Sunday, May 22, 2005

Booker

After the fishermen, (some) farmers, abattoir owners, electricians, food supplement retailers, chemical manufacturers, lorry drivers, magazine distributors, and sundry others too diverse to mention – to say nothing of the operators of Sally B - it is now the turn of Britain's small animal vets to feel the pinch.

Thanks to an EC directive, Booker writes in today's column, they could soon have to spend a quarter of their working lives recording mountains of almost wholly irrelevant data, forcing them to increase their bills to pet owners by up to 25 percent. He continues:

The threat arises from just one article in the proposed Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2005, implementing directive 2004/28 and now out to 'consultation', which will affect Britain’s 2,500 small animal veterinary practices.

The new regulations stem from a series of Brussels directives which, since 1990, have sought to protect meat eaters from adverse reactions to drugs used to treat farm animals. But the directives make no distinction between animals for human consumption (including horses eaten on the continent) and domestic pets such as dogs, cats and guinea pigs.

Article 66 of the proposed regulations, headed "Record Keeping", lays down that every time a vet buys in a medicinal product, he or she must record the date, product, quantity, manufacturer's batch number and expiry date. Each time it is dispensed the same data must be recorded, with client details. At the year’s end all drugs dispensed must be checked against stocks remaining, and records kept for five years.

All this might not seem unreasonable until one looks at what it means in practice. As pointed out by Simon Gubbins, the West Midlands vet who drew this to my attention, "every time I see a dog with a bad ear that might get an antiobiotic injection and an anti-inflammory injection, followed by two sorts of tablets and possibly two sorts of topical drops, I will have to spend up to five minutes recording 12 sets of numbers on the clinical records".

Michael Jessop, president-elect of the Small Animals Veterinary Association, explains "in an average day, we may prescribe 200 items, each of which must be recorded, then audited". 30 consultations a day, with five minutes each logging-in time, adds up to two and a half hours a day, or twelve and a half hours a week. This is more than a quarter of the time a vet will be permitted to work under the EC's working time directive.

The implications are horrendous. The loss of time will inevitably mean longer waits for appointments and higher bills. Even with dedicated software, so far not available, tallying up this data will be hugely time-consuming. For the 25 percent of practices not computerised, as Mr Jessop points out, "it will be all but impossible". Any errors will be treated as a criminal offence punishable by fines or imprisonment.

This "batch recording" requirement derives from just one article in a set of regulations 115 pages long. The original purpose of the legislation which inspired them was to protect humans. Not many dogs, cats and guinea pigs are eaten in Britain. Even if the officials now claim it would also be useful to be able to track down any batch of drugs found to be faulty, almost all those millions of pieces of data solemnly logged-in and kept for five years will never be looked at again.

The VMD admitted it will have no "information on the cost of keeping the necessary records" until the consultation is complete. But it insisted that "implementation of the directive's provisions is an obligation of membership of the EU".
It is those last few words that chill the heart: "implementation of the directive's provisions is an obligation of membership of the EU". That also sounds a little bit familiar. Only yesterday we read in the Telegraph, in relation to the absurd rules that have grounded Sally B, the words of a "senior officials from the Department of Transport", who said that "nothing can be done about the rule." And that is because – you guessed it – it is an obligation of membership of the EU.

Let the Euro-luvvies explain that away.

Anyhow, for his next story, Booker picks up on our posting about that idiot Matthew McGregor, styled as "Head of Campaigns – Vote-No", and his debacle on Newsnight last week, plus sundry other matters, all to write a “state of play” article on the forthcoming – possibly – referendum campaign. He writes:

As the campaign for a referendum on the "Constitution for Europe" stutters into gear, unsure until France votes next Sunday whether we will have one at all, both sides will need to get their act together rather more convincingly than was evident last week. Considering the gravity of the issues at stake, many viewers must have been stunned by the Newsnight discussion last Wednesday, when the spokesmen for each side seemed not just far too young and inexperienced but singularly ill-briefed.

Fronting for the "Yes" side is "Britain in Europe", with its shambolic track record, hoping that Mr Blair will soon be sending in some rather more heavyweight reinforcements than Douglas Alexander, after his faltering start as our new Europe minister. Along with the Lib Dems and a few Tories, led by Kenneth Clarke, their aim will be to downplay the contents of the Constitution as far as possible, hoping no one will actually read it, to see how much further it would subordinate Britain to a supranational form of government which in almost all significant respects will be able to dictate how our country is run.

Front-running for the "No" camp is an uneasy alliance between Michael Howard's Tory Party and an all-party "No" campaign, set up by the businessmen behind "Business for Sterling" which campaigned effectively against the euro. A central weakness of these groups is their almost comical determination to show that they have nothing against Britain’s membership of the EU as such, but only oppose the constitution.

This will involve them in wondrous intellectual contortions, as they try to distinguish between those bits of the Constitution which are new and those which are simply carried over from previous treaties. The result can be as embarrassing as the young "No" spokesman’s reply to Jeremy Paxman, when he stammered "I don’t think anyone in the No campaign is against there being a constitution". In other words, these "Yesno" campaigners would welcome an EU constitution. It is just this particular constitution they don’t care for.

So far glaringly absent from this line-up is a broader-based "People's Campaign", appealing to ordinary voters who want a grown-up, free-ranging debate on Britain’s relationship with the EU rather than one so tightly constrained from the top as to be meaningless. Next Wednesday at 2 pm, various Eurosceptic groups will meet at Abingdon House, 13 Little College Street, opposite the House of Lords, to discuss launching such a "People's No Campaign". Anyone is welcome to join former Tory and Labour MPs and Neil Herron, the doughty campaigner from the North East, to plan a campaign which is not being set up in rivalry with others but to complement them - in a way which after next Sunday may seem badly needed.
Number three, as we call it, tilts at the journalists who claimed that the Queen’s Speech "broke the record" by proposing 45 new Bills. Booker thinks they should be sent on a beginners' course in how our country is now governed:

For a start, the only way Blair's proposals for an 18-month session challenged for a record was not in how many Bills he put forward but how few. When John Major put through only 41 in 1994-5, this was historically a record low. Through much of the post-war era, 150 to 200 Bills a year were commonplace.

A more important point to which these journalists are oblivious is that most of our legislation no longer needs be discussed by Parliament at all. It is issued in the form of statutory instruments or ministerial edicts. Since 1990 the number of these has soared, so that they now average 3,400 a year.

Although much of this "secondary legislation" is trivial, it also now includes many of the more onerous and far-reaching laws going onto our statute book, notably the hundreds of regulations required each year to implement legislation from Brussels (even 10 of Blair’s new Bills are EU-related). If journalists are troubled by what the Evening Standard's Anne McElvoy called this "juggernaut" of new laws our Government is imposing on us, they should first find out how most of our laws are now made, and then recognise which "government" is actually imposing them.
The final story, or "four", deals with two of my own personal obsessions, "speeding" and compulsory metrication, combined in an unexpected way. Booker writes:

There was understandable uproar over the decision of district judge Bruce Morgan in Ludlow to acquit PC Mark Milton on a speeding charge for driving his police car at 159 mph on the M54. He even criticised the bringing of a prosecution, on the grounds that, as a "crème de la crème" advanced police driver, Milton needed practice at driving fast.

But, interestingly, it was this same Judge Morgan who, in April 2002, had no hesitation in finding a Sunderland market trader, Steve Thoburn, guilty of a criminal offence under EC-inspired law for selling a "pound of bananas". The late Mr Thoburn was clearly not "crème de la crème". To sell a pound of bananas is obviously a criminal act, but it is fine for a policeman to break the speeding laws by 90 miles an hour. This perhaps tells us more about today's Britain than Judge Morgan may have realised.
It does indeed – one rule for us, and one for them. I wonder if they realise the extent to which they are held in loathing and contempt.

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