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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 30/11/2003)

Police withhold camera evidence
A virtual march on Downing St
The EU's number of choice
Ill-timed silence at the BBC

Police withhold camera evidence

A confidential letter sent to police forces and local authorities reveals just how rattled those who run the nation's speed camera system have become at charges that their policy has failed to reduce Britain's road accident figures.

The letter, from Richard Brunstrom, who describes himself as "Chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers Roads Policing Business Area", instructs those involved in operating speed cameras - this year expected to raise at least 120 million from two million motorists - that they must on no account respond to any requests for factual information from Paul Smith, a road safety expert whose website has made him one of the system's most powerful critics.

Mr Smith's offence, according to Mr Brunstrom, the chief constable of North Wales, is that his "sole intent seems to be to discredit Government policy"; and that he has not only "inundated" the Department for Transport (three enquiries) and police forces with requests for information, but published their replies on the internet.

Mr Brunstrom is also concerned that dozens of serving police officers have contacted Mr Smith to express their own concern at the way reliance on the cameras has become a substitute for a road safety policy which, until 10 years ago, was internationally acclaimed as the most successful in the world.

Two years ago Mr Smith, a professional engineer and passionate advocate of safe driving, decided to investigate the official claims made for speed cameras. What he found so shocked him that he decided to launch a website (www.safespeed.org.uk) to challenge the claims.

"Until 1993," he says, "Britain had a road safety culture second to none. For nearly 30 years we had seen a dramatic and steady reduction in road accidents, in which sensible policing was a significant factor.

"Then the whole policy changed to ever-increasing reliance on cameras. All the evidence shows that this has sharply slowed the fall in the accident rate, and that, in some respects, the distraction of cameras actually makes the roads more dangerous."

What particularly shocked Mr Smith, however, was the wholesale distortion of scientific evidence, which was then used to support the case for cameras, such as the endlessly-repeated mantra that excessive speed causes a third of all accidents (the Government's own figures show this is the chief cause of only 5- 7 per cent of accidents). But when he politely asked the police and officials for evidence to support their claims, he was astonished at their persistent inability to provide it.

The more that Mr Smith reported this refusal to discuss the issue, and the further he developed his scientific critique of the policy, the more irritated Mr Brunstrom became - leading to the latest order that no one involved in operating the speed cameras must have any contact with him.

Only one county in England and Wales does not now boast one of the "safety camera partnerships" which yield ever-greater income for police forces, local councils and magistrates courts (one camera alone on the M11 is said to generate 840,000 a year). The exception is Durham, whose chief constable, Paul Garvin, remains an outspoken opponent of the camera policy, and whose county's accident record is 30 per cent below the national average.

Mr Smith's campaign has been backed by two Conservative front bench spokesmen, Tim Collins and Damian Green. On Friday, a Daily Telegraph poll revealed that the public agrees with Mr Smith by two to one that speed cameras do not reduce traffic accidents; and by nearly three to one that their chief purpose is to raise revenue rather than improve road safety.

A virtual march on Downing St

Next Saturday thousands of people will "march" on Downing Street to demand a referendum on the European Union constitution, without having to leave their front doors. This miracle will be achieved through the simultaneous descent of huge numbers of e-mails on the Number 10 website, co-ordinated by an organisation known as Referendum04.

Britain's first "virtual march", backed by the son of the late Sir James Goldsmith, is just one of the brainchildren of Neil Herron, the director of Referendum04, who, in three years, has become one of the most active and effective political campaigners in Britain.

He has come a long way since 2000, when he was a Sunderland market trader in charge of the defence campaign for his friend Steve Thoburn, who faced criminal charges for selling a pound of bananas.

Having taken the "Metric Martyrs" case up to the Court of Appeal (and now to the European Court of Human Rights), Mr Herron went on to launch a devastating campaign against the plans to give an elected assembly to the North-East. Until his intervention, John Prescott had hoped this would be the first of eight English regions with an elected regional government.

Mr Herron's North East Against a Regional Assembly has chalked up one success after another - for example, provoking a district auditor to rule that local councils were improperly using ratepayers' money to fund a propaganda campaign for elected regional government. Now he moves onto a national stage by launching Referendum04, designed as the grass-roots counterpart of the Vote 2004 campaign headed by Lady Meyer.

Although Mr Herron has enthusiastic support from Ben Goldsmith and Rodney Leach, a former chairman of Business for Sterling, his campaign is deliberately intended to derive its support and funding from "ordinary people". Anyone wishing to join Saturday's "virtual march" should log on to www.Referendum04.co.uk. But this is only meant to be the start of a campaign from which we shall hear more.

The EU's number of choice

On our letters page last week, Jim Dougal, the European Commission's man in London, wrote, on the directory enquiries shambles, that "no directive or regulation at EU level demands Britain adopt 118". He couldn't be more wrong. COM(96) 590 "Towards a New European Numbering Environment" proposed 118 as a standard number for EU directory services and, without the subsequent directives 2002/21 and 2002/77, this shambles would never have arisen.

This same trick has been played again and again, over issues ranging from the separation of Railtrack from the railway operating companies to the splitting up of the UK under 12 regional governments. The EU issues its instructions, which the British Government dutifully obeys, sometimes going even further. When the result is chaos, Brussels denies any responsibility, supported by British ministers and officials who pretend it was all their own idea.

Ill-timed silence at the BBC

It comes to something when they have to close down the Today programme just to stop me appearing on it. On Thursday I recorded some comments on the latest shambles over the EU constitution, due to be broadcast just after 8 am on Friday, as a prelude to an interview with Jack Straw. Just before 8 am Today went off the air, replaced by sinisterly distracting piano music of the sort Radio Moscow used to play when a Soviet leader had died.

It appeared that much of the BBC had been silenced by a power failure, but Today managed to regain its transmission from another studio, just in time for Mr Straw to explain why it really wouldn't matter if the EU didn't have a constitution. Without my contribution, there was no one to point out that Mr Blair had originally said there was no need for an EU constitution, and then had said that it was essential. Now he and Mr Straw seem to have returned to their first view. This might seem a frivolous way to approach the drawing up of a framework for Britain's government. But it is of a piece with most of what Mr Blair gets up to.