unprofessional coverage of this issue, unlike the Wilson committee citing scores of specific examples to make the general point. However, he writes, the BBC's performance is no longer so shameless as it was in the 1990s, when it seemed to be in the forefront of the campaign to get Britain into the euro.

In 1999, he published a dossier of six occasions when the BBC had accepted stories fed them by pro-euro propagandists, leading its news broadcasts with claims that multi-national companies were threatening to leave Britain unless we joined the euro. On each occasion the companies named, including Toyota, Sony and Ford, had issued trenchant denials. Not once did the BBC publish any correction.

But, says Booker, even if they are now slightly less gullible in falling for the propaganda spin, there is plenty of evidence that the BBC is still hopelessly failing its audience by its inability to engage with this issue in any informed, professional fashion. One revealing trick was exemplified on Friday morning by John Humphrys’s interview on the EU constitution with Corbett and O’Brien.

Instead of presenters doing their homework and establishing the facts for themselves, so they can interview with real knowledge and authority, Booker observes, the game here – as Humphrys demonstrated - is simply to allow two talking heads to shout past each other, making contradictory points, until the presenter can say "that's all we've got time for, the debate will doubtless continue".

The listeners are left wholly bemused (and bored) because they are not given enough information to know who is telling the truth. Therein lies the real problem, and there is scant evidence that it is even understood, let alone being addressed.

In his third and last story, Booker takes on the decision of the Commons scrutiny committee to choose last week, on the casting vote of its Labour chairman Jimmy Hood, that in future its proceedings will be in secret. It was not exactly tactful, he says.

Furthermore the timing was immaculate in that it came hard on the heels of the European Commission pointing out that Michael Howard was in no position to implement new proposals on immigration, because the power to decide immigration policy has been handed over to Brussels.

Booker notes that the immediate response of commentators was to claim that this might bring home to people just how much of our power to govern ourselves has been ceded to Brussels without anyone realising it. But just as significant was the response of Mr Howard himself. He immediately said that a future Conservative government would take those powers back.

He thus adds immigration policy to fishing as one of the major policy areas he is now pledged to return to national control. He might not want it to be shouted about too loudly, for fear of upsetting Ken Clarke, David Curry an the rump of Tory Europhiles.

But these pledges strike right at the heart of the most sacred principle of the "European project", the acquis communautaire, which lays down that once powers to legislate and decide policy are surrendered to the EU they can never be returned.

Throw in the Tories' implacable opposition to the EU constitution (which includes all the existing treaties), plus the likelihood that this will be rejected by the British people in next year's referendum, and it seems a very interesting situation is in the making.

Mr Howard may be ultra-diplomatic in his strategy but, concludes Booker, unless he is prepared to make a humiliating retreat, he is setting us up for a showdown with our European partners on a scale unprecedented in the EU's history.

The really fascinating thing, though, is that there has been no backlash from the Europhiles in the Tory Party – of the type that plagued Hague. Kenneth Clarke has stayed silent in his lair and none of the other "usual suspects" have uttered a word in public.

The only reaction, in fact, has come not from the Europhiles but from the public – which have heavily endorsed Howard’s stance, and given him his first boost in the polls for a long time.

This could have profound consequences. Howard has decided on a direct challenged to the EU over a mainstream policy, and the sky has not fallen in – quite the reverse. He might now begin to realise that taking on the EU is quite popular. Who knows, he might even acquire a liking for it.