24 September 2006

The erosion of freedoms

It is interesting to see how much energy has been expended by sections of the eurosceptic community on the remote and largely theoretical EU threat to our freedoms represented by the putative abolition of habeas corpus.

By contrast, you will see little concern – and none of any lasting effect – about the continued drip-drip erosion of our liberties that happens in a myriad of ways through the application of EU law.

One such is recorded by Christopher Booker in this week's Sunday Telegraph, under the heading, "Citronella deters insects, but it's illegal to say so".

If, like me, though, you did not even know what Citronella was, perhaps vaguely thinking that it was a branded fruit drink, then that fact that it has been banned for use as an insect repellent by the EU's Biocidal Products Directive, (98/8/EC) is not going to have you storming the barricades.

However, for Mr Nigel Furlong, whose long-established Newport company makes products for the care of horses, this is a vitally important matter. He has spent ten years and £680,000 of his own money (for which he had to re-mortgage his house) developing a highly effective and popular cream for repelling the insects which can cause serious harm to horses, particularly by infecting cuts.

One of this cream's 32 ingredients is citronella, an oil extracted from lemongrass, which has the unusual property of deterring insects without harming them, while smelling pleasant to people – which is why citronella candles are still widely advertised for keeping insects away from barbecues.

But now, it has become a criminal offence for Mr Furlong's firm to sell its most popular product, because it includes this entirely harmless ingredient which is still on sale in supermarkets, pharmacies and health shops throughout the land, not to mention everywhere else in the EU – and which can continue to be sold as long as no claims are made as to its ability to repel insects.

Mr Furlong's experience remind me of another absurdity where a Yorkshire grower sought to avoid the use of highly toxic organo-phosphorous pesticides on his cucumber crops, for which purpose a highly innovative company developed a completely safe alternative. This, oddly enough, was food starch, an ingredient of thousands of manufactured foods, considered to be so safe that it can be found in most proprietary baby foods.

In the cucumber growing business, the most important pest is white fly and it was discovered that, by spraying the plants with food starch, it formed a coating on the pupal cases which was sufficiently tough to prevent adult flies emerging, thus eliminating any infestations.

Such an option, you would think, would be highly encouraged by the authorities – but not a bit of it. Because this harmless substance was to be used as a pesticide, it came within the ambit of the "plant protection" directive (91/414/EC).

This, like the biocides directive, prohibits the use of any products unless they are on a "positive list" and, in Mr Furlong's case the fee payable to the regulatory authority (the HSE) was £89,000 plus the enormous cost of producing a "safety dossier". In the case of the starch – which was given the name "Hugtite" - the regulatory costs were in excess of £200,000 before it would be considered for approval.

In both cases, however, there is a major problem – the products are generic, widely available to a multitude of manufacturers and, once it is approved, anyone can use it. The system thus puts entrepreneurs in a situation of having to expend an enormous amount of money, for which they can gain no benefit.

Over the years Booker and I have built up hundreds of examples of this sort of thing – with hundreds of small firms either gravely disadvantaged or driven out of business. Add to that the broader trade categories, like the fishing and slaughter industries, and perhaps thousands of firms and have been put out of business, with untold effects on the economy and employment. But, more importantly, each impost is an erosion of our freedoms - every bit as important as habeus corpus - in particular the right to conduct a business and earn you living without unreasonable interference from the State.

It is thus appropriate that Booker's second piece (of two) is headed, "Whatever you do, don't mention Europe". We – or rather, the political classes – simply do not mention the EU. For sure, Booker's article today will elicit a few "tut-tuts" from his readers and one or two may be moved to write to their MPs. And that will be the end of it – especially if the correspondence goes to a Tory MP.

Writes Booker: "Europe, we are told, not least by senior Tories, is 'off the agenda'. Such a boring subject – no longer politically relevant." He continues:

One result is that the media, reporting on some controversial new law, seem more reluctant than ever to admit that it comes, as it so often does, from Brussels. There were many reports, for instance, on the law against carrying children below "135 centimetres" tall in a car without a booster seat. Almost none explained that this was forced on us by EC directive 2003/20. It took Boris Johnson, frothing with anger, to point out in The Daily Telegraph that the law had been introduced without giving Parliament a chance to debate it. (He seems not to have noticed that it was discussed in committee on July 5 and that his party did not vote against it.)

Credit also to The Observer, for revealing last week that 60 NHS hospitals are having to close whole departments because of the effect of the EC Working Time directive on the availability of doctors. It was good to see The Observer acknowledging this, since it had greeted Tony Blair's victory in 1997 by shouting from its front page "Goodbye Xenophobia" – as if that were the only motive for scepticism about the EU, rather than recognising it as an inefficient and undemocratic form of government.

Numerous articles have appeared recently on the shambles in our waste disposal system created by the switch from landfill to "recycling". There was a scarifying report in the Mail on Sunday showing how much of our rubbish collected for recycling ends up in China in vast polluting dumps, most of it going to landfill. But this, like so many others, laid the blame for our chaotic waste policy solely on "town halls" and "ministers", without any mention of the fact that our policy is now dictated by Brussels waste directives.

Apart from this column, no newspaper explained that the recent changes to "size-based pricing" for our post originated in EC legislation, even though this is there for anyone to see on the Royal Mail and Postcom websites. There has also been near-silence about the damage being done by Brussels regulations to the City, our richest economic sector, now threatened with reduction, as Irwin Stelzer says in this week's Spectator, to "second-class" status.

So the great taboo continues. Has there ever been a time in history when people were so kept in the dark about how their laws are made? It is all very well for Mr Johnson to froth with anger. But he might be doing something more useful if he could persuade his colleagues in the "Not the Conservative Party" that how we are governed is not exactly something which should just be stuffed away "off the agenda".
Interestingly, today The Observer today returns to the theme of junior doctors, recording that:

Patients are being put at risk because the number of hours' training that a doctor completes before qualifying as a consultant has fallen by around 75 per cent in the past 15 years … Junior doctors are warning that medics hoping to become specialist surgeons say they are not spending enough time in the operating theatre to make them proficient and safe. That is because junior doctors' hours have fallen considerably under the European Working Time Directive, which means they can only work 56 hours a week, including nights on call.
The story though has not been picked up by any other media outlets and, although we picked up the original story last week the British blogosphere – especially amongst the self-important "big hitter" political blogs – mirrors the situation in the MSM.

In fact, as we have remarked before, the British political blogosphere so closely parallels the MSM, with the same diet of trivia, political introspection and self-congratulation, that we might as well not have it. For them, also – in the main – "Europe" is off the agenda, confined, like Booker so often is, to the margins.