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Christopher Booker's notebook

(Filed: 13/02/2005)

Pensioner challenges the power to penalise without trial

Diplomatic immunity extends to Eurocrats

In fact, this myth is a fact

Where our money goes

Pensioner challenges the power to penalise without trial

Two years ago, when Robert de Crittenden, a pensioner, emerged from Sandwell council offices in the west Midlands, he was irritated to find a 30 fixed penalty ticket on his windscreen. He little realised he was embarking on a battle which calls into question the legality of the entire principle of automatic penalties, which now earn local authorities and government departments hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

As a student of constitutional law, Mr de Crittenden was aware that under the 1689 Bill of Rights, it is fundamental to British law that no one may be fined or financially penalised unless they have been convicted by a court. When he inquired into the power of traffic authorities to levy automatic fines, he found it had been created by the Road Traffic Act 1991, in contradiction of the Bill of Rights.

But Mr de Crittenden was also aware of the historic judgment in the "Metric Martyrs" case in 2002, in which Lord Justice Laws pronounced that there were certain "constitutional statutes", such as the Bill of Rights, which cannot be set aside by subsequent legislation unless this is specifically stated. This was crucial to the argument whereby Laws upheld the conviction of the Metric Martyrs.

The law making it a criminal offence to sell goods in pounds and ounces was issued under the European Communities Act 1972. But the Martyrs' defence was that this had been overridden by the Weights and Measures Act 1985, which authorised continued selling in non-metric measures. By ancient tradition, when one Act says something different from another, the later Act, by the principle of "implied repeal", takes precedence. But Laws ruled that, since the European Communities Act was a "constitutional statute", it could not be overridden by the 1985 Act, since this had not made the point explicit.

After conferring with the British Weights and Measures Association (BWMA) and Neil Herron of the Metric Martyrs Defence Fund, Mr de Crittenden concluded that, if Lord Justice Laws was right, the 1991 Road Traffic Act could not implicitly repeal the relevant clause of the Bill of Rights, because, as Laws stated, this was a "constitutional statute". Either the automatic penalty system was illegal; or Laws was wrong, in which case the Metric Martyrs should not have been found guilty.

Using this argument, Mr de Crittenden refused to pay his fine unless Sandwell took him to court. Two years later they have still not done so. But the significance of his challenge can scarcely be overestimated. Since his legal argument began to be widely circulated, ever more motorists have similarly refused to pay fixed penalties in towns all around the country for example in Sunderland, where Mr de Crittenden was last week given another parking ticket, when he drove up to confer with Mr Herron in connection with this story.

The dilemma facing councils is stark. If they obey the law as it stands, they cannot impose parking tickets on hundreds of thousands of motorists without taking them to court. But if they do so, the court system would rapidly collapse. Furthermore the same applies to all the other official bodies that have jumped on the "fixed penalty" bandwagon, such as the Inland Revenue, which imposes an automatic 100 penalty for a late tax return.

If all these bodies imagine that, under the Laws judgment, they have a simple remedy namely to rush through an Act of Parliament explicitly overruling the Bill of Rights Mr de Crittenden has another trick up his sleeve. The Bill of Rights may have been enshrined in an Act of Parliament, but the Declaration of Rights on which it was based was a contract between the sovereign and the people. It is by that Declaration that the monarch occupies her throne and by which Parliament enjoys its power, and it cannot be repealed. Thus, if Laws is right, fixed penalties without conviction cannot be legalised. Either that, or the Metric Martyrs were innocent.

Anyone wishing to know more can contact the BWMA (www.bwmaonline.com) or the Metric Martyrs Defence Fund at PO Box 526, Sunderland SR1 3YS.

Diplomatic immunity extends to Eurocrats

What the Government describes as "a small, technical and non-controversial" Bill now being nodded through Parliament will give the equivalent of diplomatic immunity to the employees of a range of "international organisations", mostly organs of the EU. The "privileges and immunities" it grants will be enjoyed not just by staff members of these bodies, but by all members of their families and "households".

Although questioning of this curious Bill has been led by a tireless Eurosceptic, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, it has raised the eyebrows of even such a committed Europhile as Lord Wallace of Saltaire. He was surprised to discover that, since his wife is a director of the Robert Schuman Centre, part of the European University Institute, he will share her "immunity from domestic taxation" and other privileges, as her "dependent spouse".

The danger of this Bill, according to Lord Wallace, is that it will create "two classes of people those of us who are subject to domestic law and pay our taxes and parking fines, and an increasing number of people who do not".

While insisting he is a "strong supporter of the further development of the European Union", he regards "the powers, privileges and status of the Commission and many of its agencies with mixed feelings", fearing that "there is a real danger of a popular backlash against the emergence of this privileged elite".

The significance of this is that, as Lord Wallace himself pointed out, there are ever more of these EU bodies whose staff enjoy privileges above national law. In response to a question from Lord Pearson, the Government itself only named 28, ranging from the European Railways Agency and the European Plant Variety Office to the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia, although the Foreign Office concedes that its list will have to be updated "as new bodies are added".

What the Foreign Office would never explain, however, is how these fast-proliferating organs in many ways now represent the true government of our country. Just why therefore the privilegentsia that works for them should be granted the immunities traditionally accorded to diplomats of a foreign power is likely to inspire not just puzzlement but, as Lord Wallace suggests, very great resentment.

In fact, this myth is a fact

Cranking up its propaganda campaign for the EU constitution, the European Commission has opened up a new section of its website under the title "Get Your Facts Straight". This is dedicated to countering the dreadful lies about the EU peddled by the British press.

A typical "Euromyth", it claims, is that the EU plans to ban advertising slogans such as "Guinness is good for you". Typical Eurosceptic lies, it says. "Slogans like 'Guinness is good for you' will still be with us. In fact the EU has no plans to introduce any new legislation at all."

Martin Callinan, a Tory MEP who sits on the relevant committee of the European Parliament, sends me the text of a regulation currently going through the system, which states that "beverages containing more than 1.2 per cent by volume of alcohol" shall not "bear health claims of any kind". It will become illegal for any "food or nutrient" to make claims implying that it provides " general non-specific benefits" or promotes "overall good health and well-being".

In other words, the use of the slogan "Guinness is good for you" is to become a criminal offence and when the Commission says this is a "myth" what it really means, as on so many other issues, is the precise opposite.

Where our money goes

Doctors in Essex have been startled to receive from the "Essex Public Health Resource Unit" a glossy booklet entitled Information Pack. When they open it, they find its 34 pages are blank. When the GP who sent it to me asked what was the purpose of the gift, he was told it was "for making notes".

It is good to know that all those billions of our money devoted by Gordon Brown to the NHS are being so wisely spent.