Page last updated at 19:11 GMT, Monday, 26 January 2009

Man fined over bogus palace water

Ralph Searle
The Blenheim Palace estate water was distributed by Ralph Searle's company

A businessman has been fined 6,000 for selling bottled water as being from Blenheim Palace when it could have come from his Welsh farm or factory.

Cardiff Crown Court was told the water could have come from a spring at Ralph Searl's farm in Carmarthenshire or a tap at his factory in Blaenau Gwent.

Searl, 57, admitted charges under the trades description act and was also told to pay costs of 65,000.

His defence counsel said he was no "Derek Trotter character".

The court heard Searl supplied companies with 19-litre bottles of water from his own natural spring on his farm in Carmarthenshire, for them to use in water dispensers.

But he had more orders than he could supply, so his company, Cool Water Enterprises, based in Wembley, won a contract with Blenheim Palace to sell their water under the Oxfordshire estate's own label.

You lived in some sort of world, Mr Searl, where normal and sensible business practices have no place
Judge Wynn Morgan

The bottles were manufactured at his factory at Aberbeeg and sent to Blenheim where they were filled with mineral water and sealed by workers on the estate, before being delivered back to him for selling.

However in 2007 there were complaints from customers about the taste of some of the bottled Blenheim water.

The court heard Searle replaced the water and said it was because the bottles had been used too soon after manufacturer.

But trading standards became involved and two bottles of water were analysed.

Cool Water's former factory site
Searle's factory operated at Aberbeeg, near Abertillery

The tests showed the water was not from the Blenheim Palace estate but had characteristics similar to the water at the spring at Searle's own in Wales and to the mains tap water at his factory.

The court heard Searl told police that if bottles had been mislabelled, it was "unintentional".

Judge Wynn Morgan pointed out Searl had access to Blenheim estate labels.

He said: "This state of affairs has arisen through what amounts to criminal negligence, organisation of his affairs and a complete lack of any checking that these bottles were going out and obtaining water where they were purported to be from.

"You obviously lived from day to day. You lived in some sort of world, Mr Searl, where normal and sensible business practices have no place."

Searle's defence counsel, Robert Buckland, insisted he was no "Derek Trotter", referring to the wheeler-dealer character played by David Jason in the BBC comedy Only Fools and Horses, and apologised to Cool Water's clients on his behalf.

'Negligence, incompetence'

He said: "Comparisons between this defendant and some latter-day Derek Trotter character are wholly inappropriate.

"This was not a deliberate attempt to hoodwink customers, to pass water off as Blenheim water.

"This was negligence, incompetence if you like, that led to this state of affairs.

"Frankly, the systems were not in place to deal with the necessary demarcation between Blenheim Water and the Welsh water."

After the verdict, Steve Jones, of at Blaenau Gwent trading standards department, said: "This was a long and complex investigation, and particularly resource-intensive for a small council team like ours.

"Offences of applying false trade descriptions are very serious. Customers are misled and other suppliers are at a disadvantage through unfair competition."

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