Sunday, April 10, 2005

Booker

The first story in the column today illustrates that which we knew already – that we do not need the EU to create a total bureaucratic shambles. Zanu-Labour Party ministers and their tame civil servants are well capable of doing this all by themselves.

This time, the Zanu-LP minister is Tessa Jowell who, with her officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are doing their best to bring an end to one of the West Country's most spectacular traditions - the vast processions of brightly-lit carnival floats which parade each autumn through the streets of many Somerset towns, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity.

We cannot blame the EU for this and, knowing the carnival tradition in France, Spain, Malta and elsewhere, any commissioner who tried it would probably get lynched.

Nor indeed can we blame the EU for the next outrage which Booker report, although this has an EU dimension and left even Europhile peers shocked.

The cause of their distress was the apparent contempt with which a government minister, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, told them that, in relation to the EU, they are no longer considered part of the UK Parliament.

This arose when Tory peer Lord Marlesford questioned an obscure passage of the Government's European Union Bill, relating to the EU constitution. The issue was the so-called "passerelle" clauses which permit the European Council to abolish the few surviving national vetoes, on issues such as taxation and defence, and allow them to be decided by qualified majority voting.

However, any such decision can be vetoed by national parliaments within six months of being notified (for example Art 444) and, in relation to this, came the revelation that the Bill puts this veto into the hands of the Commons alone.

Then came an extraordinary declaration by Baroness Ashton, a junior minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, who explained that "since 25 nations are involved in the European Union, it is important that, if decisions are to be made on the voting system, 25 parliaments should make the decision, but not 25 parliaments plus 12 second houses".

The Lords, in other words, being only a "second house" - and "wholly unelected", as Lady Ashton emphasised - is no longer part of our Parliament. Or at least, not in the eyes of our own Government - which added this disqualification of our Upper House to the legislation of its own accord.

Writes Booker, if this weird constitutional innovation in itself undermines the prime minister's insistence that taxation is one of his few remaining "red lines", it was further eroded last week when the European Court of Justice prepared to declare illegal a Treasury rule that companies cannot offsets losses in one EU country against their profits in another for tax purposes.

The tax repayments that companies such as Marks & Spencer, BT and Vodafone will be able to claim are so huge that, according to some tax experts, Gordon Brown could have to hand back up to £20 billion within a year or two - equivalent to 8p on income tax - blowing a further massive hole in the nation's finances.

But have no fear, he adds, in a sideswipe at the Conservatives. Knowing how reluctant the Tories are to mention "Europe", and following the Howard Flight debacle, it is most unlikely that any Tory spokesman would dare raise such explosive issues in this election. Unfortunately, he may be right.

This brings Booker to his third story and again we have a situation where Zanu-NL is using EU law as a basis for causing chaos to British enterprise.

There has, writes Booker, been a further twist to the bizarre "war" being waged by local officials of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) against the Hastings fishermen who operate the largest surviving beach-launched fishing fleet in Europe.

This time it is fisherman Richard Adams. Last December, his small fishing boat broke its propeller shaft when returning to shore. When this stopped Adams going back to collect his nets - worth thousands of pounds - he called on the assistance of his son Michael, who owns an even smaller boat used by sea anglers.

After recovering two sets of nets, containing five fish which they gave to a helper on shore, they were told by a Defra official, Andrew Newlands, that they had committed a criminal offence by fishing from "an unlicensed vessel".

In vain did they protest, in somewhat vivid language, that the law only applies when fish are caught to be sold. Forbidden to fetch his remaining nets, Richard Adams lost them when a storm blew up. The two men were charged with four offences, including "harassing a fisheries officer" by using strong language.

This case follows one Booker reported in January when two other Hastings fishermen, Paul Joy and Graham Bossom, were fined £10,000 with £5,000 costs for catching more cod than they were allowed by their "monthly quota allocation", despite producing a letter from Franz Fischler, then the Brussels fisheries commissioner, confirming that "under 10 metre boats" such as theirs are not covered by quota rules.

So totally irrational is this current case that, next Thursday Michael Foster, a local solicitor, will take time off from campaigning to hold the seat he won in 1997 as Hastings's first-ever Labour MP, to appear in court, free of charge, defending the latest fishermen to face prosecution.

Foster had argued in vain with the fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw that his officials appeared to be prosecuting the two men for an offence which did not exist.

But when he tried to get Mr Bradshaw to persuade his officials to take a more reasonable line over Richard and Michael Adams, the minister refused to intervene. Mr Foster is so concerned by Defra's conduct towards the Hastings fishermen that he has offered, whether or not he is re-elected, to represent the two men until their case is concluded.

That really does tell you something about the state of Zanu-LP.

To conclude, Booker adds a contrasting piece which, in the context, was irresistible. Defra may seem to be doing all it can to destroy our fishing and farming industries, he writes, but at least it has at heart the interests of one group in the countryside.

Hundreds of posters have been sent out by Prof Ian Rivers, of Leeds University's social inclusion unit, appealing for participants in "a research project focusing on the needs and experiences of lesbians, gay men and bisexual men and women living in rural communities". The "Rural LGB Project," Prof Rivers proudly explains, "is supported by Defra".

Frankly, at times, it really is quite hard working out which is worse – the EU or our own government. The only thing in favour of the latter is that we can get rid of it. Let us hope enough people agree that it is time that we did so.

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