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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 27/02/2005)

 The Metric Martyrs have saved Magna Carta

It is one thing for Lord Falconer to brush aside all the legal confusion over Prince Charles's wedding plans simply by pronouncing that they are within the law after all. Quite another thing is the constitutional elephant trap that the Government has unwittingly walked into with its Prevention of Terrorism Bill, which will allow citizens to be placed under house arrest by fiat of the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke.

This drives a coach and horses through Magna Carta, which rules that "no freeman shall be arrested or detained in prison or deprived of his liberty except by the judgment of his peers". And no doubt Lord Falconer and his colleagues might argue that it would be ridiculous to allow some fusty 800-year-old document to overrule the right of Mr Clarke in the 21st century to imprison his victims without permission of the courts.

What Mr Clarke has overlooked, however, is the landmark judgment given three years ago in the case of the "Metric Martyrs", in which Lord Justice Laws named Magna Carta, alongside the Bill of Rights, as a "constitutional statute", which cannot be overridden by any subsequent legislation, unless this is explicitly the will of Parliament.

It was on this principle that Steve Thoburn was found guilty of the criminal offence of selling bananas by the pound, because the judge ruled that the European Communities Act of 1972, under which metric weights and measures were made compulsory, was a "constitutional statute". It therefore could not be overridden by the later 1985 Weights and Measures Act, which permitted the continued selling of goods in pounds and ounces.

If Mr Clarke wishes to overrule Magna Carta, according to Lord Justice Laws's ruling of 2002, he must therefore make this explicit in his Prevention of Terrorism Bill. Parliament must be given the chance to decide that in this respect it wishes to override Magna Carta.

If Mr Clarke refuses to accept the relevance of Laws's judgment, then, as Neil Herron, the director of the Metric Martyrs Defence Fund, points out, the whole case against the Martyrs collapses and their convictions must be overturned.

Even if, to avoid such embarrassment, Mr Clarke does ask Parliament explicitly to set aside the relevant section of Magna Carta, he will then be advised that the Great Charter was not an Act of Parliament that can be repealed by a subsequent parliament. It was a contract in perpetuity between the sovereign and the people, which Parliament cannot undo.

Whichever way the Government plays it, in its continuing assault on the constitutional rights of the British people, this time it is stuffed.

Parliament votes itself further into the void

Everything the Government does to sell the "Constitution for Europe" is becoming an embarrassment. No sooner had Patricia Hewitt told one newspaper last week that she and her colleagues had chosen May 8, "Victory in Europe" day, as an appropriate time to launch their campaign for next year's referendum than there was uproar. War veterans, and others, recall "Victory in Europe" in a somewhat different light. A Number 10 spokesman was quickly into damage-limitation mode, claiming that Mrs Hewitt must have been misquoted, and that no one had any such plans.

In fact we have already been given enough clues to know how the Government plans to pitch its campaign for a "Yes" vote. As Jack Straw recently made clear, it is claiming that the constitution will "limit" the powers of the EU and "strengthen the powers of Parliament". This is so blatant a reversal of the truth that it must be hoping that the Constitution is too boring and opaque for anyone actually to read it.

The Constitution increases the EU's powers in all directions, not least by giving us a single "European foreign minister". National governments will be handing over powers in at least 63 more policy areas, including control over our entire economic policy. As for the ridiculous claim that the powers of Parliament will be strengthened, this relies on the longstanding farce of pretending that MPs somehow have the power to "scrutinise" EU legislation before it is approved.

Last Wednesday saw yet another example of what this means in practice, when a handful of MPs met in "European Standing Committee A" to "scrutinise" 448 pages of incredibly complex proposals on the funding of the Common Agricultural Policy which they had been given only the day before.

It soon became clear that neither the MPs nor the minister, Alun Michael, had the slightest idea what all these tortuous pages on "ring‐‐fencing the EARFD" and the "national envelope" were about. Mr Michael was quite unable to answer the questions put to him by Owen Paterson for the Tories and Andrew George for the Lib Dems. Yet the Labour MPs said nothing and dutifully nodded the motion through. Thus did Parliament give its approval in principle to yet another great tranche of EU legislation, without understanding a word of what it was agreeing to. And this is now how we are governed.

Flight refund rule may cost us dear

A key weapon used by Margot Wallstrom, the European Commission vice-president charged with selling the benefits of the EU to the peoples of Europe, is her personal weblog (http://weblog.jrc.cec.eu.int/page/wallstrom). target=external>http://weblog.jrc.cec.eu.int/page/wallstrom). In a recent entry, she boasts of visiting two airports to hand out leaflets on the EC's new "denied boarding regulation", 261/2004, which this month gave passengers the right to compensation if flights are delayed or overbooked.

On Friday it was reported how, three days after the regulation came into force, the pilot of a British Airways 747 jumbo jet discovered on leaving Los Angeles for London that an engine was on fire. He could have aborted the flight but, thanks to the EU's new law, this would have landed BA with an automatic 100,000 compensation bill.

When the pilot contacted London, he was told to carry on, even though to fly the Atlantic on three engines considerably cut his safety margin as events were to show. When a pump malfunctioned, the aircraft approached Britain so short of fuel that it was forced to make an emergency landing in Manchester.

BA denied that the decision to continue the flight was in any way connected to the 100,000 it would have otherwise lost in compensation, claiming that it was perfectly safe to fly 5,000 miles on three engines. But Balpa, the pilots' trade union, begged to differ, warning that pilots would now be pressured into taking this kind of risk for "commercial reasons".

In her bid to sell the wondrous benefits of the EU, Ms Wallstrom might be advised to choose something other than what is now being called the "denied safety regulation".