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Posted by Richard Sunday, May 15, 2005

In our long careers as "Euro-watchers", Booker and I have seen many EU laws on the horizon, and predicted all sorts of gloom and doom to come, when they were implemented.

One such was the electromagnetic compatibility directive, which required the makers of all or any electric or electronic equipment to pay for scientific tests, at inordinate expense, to ensure that their products did not interfere with other equipment.

We predicted, amongst other things, that bespoke makers of computers – of which there are many thousands in the UK, mostly small shops who will build a machine to your specification – would be put out of business by the scale of the testing fees, which exceeded the cost of the products they were selling.

However, when the law finally came in, nothing of the trauma we imagined ever came to pass. This was not because we were wrong about the nature of the law but because, quite sensibly, most people ignored it completely while trading standards, who were responsible for enforcing it, were far too busy persecuting Imperial traders and never got around to doing anything serious about it.

With another of these crazy EU laws, implemented as the so-called "Part P" amendment to the Building Regulations, which require electricians to be registered before they can carry out basic work, much the same could have happened. But in this case, while we warned of dire implications, the damage now seems to be occurring.

Thus, in the Booker column today, our favourite columnists opens his piece with a contrast, writing that, to Tony Blair, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy, "Europe" is a lofty abstract concept which for various reasons they don’t much wish to talk about.

But, he writes, "for Dave Walker, a 43-year old electrician in Bristol, it has become a very frightening and incomprehensible reality, forcing him to wonder how much longer he and his family can afford to go on living in their home." And so starts a story which is barely believable but comes straight out of the journal of the mad officials, and is absolutely true:

Last February, Mr Walker was asked by Mrs Godfrey, a pensioner living in a council flat, to fit a heated towel rail in her bathroom. Up to January this would have presented no problem. He could have carried out the work quickly and efficiently, charging her around £60.

But Mr Walker was now aware of the new ‘Part P’ building regulations, rushed through last summer by John Prescott to comply with EC directive 98/34, under which Britain had to harmonise with various European electrical standards.

This meant that, to carry out all but very minor domestic electrical work, Mr Walker had two choices. Either he would have to be certified as a ‘competent domestic installer’ by the government-approved National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting (NICEIC). Or, to carry out wiring or any work in a bathroom or kitchen, his work would have to be approved and inspected, for a fee, by his local council.

Mr Walker therefore applied to NICEIC to be certified, on a yearly basis, which currently costs £877.50. He even sent a cheque. But he was told he could not be certified unless NICEIC could inspect his work on a whole house. Since his work consists only of small jobs for homeowners, and the only house he had wired was his own, which did not count, NICEIC was unable to certify him and sent his back his money.

Despite the fact that he has full City and Guilds qualification, which required five years theoretical and practical work, and years of experience without complaint, Mr Walker had to tell his customer that, under the new rules, since the towel rail was for a bathroom, she would have to ask the council’s permission.

The council replied, in what it calls “a standard letter”, that it had “no objection to the installation of a heated towel rail”. But in order to get approval, Mr Walker would have to provide a certificate guaranteeing the safety of all the electrical installation in her home. This, he calculated, would involve more than a day’s work, inspecting and reporting on all her wiring and each plug and light socket, costing £600.

Plainly this was out of the question. After further consultation with the council, the problem was solved by placing the towel rail outside the bathroom. But Mr Walker thus finds himself unable to do much of the work which until recently provided most of his income. If it was not for the money he gets for fostering two children, he says, he would be unable to keep up his mortgage payments.

According to NICEIC, the purpose of the new regulations is to stamp out the ‘cowboys’ who supply faulty and dangerous electrical work. But the effect, it seems, is the opposite.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many small electricians are either surviving only by ignoring Part P, or are giving up (when Mr Walker went to the Job Centre he was told many electricians had been in asking about other work). This creates an opening for precisely the ‘cowboys’ Part P was intended to eliminate.

It seems many householders must choose between either a ‘competent’ electrician who has had to raise his charges to pay for certification, or a ‘cowboy’ who can do it on the cheap. What few homeowners have also grasped is that Part P applies equally to do-it-yourself electrical work.

To carry out any work in a kitchen or bathroom without council permission is now a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £5,000. And to have it inspected will cost you an average £65. Thank you Mr Prescott, writes Booker, and of course those diligent civil servants who pointed out to him directive 98/34.
The story is so incredible that it invites the cliché, "you just couldn’t make it up", but the truth of it is that, when it comes to modern bureaucracy, and especially that emanating from the EU, there is no natural limit to the absurdities that they can perpetrate.

For his second story, Booker takes a deep breath and takes on the Latsis affair again, a brave move as the last time we ran the story, we got hit hard by the lawyers.

Anyhow, this time the story is pretty lawyer proof, based as it is on information on the EU commission website, discovered by this blog and broached in the EU parliament by Nigel Farage.

Thus does Booker start his piece, telling the story de novo, albeit so carefully worded as almost to emasculate it, then observing that: "Considering that a drama set in train by a British MEP set off such excitement last week in the German, Spanish and Italian press, he writes, it may seem strange that it has here been almost wholly ignored."

Actually, it isn't that strange, as the media are running scared, conscious that Dr Latsis is able to afford very expensive lawyers and can take you to the cleaners for even the slightest of errors, as he did with the The Sunday Telegraph and The Times.

Anyhow, the story has got into the Booker column and we await the lawyers letters once again. To conclude, though, Booker observes that the row is also potentially embarrassing to the new Shadow Cabinet in London, which after last week's "putsch" by the Europhiles, including the new Party chairman Francis Maude and his "moderniser" allies, has let it be known that MPs must talk about "Europe" as little as possible.

The Tory leadership line, Booker concludes, is to now to keep quiet about "Europe" until the referendum campaign gets under way. Yet another flurry of publicity over the Barroso affair, with Tory MEPs playing an important part, will not be regarded as “helpful”.

And for his final story, Booker takes a swipe at BBC Radio Four's Today programme – always an entertaining occupation – which recently reported the discovery in Somerset of an "Iron Age shoe". Its length, they solemnly intoned, was "30 centimetres".

It might have been interesting to observe, writes Booker, that this meant the shoe was a foot long, hence the name given to that measure which BBC reporters are forbidden to mention.

But someone ought to point out to the BBC thought police that, under EC law, centimetres are no more a legally approved measure than feet and inches. The only correct description for what those Iron Age cobblers created was a shoe 304.8 millimetres long.