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Posted by Richard Sunday, March 27, 2005

"Graham Morris, a farmer and contractor near Builth Wells in mid-Wales, is an angry man. Like thousands of other sheep farmers, as this year's lambing season approaches its height, he is being confronted for the first time with the horrendous implications of one of the greatest regulatory shambles Brussels has ever created."

So writes Booker in this week's column, and he does not exaggerate. His first piece describes the effects of one of the most grotesque pieces of legislation to emanate from the European Union – and that is indeed saying something.

As large numbers of lambs inevitably die or are stillborn on the hills, farmers are no longer permitted to bury them or to leave them to provide food for foxes, red kites and other wildlife.

Under the EU's Animal By-Products Regulation, 1774/2002, all "fallen stock" of any species must now be gathered up and placed in sealed containers, to be collected by contractors, at a cost of up to £50 an animal, then transported, sometimes hundreds of miles, to be rendered down or incinerated in a licensed plant.

So hopelessly impractical is this scheme that for nearly two years ministers were forced to turn a blind eye, in defiance of EC law, in allowing farmers to continue disposing of their stock by natural means, as they have done since time immemorial. But this year the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its Scottish and Welsh counterparts are insisting the law must be obeyed, on pain of fines up to £5000 for each offence.

Farmers must thus wait up to five weeks to have the rotting, stinking carcases of their animals collected, often by vehicles so filthy and infected that they make a mockery of hygiene or "biosecurity". These are then moved by public roads in a way which, as Mr Morris points out, "not only risks spreading infection to other farms, but could be a hazard to human health; as for instance by exposing pregnant women to the risk of infectious abortion".

The entire front page of this week's Farmers Guardian is devoted to the "fallen stock shambles". It pictures an Anglesey farmer burying a dead sheep in deliberate defiance of the law, so that visiting Easter holidaymakers are not exposed to the "filth and stench" from rotting carcases.

But the crisis facing farmers is only part of the much greater disaster being brought about by this regulation, introduced by Brussels in 2002 in hysterical over-reaction to fears of BSE and foot and mouth. In 2003, when the ban on landfilling any "animal by-product" was due to come into force, it became clear this would be catastrophic for the retail trade, which every year must throw away thousands of tons of meat and dairy products no longer fit for human consumption.

When Tesco and other firms pointed out that it would be impossible to separate out all the meat, fish and dairy products from their plastic wrappings, which rendering plants cannot take, their clout was sufficient for Brussels to give food retailers an exemption from the law until December 31 2005.

But that date is now fast approaching, and, as the British Retail Consortium last week explained to me, says Booker, there is still no way large parts of the retail trade in Britain and across Europe can hope to comply. A BRC food scientist said that technology is being developed to split food from wrappings, but "we are still two or three years from having a workable system".

So ill-drafted was the regulation that even now the retail trade has been waiting for months for a precise definition from the Commission as to what constitutes an "animal by-product". Does it, for instance, cover "honey nut flakes", because they include honey? Is it therefore a criminal offence to dispose of them by landfill?

Last week Defra confirmed the Commission is adamant that the law must come into force by 31 December, even though it still has no idea what quantities of food this will involve. Those rotting carcases waiting for collection on Welsh farms are a fitting memorial to the obscene absurdity of a law which in every respect defies reason.

It is impossible to embellish this story. There is simply no justification for this law which embodies the very worst of the madness that afflicts Brussels. We can only pass on to the next story.

This one picks up on a "poignant plea" that has gone from Westminster to the fragrant Margot, the "bag lady" charged with "selling" the EU to the peoples of Europe. It is signed by Jimmy Hood, the Labour MP who chairs the European Scrutiny Committee, which sits in secret examining the avalanche of new legislation which pours out of Brussels, so it can go through the charade of being rubber-stamped by the UK Parliament.

Each year tens of thousands of pages of this stuff passes across the desks of the MPs on this committee, all written in impenetrable Euro-speak, liberally sprinkled with those buzzwords such as "sustainable", "transparent" and "stakeholders" now de rigeur throughout our system of government.

But for once the worm has turned. One document was such a bureaucratic self-parody that the MPs asked their chairman to write to Ms Wallstrom, pleading for something to be done to "improve the way in which the Commission communicates with the public".

As an example they singled out this passage:

The complementarity between the Agenda and both the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy and the sustainable development strategy makes it necessary to ensure close dovetailing with other Community policies on the internal market, competitition and trade. This approach implies taking full account of social and employment dimensions in other Community policies, and vice versa. The Integrated Impact Assessment tool developed by the Commission provides a valuable methodological contribution. Accordingly, the Social Agenda draws its inspiration from the Constitutitional Treaty, which proclaims the importance of an integrated approach.
Alas, extruding such gobbledygook is so much second-nature to Commission officials that they will not begin to understand the point our MPs are making.

For instance, the Commission’s recent package on "Better Regulation" included a proposal to "improve the intrinsic quality of the impact assessment of EU legislation by ensuring on a case-by-case basis the ex ante validation of external scientific experts of the methodology used for certain impact assessments". Those UK businesses which now pay out £100 billion a year as the cost of EC-inspired red-tape (the Commission’s own estimate) might love to think something could be done to reduce it, But I fear that, like the MPs, they may have a long wait.

You could not invest this, and nor can I improve on it. We simply pass on. Booker’s third story picks up on one covered by this Blog, oddly enough attached to our analysis of the Booker column two weeks ago.

This concerns the report, known as "Deepnet 1", from the North Atlantic Fisheries Commission exposing an ecological disaster now unfolding in the deep waters off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland.

Up to 50 large fishing vessels, mainly Spanish "flag boats" registered in the UK, are leaving up to 5000 miles of gill nets hanging in the water unattended, then clocking in at Milford Haven or other British ports to legitimise their presence in UK waters, before returning to pick up their harvest.

Up to 70 percent of the catch, including monkfish and sharks, is so badly rotted by the time they return that it must be discarded. As much as 20 miles of netting is abandoned on each trip, continuing to snare fish to no purpose (what is known as "ghost fishing"). Stocks of different species have been reduced by up to 80 percent.

This week's Fishing News carries the headline "Minister takes action over Deepnet report". What this means, it turns out, is not that our fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw will be sending out Royal Navy fisheries protection vessels to stop this illegal practice in UK fishing waters. Mr Bradshaw merely says "I will be raising these issues with the European Commission".

As it happens, the Council of Ministers, including Mr Bradshaw, has just approved the setting up of the new European Fisheries Control Agency, to take over all powers of law enforcement in EU waters. It is to be in Vigo, Spain, famously described by the environmental journalist Charles Clover as "the world capital of illegal fishing".

We can be confident, writes Booker, that halting the "Deepnet disaster" will not be high on its agenda.

Booker's final story is not EU orientated, but what the heck. A Cheshire reader, he writes, sends me the instruction leaflet for an electric peppermill, powered by four AA batteries. This insists that the "lightbulb should only be replaced by a qualified electrician". The peppermill only cost a few pounds, and a leaked email last week revealed that, for the BBC to have two light bulbs changed by an outside contractor, cost £57 a time. Knowing the call-out cost of electricians in some parts of the country, I think, says Booker, the BBC got a bargain which peppermill owners might envy.