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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 13/11/2005)

Parking penalties may prove 'illegal and void'

A Commons select committee stands accused of making a tiny but telling change to its website, to get it off a legal hook which could cost local authorities billions of pounds. As announced last summer, the Commons Transport Committee is due to investigate the parking regimes handed over by the police to councils under the 1991 Road Traffic Act, which now account for a third of all the parking tickets issued each year to motorists.

In a statement on August 9, the Committee described these as "fines". Last week, the statement, still dated August 9, changed this to "charges". The significance of this may lie in evidence submitted to the MPs by Neil Herron, the campaigner who argues that most of these council schemes are illegal, because they rely on automatic fines without giving motorists the right to go to court. This is in breach of the 1689 Bill of Rights, which rules that penalties can only be imposed after conviction by a court.

What might seem only a historical curiosity has been made startlingly relevant, however, by the judgment given in 2002 by Lord Justice Laws in the case of the Metric Martyrs. The judge upheld their criminal convictions by ruling that "constitutional statutes" such as the Bill of Rights and the European Communities Act (under which the traders were found guilty) cannot be overruled by later legislation unless Parliament expressly wills it.

If Laws was right, the 1991 Road Traffic Act, which permits parking fines without reference to a court, is illegal. All the money paid by motorists since "decriminalised parking" came in should be paid back.

Faced with this challenge, the councils have come up with a specious defence. Parkwise, the body set up by 13 councils in Lancashire to run their parking schemes, concedes that the Bill of Rights only allows fines after "judgment of a court", but claims that its penalties are not "fines" but "charges" (although council websites still call them "fines"). This ignores the Bill of Rights itself, which rules that "all fines and forfeitures before conviction are illegal and void".

Seeing this express train roaring down on them, the Commons Transport Committee last Tuesday sneaked in that change from "fines" to "charges". The official explanation is that this is "more accurate", because it includes parking charges of all kinds. But if those MPs examine the Bill of Rights, they will see this change still does not let them off the hook. By any reading of the law, those billions of pounds raised by councils in automatic penalties must be regarded as "illegal and void".

Tony cosies up with tyranny

As an overture to last week's State Visit by China's President Hu Jintao, The Spectator published a chilling article by the China expert Jonathan Mirsky headed "A gangster comes to town". Mr Mirsky contrasted the deferential welcome to London planned for the President by Tony Blair with China's record as one of the world's most ruthless dictatorships.

Among its crimes he cited the regime's murderous treatment of Tibetans, Christians, Muslims, dissidents and strikers. China's "extra-judicial execution" of more than 3,000 people a year - which far outstrips the whole world's total of official death penalties - includes use of mobile execution vans.

The one glaring omission from Mr Mirsky's otherwise admirable piece was any reference to the document ceremonially signed in Beijing last September by Mr Blair, in his capacity as President of the EU. Not only did our Prime Minister formally commit the EU (and Britain) to become politically, economically and militarily "a strategic partner" of China, supporting the "one China" policy whereby Beijing lays claim to Taiwan; he was also happy to sign a statement that the EU and China are jointly committed to the "protection and promotion of human rights".

Recalling those killing vans, is there anything our play-actor Prime Minister won't put his name to?

Pass the ammunition, s'il vous plait

Few stories I have reported over the years have been more significant than my revelation last week that Britain's Armed Forces are for the first time in history to become dependent for their ammunition and missiles on explosives imported from abroad. The planned closure of our last two Royal Ordnance explosives factories means our forces will be unable to operate without the tacit consent of foreign governments, notably that of France.

Almost the only paper which picked up on this was Defense News, the leading US defence journal. Meanwhile it was not denied in the carefully worded answers given to questions I put to BAE Systems, owners of the plants due to close, and the Ministry of Defence.

BAE Systems refuses to admit where it plans to source its explosives (although it is now in partnership with a French state firm which boasts of creating hundreds of jobs). It merely insists that the MoD has approved its plans as being aligned with the ministry's "defence industrial strategy". Since the MoD is now sourcing most defence contracts with our EU "partners", in line with its policy of European defence integration, this is hardly surprising. The MoD itself merely says it is "confident that BAE Systems has in place a robust supply chain for the delivery of general munitions with alternative sources in place to guarantee continuity and security of supply".

The MoD also announced last week that it is to close large parts of its aviation and military repair and engineering services, with the loss of 1,900 jobs. The Army's engineering service was part of an Anglo-US consortium bidding for the Army's biggest-ever trucks order, which would have created 600 British jobs. To the surprise of defence experts, this 1.1 billion order went instead to a German firm, Man-Nutzfarzheuge, now boasting on its website that this will "safeguard jobs" in Vienna. Considering the huge price we are now paying for it, the MoD must be delighted that its new "Europe-first" policy continues to attract so little public notice.


On last week's Letters page, Carolyn Nesbitt of the Royal Courts of Justice claimed that there had been no attempt to suppress the findings of a High Court judgment which were embarrassing to the Government. This was the devastating ruling given by Mr Justice Thornton in September 2004, which excoriated Defra for its dishonesty and incompetence in failing to pay Ruttle's, a Lancashire contractor, 13 million owed for work done in the foot-and-mouth crisis.

In fact, the judgment was never read out in open court. Defra's lawyers insisted that to reveal its contents would be "contempt of court". I was only able to report this on September 18, 2005, because the Courts Service gave permission. The judgment is still not publicly available.