Monday, July 26, 2004

Er… there’s a law against it!

Earlier this month, as recounted on this Blog, I received a happy little missive from the DVLA demanding £80 for being late taxing my car. This is of course a new impost by the regulatory authorities who have long failed to enforce the law, resulting in an estimated 1,000,000 untaxed and uninsured vehicles on the road.

Now conscious of the scale of money slipping from their grasp, the authorities therefore decided to get a grip of the situation - not by actually getting out on the streets and picking up the tax evaders, but by creating a new charge for everyone, if they fail to get to the post office on time.
Anyhow, by an almost comical set of circumstances, I was late in getting my tax, but not least because the car spent two weeks in the garage being repaired, which delayed me getting an MOT.

Having sent a letter to the DVLA, explaining the circumstances, together with the documents and a cheque, I received almost by return of post, a tax disc, suitably backdated, which is what I asked them to do.

For one moment, I thought, sense had prevailed. But, oh no. I had reckoned without the mind of the bureaucrat… especially when there is a chance of easy money.

In the post I have received another letter, this one from a Mrs P Woolley, Enforcement Manager, pointing out that although I have paid my full tax, I still owe them another £80 for being late - or £40 if I cough up quick. If the car was going to be off the road – which indeed it was – I should have sent a SORN declaration (notwithstanding that I did not know it was going to be off the road).

Anyhow, it may come as a surprise to some, but there is a law against this sort of thing. It is called The Bill of Rights of 1689. And it is still in force. Accordingly, I have sent my own happy little note to the said Mrs P Woolley, which I reproduce below. I will let you know how I get on.

Mrs P Woolley
Enforcement Manager
Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency
Continuous Registration Centre
3rd Floor Riverside House
Riverside Way
Northampton, NN1 5WW
24 July 2004


I write with reference to your letter of 21 July and your demand that I make a payment of £40/80 to the DVLA as a penalty for late payment of vehicle excise duty.

In response, may I refer you to the Bill of Rights 1689, this being an Act "Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown". I am sure you are aware that this states, inter alia, "That all grants and promises of fines and forfeitures of particular persons before conviction are illegal and void".

You may also be aware that the Bill of Rights remains on the statute book and has not been repealed, and is therefore still in force. Furthermore, in the absence of any specific subsequent Act, directly and specifically repealing the above-quoted provision, you may not rely on the principle of implied repeal, the Bill being a constitutional Act.

On this basis, given that I have not yet been convicted in respect of any matter relating to the payment or non-payment of vehicle excise duty, any demand for payment of a penalty is, as set out by the Bill, "illegal and void".

Unless you are able to cite me a valid authority, by which you can demonstrate unequivocally that your demand is in fact legal, therefore, I am advised that I am in no way obligated to comply with your demand.

Yours faithfully,

Richard North (Dr)

Friday, July 23, 2004

Burglary is better

I hope the West Yorkshire constabularly are truly proud of their pathetic record of solving a mere 10 percent of burlaries - less than the national average of 13 percent, which is also pathetic.

Interestingly, I write this to the background strains of yet another burglar alarm warbling in the distance, polluting the quiet of our suburban backwater. At least, though, it is relatively distant. Through the week, the house next but one to us had its alarm go off at twenty-minute intervals - only the occupants are on holiday so there was no-one who could deal with it. It took three days to get the damn thing shut down, making life intolerable in the interim, as the penetrating noise could be heard clearly even with the double-glazing windows shut tight.

When then alarm first went off, we of course - like good neighbours - did a check round the house, to see if there were any signs of entry, but there were none. Of the police, of course, no sign either. They were far too busy dealing with "real" crime.

Talking of which, it is nice to see that the guardians of our liberties are hard at work protecting the environment in South Wales - two council officials pounced on Andrew Stevenson from Llanelli and issued him with a £75 fixed penalty ticket - under anti-litter laws - for stubbing out a cigarette on the ground outside his workplace.

This is something of a characteristic in this country - the extraordinary negativity of public authorities in the conduct of their affairs. If there is a problem - don't solve it; simply make the behaviour an offence, and then fine people.

In Tokyo, where there are equally stringent anti-litter laws, I was fascinated to see that even in the public parks, the walks are lined with rather stylish ashtrays, conveniently placed for the peripatetic smoker. Obeying the law there is no a problem.

Anyway, if Blare's £80 fines for thieving come into force, Stevenson might be better employed on burglary than actually going to work. Against £75 for a quick drag before he went into his - smoke-free - place of work, if he had waited a little longer, he could have burgled the place and only risked an £80 fine - with a much better chance of getting away with it.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

A principled stand

It seems it’s all right to stand up and be counted when it comes to protesting about Council tax, but one whiff of a suggestion about disagreeing with the prevailing mantras on mobile phone or "speeding" and out come the zealots, foaming at the mouth.

One such was M E Wright, of Grove Road, Harrogate, who is definitely one of the "red flag" brigade. He was moved to write to the Yorkshire Post:, as follows:

I started with a sneaking feeling of admiration for Richard North who took a principled (if ill-advised) stand in withholding the police precept on his council tax bill, following his being burgled five times. Reading on, I saw that his other "principled stands" were related to speeding and driving while using a mobile phone.

Burglars go about their nefarious business with no thought for the distress caused to their victims. So, too, do drivers like Dr North, but there is an important difference: burglars rarely kill or injure; arrogant and boorish drivers are killing every day of the year.

What is interesting about this letter is that Wright manages to deduce from a few words in a newspaper the precise nature of my character, deciding that I am "arrogant and boorish". Note also, the use of the word "victim", in an attempt to grab the high ground. I "speed", therefore I am a killer of babies and old ladies.

Anyhow, here is my response:


It was really clever of Mr Wright to divine what he did from what he considers to be my "principled stands" related to speeding and driving while using a mobile phone. Not least, from the limited information he had available to him, he infers that drivers like me go about my business "with no thought for the distress caused to their (presumably my) victims".

I have to say though that his real skill was packing in so many errors with so much prejudice into such a short letter.

Firstly, my stand on "speeding" was not on speed limits, per se, but on the outdated and irrelevant motorway speed limit. This was introduced in 1965 when the average family car of the time could only just exceed 70 mph. But cars are faster now, better equipped, safer in all respects – and motorways are also better designed and equipped.

I take the view that, if there was a safety case in 1965 for restricting the top speed of motor cars to 70 mph, it no longer applies nearly 40 years later. The law as it stands is an unnecessary and unreasonable restriction on the freedom of the individual.

Secondly, my other protest was not about using mobile phones while driving, but about the police inventing an offence before parliament had decided to make it so, and then fining me for something which was not then against the law. Call me old fashioned if you like, but I believe our parliament should make the law.

Finally, as to my "victims", in thirty years of driving, and nearly a million miles behind the wheel, I have only caused one accident, when I collided with a parked car in Harrogate town centre while driving at about 10 mph. I have never injured anyone in my whole career and it is 27 years since I last had an accident.

Perhaps, therefore, Mr Wright might wish to consider whether he and many others might be better off if there were more drivers like me on the road. 

You want "arrogant and boorish"? Mister… I ain’t even started.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Plunkitt's purge

For those of you who are a tad underwhelmed by the news of the Blair-Plunkitt's new five year plan for abolishing crime, confirmation of your darkest fears can be found in The Times letters column (where else), where a Mr Liam Ferris writes about the "Prospects for David Blunkett's five-year purge on crime".

I can add nothing to it:

I listened with more than a little scepticism to David Blunkett’s five-year anti-crime plan (report and leading article, July 20). The problem is that the system that will be required to facilitate his plan is getting progressively weaker. The criminal justice system is highly labour-intensive, yet the professionals who provide the labour are dispirited and disillusioned.

The police officers required to apprehend suspects are overwhelmed by paperwork, underpaid, and cannot deal with current levels of crime. 

The Crown Prosecution Service is operating at crisis point in many areas, with the staff often working under unacceptable levels of stress due to undermanning, excessive administration and a lack of good communication with the police.

The magistrates’ court staff, who oversee prosecutions, work under pressure to deliver “targets” that bear no relationship to the quality of the justice being handed out.

The probation service seems to be staffed by professionals who entered the service to facilitate proper change in those under their care, and yet tell me that increasingly the only issues that seem to matter are budget, throughput, etc. The number of people in our prisons, per head of population, is among the highest in the world and yet those coming out are clearly reoffending.

Lawyers are being methodically undermined by the Government through restrictions on the way in which criminal defence firms can be run and through diminishing funds for defence. It is difficult to imagine that any young lawyer would want to enter this underfunded and precariously structured profession.

I have worked for 14 years within the Magistrates’ Court Service and as a criminal defence lawyer. Over the last decade the morale of those who will be charged with carrying out Mr Blunkett’s work has steadily lowered. I fear that five years from now the “plan” will be shown to have succeeded only through the theatrical presentation of figures that have no relationship to reality.

Yours faithfully,
10 Woodlands Road,
Liverpool L17 0AW.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A question

So, Mr Blair and Mr Plunkitt want to use the fixed penalty system to fine thieves £80 for their offences.
And how do they think these thieves will find the money to pay their fines?

Monday, July 19, 2004

The new consensus

Tony Blair has today announced the publication of his third five-year strategy. One wonders whether that is the same as one fifteen-year strategy, or whether the strategies are to run, rather like prison sentences, concurrently, or consecutively.

While we’re about it, isn’t it interesting how many unpleasant things have the initials TB – like tuberculosis, Tory Boys and certain prime ministers.

Anyway, this all new, gleaming strategy, straight off the printing presses, is on crime – er.. well, not actually. It is about the "Criminal Justice System and Home Office".

We are told that "today's strategy" (and what is tomorrow’s?) is "the culmination of a journey of change both for progressive politics and for the country". For Blair, at least, "it marks the end of the 1960s liberal, social consensus on law and order".

People, it seems, have been taking freedom without the responsibility, and zis must stop. People want a society of responsibility. They want a community where the decent law-abiding majority are in charge; where those that play by the rules do well; and those that don't, get punished.

"Our first duty is to the law-abiding citizen", Blair says. "They are our boss". We will charge them more and more tax for less and less service, and then lock them up when they refuse to pay. "That is the new consensus on law and order for our times".

Guess which bit he didn’t say.

Producing real results

It says something of the states of police forces that the website produced by a serving policeman - see previous post - includes a link to "police equipment".  When you click the link, it takes you to the stationery department of W H Smith.
However, from the school of "truth is stranger than fiction", The Times today offers a headline "Police excel at red tape but not at tackling crime".  Home Office inspectors have been abroad, looking at the perfomance of individual police forces (sorry, services) to score them according to how well they carried out certain functions.
The highest scores were awarded for "maintaining police standards" - i.e., keeping up the paperwork, while the lowest scores were awarded for - guess what - tackling crime.  Burglarly was well down the league.
The Home Office was evidently pleased that the police have so obviously got their priorities right.  A spokesman remarked that "the police service has modernised and evolved considerably and is producing real results".  You betcha.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

We're not anti-copper

Just in case anyone had any doubts, I and my family are in no way "anti-copper".  And just to prove it, I've added a link to the Coppers Blog - and excellent site where you will see the same litany of concerns amongst the police force as are expressed by the public.
That is not to say, mind you, that I don't like some policemen - as individuals.  I have met some complete idiots in my time, but they would have been idiots whether they were in uniform or not.  But what is important is that, when these idiots have power, there has to be a means of redressing the balance.  That means you have to have a complaints system that works.  It doesn't.  This is an issue I will be returning to.
For the moment, though, I will recall one incident that did more good, as far as I am concerned, to cement good relations between the police and myself, than anything else I can think of.
The occasion was when I took my (then) nine-year-old son to London for the very first time.  We went in the car and our route took us past Buckingham Palace.  We got there just as the guard was changing.  The police were out in force, and stopped the traffic.  As it happened, we were first in line, with a grandstand view of the proceedings, much to the delight of a very excited nine-year-old boy.
Just as the troops were leaving the gates, however, a van came up from behind the car and parked itself in front of us, completely blocking the view, much to the distress of my son.
Fortunately, a copper on traffic duty spotted this and made the van move back, so we could see what was going on.  To him, it was probably a minor incident now long forgotten.  To my boy, it was the experience of a lifetime - the first time he'd ever seen the show, and his delight meant a great deal to me.  Years after the event, I still remember that anonymous copper, with gratitude.
Perhaps they do know it, or perhaps they don't.  But sometimes it's the very little things that make or break relationships.  This policeman was certainly a credit to the force.

Friday, July 16, 2004

On Blair's doorstep

From our North East correspondent. 

In a report to the Sedgefield Crime watch panel, theire police liaison officer blithley told the members that '' Recorded crime has not increased".  According to the subsequent report, this claim was hotly disputed by members present.  
Their view was that there was evidence that not all calls are recorded or even actioned and that as a result of "Police barriers to callers" - i.e., the non-urgent line is never answered - "many members of the public have given up reporting problems to them'' 
The report also gave details of reported crimes during the past 12 months, as follows: 
Youths causing Annoyance  6
Burglary non dwelling          7
Burglary Dwelling                 2
Drugs                                    nil
Theft from Motor V               8
Theft of Motor V                    5
Taking and Driving              2
Vehicle Interference            12
Assaults    #                              1
Criminal Damage                 26
Theft                                       19
Total                                       88 
The assault, incidentally, was by a court bailiff !
But, as the panel members said, these were only the reported crimes.  As with the police everywhere, it seems the real answer to containing crime is to make it difficult or impossible for the public to report incidents.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Stamp out crime – stamp out the causes of crime

One rather interesting facet of the modern plod's approach to policing is their idea of defining crime in two broad categories. The first is "real crime", i.e. those they can be bothered to investigate – like "bat crime", speeding, slagging off Moslem terrorists, not paying your Council Tax and other such heinous offences.

The other is just "crime" – i.e., all those silly things like burglaries, which could so easily be avoided if otherwise careless citizens invested a fortune in burglar alarms and turned their homes into fortresses, and mugging, which could be completely prevented if people were sensible enough to stay at home in their fortresses and confined themselves to watching television.

To deal with the unfortunate rash of "crime", it has been suggested to me that reporting this to the police should itself be made a crime – after all, how dare these people waste police time with such trivia. This would have the additional benefit of turning it into the police ideal – the first "self reporting" crime in the world.

Crime reporters could be invited to use a dedicated phone line, leaving their names and addresses on the special answer phone. Then a team of community service officers could drive a bus round the patch once a week, pick up the offenders and cart them off to court.

To save the likes of Mr Brian Venables – the magistrate of little brain – from expending their limited resources, the offenders could be presented to a "go to jail free" robot, which could also be combined with a "speak your weight" machine. If the length of prison sentences were matched with the weight of the offender, this might help solve the obesity problem as well.

But the greatest advantage of all of this new type of system is that West Yorkshire Police could have a hundred-percent clear-up rate. It could award itself an "investors in people" medal for being the most efficient force (sorry, service) in the world. It would then be free to send all its constables on gender and racial awareness courses, to say nothing of its advanced "bat crime awareness courses" – and then double the Council Tax to pay for it all.

It's all so simple really that I can't imagine why I didn't think of it.

Not at your service

My spies tell me that West Yorkshire Police are labouring long and hard on my case - to prove that I didn't have as many burglaries as I claim.

Give them another few days and they will doubtless have proved that I didn't have any at all, that there is in fact no crime at all in West Yorkshire and, while we are about it, that the moon is made of green cheese.

Given their undoubted forensic skills, one wonders whether they could apply the same dedication to proving that I haven't had any motoring offences either, and that the points on my license are a figment of my imagination. Now that really would be an achievement.

Meanwhile, I was talking to a farmer yesterday - another one. This one lives in the West Yorkshire area and has had the usual crop of break-ins and thefts, including a Land Rover stolen from outside his front door.

The police contribution to this incident was to send him a speeding ticket, as the stolen vehicle was picked up by a camera as the thieves sped away from the scene. Needless to say, the Land Rover was never seen again.

Sick to the teeth of the usual tardy Police response to reports of crime, however, he has hit on an ingenious solution. Hearing what sounded like an intruder on his land recently, during the dead of night, he rang the police.

This time, though, instead of just reporting a potential thief, he reminded the police that he had a lot of badger setts on this land, and he had heard what sounded like digging. He feared that the intruders might be trying to capture a badger for baiting.

Instead of the routine patrol dropping by a few days later, our farmer was gratified to find that within the hour - so he reports - he had a fleet of police cars on his land, no less than twelve officers, with dogs, and the police helicopter hovering overhead.

Given its dedication to the cause of truth, however, no doubt West Yorkshire will be able to prove that this incident never happened, and it was all a figment of the farmer's imagination.

Next time though, he might get an even better response if he reports that he has seen a couple of bats being molested. That should bring the whole force out - after all "bat crime" is one of those policing priorities that simply cannot be taken too seriously.

At your service

Off the web...

At one time in my life, I thought I had a handle on the meaning of the word "service"... the act of doing things for other people.

Then I heard the terms Internal Revenue Service, Postal Service, Civil Service, Court Service, Prison Service, and even Service Stations... and I became confused about the word "service." This is not what I thought "service" meant.

Then one day, I overheard two farmers talking and one of them
mentioned that he was having his cows serviced by a bull. SHAZAM!! It all came into perspective. Now I understand what all those "service" agencies are doing to us! And I'll tell you one thing, the cows enjoy it far more than I do.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Gesture politics?

One should, I suppose, be grateful that Mr Brown, in his spending review yesterday, is making funds available for increased policing. However, I doubt I am the only one who has reservations about the way the money will be spent – mainly on an increase in the number of community support officers from 4,000 to 20,000.

The idea is to boost police visibility in the streets and so reduce anti-social behaviour, but there is more than a whiff here of gesture politics. Although these officers are in uniform, they do not have the same powers of arrest as a police officer and are being put on the streets in order to offer "an increased layer of reassurance to the public". They are not intended to reduce crime, so much as to reduce the fear of crime.

Actually, I have some sympathy with senior police officers who argue that high visibility patrols contribute very little to either the prevention or detection of crime – if that is all they are: high visibility patrols. The value of putting police back into the community is that they inter-relate with that community and pick up vital intelligence. That is what solves crime.

But does putting a few strangers in a police uniform, and sending then in pairs to stroll round the streets, gossiping with each other, actually contribute anything? The CSOs I have seen on our streets are strangers. They are not “community” officers in any real sense of the word. And in pairs, very often male-female, they often seem more interested in each other than in what is going on around them. And I cannot recall ever having seen the same pair twice, so there is very little chance of them building a relationship with the community they are supposedly policing.

And if, as Jan Berry, chairs of the Police Federation, the extra spending on these officers comes at the cost of investment in other areas of policing such as training and equipment, then we certainly will not be better off. Money spent on getting an effective and workable computer intelligence database would, for instance, be a much better investment.

In short, therefore, want we all actually want - police and public alike - is effective policing, not gesture politics. I fear we got the latter and the former is no closer.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Right move – wrong reason?

According to a BBC report, all police cafeterias across West Yorkshire are to be closed by August to save cash to spend on "core policing". Apparently, the force is "committed to an additional 250 police officers, 100 police staff and 20 communications operators over the next year", with its spokesman saying, "the saving on catering is a major contributing factor to these growth areas."

One can only hope that the police are not only allowed but encouraged to take their meal breaks "on the patch", in local restaurants and cafés, and that the public welcome them doing so. One often sees this in the US, where the police – in some states, at least – seem far more integrated with the communities they serve. Eating out in uniform, rather than retiring to the "bunker" for a subsidised meal, is good way of doing of increasing police/public contact.

With its genius for public relations, one might have expected the West Yorkshire force to "make a meal" – to coin a phrase – of this benefit, but perhaps it has not occurred to the hierarchy. The suspicion is that the right thing is being done for all the wrong reasons, which will do nothing other than reduce the morale of an already troubled force.

Poor old plod

Extracts from the POLICE magazine - "The Voice of the Service" from March 2004. The plods are as unhappy as we are. But note the very last paragraph!

POLICE asked traffic officers to give us their views on the current state of roads policing. Many did so. Almost unanimously, they deplored the low priority that chief officers have given to their role. Here is just a small selection of their opinions.

"Once we were the Flagship"

When I joined the West Yorkshire Traffic Department more than 20 years ago, we were seen as the flagship of the force. We had state of the art vehicles and equipment. We had our own rank structure, up to ACC level.

The rot started when Central Traffic was devolved to divisions. We were no longer specialists and the vehicles were downgraded, for financial reasons.

Today, the highest ranking road traffic officer is an Inspector, of whom there are three. Road policing issues are ignored when call handling and response times are measured.

Road deaths in England and Wales are the equal of a fully laden Jumbo falling out of the sky every month, yet we tolerate these deaths as if they were normal.

"The cuts have led to roads mayhem"

In my 15 years as a traffic officer in Greater Manchester I have seen experienced colleagues retire and not be replaced, with all the loss of knowledge and skills that this entails. I have seen other traffic officers diverted to deal with crime. This has led to accidents going through the roof, a huge increase in unfit vehicles on the roads, the worst ever standards of driver behaviour.

We are told that the speed cameras cut accidents. They are not about safety; they are all about revenue.

We are required to cut road deaths by 50 per cent by 2010. With traffic officer numbers down by 2,500 this year, we have more chance of having tea with the Pope than achieving that result.

"We have stopped policing traffic"

Nottinghamshire used to have a strong Traffic department, dedicated to saving lives and catching criminals on the roads. We also had a reputation for leading the drive against drinking and driving. In 2002 we have ceased to police the roads. Traffic, and even the motorcycle section, were disbanded. We were supposed to turn to the new concept of roads policing, but this is the very last thing we do. We are an Armed Response Vehicle unit. Traffic officers who were not AFOs were transferred to divisions. All we have left is Crash Investigation (for non-fatals) and a small Motorway Unit which does not work nights on the M1.

The A1 is covered by drivers without traffic training or experience. If lucky, they have had a one day course in coning accidents and basic safety. How long will it be before an officer is killed or maimed? There is no proactive policing on our roads. Lorries no longer get stopped. If we arrest a drunken or disqualified driver, it doesn't count towards an SPP, but shop lifiting and minor domestic assaults do. The speed cameras only affect the honest drivers who register their vehicles. I cannot believe that our Chief, who was the Head of ACPO roads policing (!) has got away with this.

"We are expendable"

I was a traffic officer in my predominantly rural force for many years and enjoyed the work. After serving in a different role for some years, I have recently gone back to what is now called roads policing.

The will and enthusiasm of my colleagues is still there, but the support and leadership has disappeared. The buzz words in this force are "intelligence led policing" and "denying criminals the use of the roads". From where we are, they are just words. How can we be intelligence led when there is nobody to respond to intelligence? How can we deny criminals the use of the roads when we have virtually no traffic patrols to target travelling criminals?

I strongly support ANPR but it is intelligence led, and relies for intelligence on the very patrols that now are not there. Our depleted numbers are seen as a pool whose officers can be detached to other only one "traffic" key performance indicator: reducing fatal and serious injury accidents.

"Unacceptable pressures on motorways"

The Kent motorway network is policed by a dedicated unit which has gone down from 250 to 100 officers. Those officers are facing unacceptable pressures to cope with incidents, travelling huge distances to respond to calls, with little prospect of back-up if it is required.

The new Highways Agency traffic force will run into problems because of low staffing and it will be largely reactive. Will its arrival see still further cuts in traffic police officers?

The Road Deaths Investigation Manual mirrors the CID Murder manual. How many forces comply with its requirements today?

"We are an expensive luxury"

Our once admired traffic department in Gwent is now seen as an expensive luxury, hence the change to Roads Policing Unit. The lack of investment in staff and other resources means that vital training is constantly cancelled or delayed, such as driver training, the stinger, speed enforcement/ video equipment, traffic law, Hazchem, even firearms training for ARVs.

We do not target the very area that we should do, not because of a lack of enthusiasm, but a lack of focus. There are no targets for traffic enforcement, it is all about prisoners and detected crimes. I can't remember the last time someone in authority in Gwent asked why accidents were up and what we were doing about it.

Part of the problem is the way our supervisors are appointed.. In the past, supervisors worked their way up within the department, now they are appointed from outside, with little or no traffic background. These supervisors are expected to take decisions and give instructions to experienced traffic officers. When they do learn what it is all about, they move on somewhere else.

A contrary view.

I am an inspector in a traffic unit. Traffic departments were seen as a pool of officers who could easily be used to target the national PIs. Senior officers fail to understand the contribution we could make to all these areas because the title "traffic" implies that we only deal with traffic. The only traffic PI (performance indicator) is reducing fatalities and serious accidents. These have fallen each year, not because of police action, but through better vehicle design and road engineering.

Traffic departments have had a very narrow outlook and because the majority of staff are long in service they are resistant to change. By adopting new technology such as ANPR we can embrace the national intelligence model whilst maintaining traffic specialities. Speed cameras target law abiding citizens who tax and insure their cars. The public knows we do very little about the uninsured and unlicensed drivers because they are so difficult to trace. Sixty per cent of the drivers we stop have no insurance.

We are told to engage with the public. We used to do that through dealing with motoring offenders. By dealing with them by giving advice, warnings, or process, we often made a positive impression. Now we have inanimate cameras. Some aspects of traffic policing have become very complex, requiring specialist knowledge. We should not be training police officers to be mechanics, but employing specialists to examine vehicles on our behalf. duties as and when needed. Traffic are deemed to be an expendable resource. The bosses reassure us that we are valued. We joined traffic to stay there. The bosses joined us, hoping to move somewhere else. And don't ask me how my morale is!

"The wrong managers"

I am a RPU (not Traffic) sergeant in West Midlands. Every day I see appallingly bad driving and poorly maintained vehicles. The consequences of these is deaths on the roads. Last October, for example, we had four fatal and two very serious injury accidents. This was akin to four murder investigations being run simultaneously by one sergeant and eight constables. I believe there are three reasons for the state we are in.

The first is the low priority given at both national and local level, to all traffic policing matters. I know ACPO now accepts this, but things have gone too far to be fixed in a hurry and a few words in the National Policing Plan. We do not enforce traffic legislation. BCU commanders concentrate resources on national targets set by the Government. There is only one "traffic" key performance indicator: reducing fatal and serious injury accidents.

Secondly, the public has become alienated from the police. The public supported "traffic cops" even if they were wary, because they could see the value of our work. Speed cameras have made the police the enemy of the motorist, even if we have nothing to do with them. They are seen as the police making money.

My third reason is the current standard of police driving. Most Panda drivers have only a one-day test involving 2 hours driving, in place of the old 4 weeks course. Yet the public expects a Panda driver to be a first class driver, and have the best and most powerful cars on the roads.

To protect and serve...

As is all too often the case these days, when our boys in blue are not locking up citizens, they are mowing them down.

The BBC has reported today that a cyclist in South Yorkshire has died after a collision with a police car crash. The man, who is believed to be in his early 40s, was cycling towards Hellaby at 1210 BST when the accident happened on Rotherham Road in Maltby.

He was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital in Rotherham. Two officers inside the car were treated for shock and minor injuries.

This is one of a long line of police incidents, which are causing considerable concern. The following narrative is taken from my own document called "Unsafe at any speed", which, although it needs updating, gives a flavour of the problem.

"One of the most notorious incidents in recent times was when a police driving instructor, driving an unmarked, high performance Rover 827 on the A10 at Harston in Cambridgeshire, ran into a nurse’s car and killed her.

PC Gerard Sharratt was involved in a 100mph training exercise, with three students in his car, acting as a ‘bandit’, being chased by another car driven by a police student. He rounded a left hand bend and ‘did a double-take’ when he saw cars queuing in front of him, braked, skidded and hit the stationary car owned by Miss Judith Wood, 27, at 56 mph. Sharratt had been driving at between 100 and 116mph when he had braked.

Then, in March 1996, Channel 4 TV news presenter, Sheena McDonald, was knocked down and seriously injured by a police van answering an emergency call to a fight in Holloway, north London.

But by no means all accidents occur while police vehicles are responding to emergency calls. In 1997, PC Adrian Ward was taking Shelley Simmonite, 15, home to her parents after she had been arrested for suspected shoplifting. Driving at up to 120mph, he had gone through a red light and had lost control, hitting a van. He was estimated to have been travelling at 65-75mph when had applied the brakes. Shelley was killed in the crash.

In 1996, after the Cambridgeshire incident, police were being urged to review their pursuit training and, in 1998, the Lund report recommended that all police involved in pursuits be given special training. But, in November 2000, it was being variously reported that the number of deaths from accidents during police chases had risen by more than 50 percent, by 140 percent and, in December, by 300 percent.

Either way, 22 people had been killed during police chases and there had been nine deaths arising from other police road accidents. Overall, there had been 17,300 road accidents involving the police in 1998. Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Police Complaints Authority, observed:

There is worrying evidence (that) the skill and judgement of some police officers is open to question and criticism.
Nor are police evidently great respecters of traffic laws – or, at least, any greater respecters than ordinary people. That was a finding of the TRL, which suggested that only nine percent of magistrates and 11 percent of police would observe the 30mph limit on an urban road in clear daylight with little traffic. And, apart from the celebrated case of Home Secretary Jack Straw’s police driver who escaped prosecution despite driving at 103mph on the M5, there have been a number of other high profile embarrassments.

In 1996, Ben Gunn, the Chief Constable of the Cambridge Police, was seen driving at 90mph on the M11. At least he was given a fixed penalty ticket and three penalty points. But not so the chauffeur of Dennis O’Connor, head of the Surrey police, who in December 2000 saw his driver escape without sanction when his car was pulled over by his own officers on the A3 near Guildford, despite his driving at 78 mph in a 50 mph zone.

Others had not been so fortunate. In September 1999, three policemen were banned from driving after being caught riding their motorcycles at 110 mph through one of their own speed traps, on a road with a 60 mph limit."

If anything, the number of accidents involving police cars over the last few years has increased. With it has been - in my experience - a significant deterioration in the courtesy exhibited by police on road patrols - who are often truculent and ill-mannered when stopping motorists.

But this does not stop them giving their little homilies about "road safety" to their captive audiences, often based on propaganda rather than reality. I have to say that, during the last lecture from such a constable - considerably my junior - I told him that, when the police could match my own safety record on the road, they would be in a better position to lecture me about my driving.

Certainly, their case would be strengthened if they were able to lead by example, which these days does not seem to be the case.

Police fail business community

A survey published this week by the Federation of Small Businesses confirmed the widening gap between the police and the business community.

The survey, produced by Strathclyde University for the FSB, reporting on the barriers to business growth in the UK, identified police inactivity as one key barriers.

Over fifty percent of businesses owners surveyed had been victims of crime and, crucially, 36 percent of those made no report to the police. They stated that to do so would not achieve anything.

Unwillingness to report crimes was also linked to a negative view of the police and the judicial system. A full 25 percent thought that the police would not be able to find the criminals and 20 percent believed that the police were not interested in pursuing their crimes.

Interestingly, the cost of individual losses was not always high, but losses of time and profit were still significant. In the absence of police action and support, businesses were forced to spend on increased crime prevention measures such as CCTV, static guards and alarms.

At least one business sector is benefitting, therefore - the crime prevention industry. But the other major growth area is dissatisfaction with the police 'service'.

However, with so few crimes being reported, you can bet that the police are preening themselves on how they are managing to keep crime rates down.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

A blizzard of crimes

My colleague Christopher Booker, in his Sunday Telegraph column today, writes about Simon Jenkins. In an article in The Times on smacking, he wrote last week that "Britain allegedly invents roughly 10 new crimes a year".

"What planet", Booker asks, "is Sir Simon living on?" "He clearly hasn't woken up to the unending blizzard of new laws pouring out of Whitehall and Brussels each year creating not 'tens' of new crimes a year but tens of thousands. If Sir Simon were, for instance, to look up the Animal By-Products Regulations 2003, implementing EC Regulation 1774/2002, he would find that this one piece of legislation puts more than 500 new criminal offences on the statute book, each punishable by a fine up to £20,000 or up to two years in prison. It is far from untypical."

If more media folk, led by Sir Simon, could actually look at some of these laws we might have rather better-informed outrage at the revolution in government that they represent, instead of the lofty observation that "Britain allegedly invents roughly 10 new crimes a year".

Booker, of course, is much closer to the real world than these "above the line" figures, and half the problem with modern society is that these so-called "movers and shakers" don't have the first idea what is going on.

As just one tiny example, in Court last week, while waiting to go in to see the magistrates, I was presented by the usher with a "means form", on which I was supposed to declare all my income and outgoings. This is nothing new and has traditionally been presented to offenders and debtors as an aid to magistrates is determining the levels of fines, and/or assessing means to pay.

But what is different now is that filling in the form is compulsory – in other words it is a criminal offence not to complete it. Thus, whether it is relevant or not, the law requires this information, creating yet another "crime" if one does not comply. In my case, it was completely irrelevant to the matter in hand, so I declined to give the information, on the basis that it was none of the Court's business how much I earned - not unless there is a means test in order to get sent down. Exit one stroppy usher and a complaint to the Court.

Of course, there are those who take the po-faced view that "the law is the law and must be obeyed". Sorry chuck, but once a system gets so out of control that it is creating new laws faster than a wedding group can throw confetti, it is time to call a halt. And, if the legislators can't see that, then it is the duty of every citizen to tell them where to shove their laws.

If you want to read the full Booker column, click here.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Why speed?

All right then. By popular demand, let's have a debate. Why don't we all just slow down and keep to the speed limits?

First of all, though, we need to distinguish between motorways and other roads. I have no problem with keeping to sensible speed limits in urban areas and on other roads where there are dangers to other road users, and particularly pedestrians. By and large, I keep to the posted limits on these roads. The issue is the 70 mph motorway speed limit.

So why speed on motorways?

The answer to that is the same reason as to why we travel in cars instead of on horses; why we fly to New York instead of going by Ocean liner and why we have high speed trains instead of puffing billies – to get there faster.

Time spent travelling is time wasted; it is often an unpleasant occupation and largely unproductive. The object is to get from A to B as fast as is possible and safe, in order to get the travelling over with and do something more productive or pleasant – or even indulge in life's little luxuries, like sleep.

But speeding doesn't save much time.

That depends. Under certain (congested) traffic conditions, that is correct. Then it is best to go with the flow. Trying to rush it just adds to the frustration and the danger.

However, when driving long distances very early in the morning, or late at night, when there is little traffic on the road, small increments in speed can save considerable amounts of time.

Over the distance between Bradford and Dover (350 miles) – a trip I used to do once a month, the difference between an average speed of 70 mph and 85 mph is the difference between five hours and just over four. At an average of 95 mph, the time taken is 3 hours 41 minutes.

Putting this another way, leaving Dover at 10 pm driving at 70 mph, you get home at three in the morning. Do it at 95 mph and you're home at 1.41 am, and tucked up in bed a few minutes later.

But speeding is dangerous.

Last year, Italy raised the speed limit on some motorways to 93mph, despite having one of Europe's worst records for accidents. Its transport ministry said the higher speeds improved traffic flow and helped motorists pay attention.

Drive at 70 mph on a near-empty, boring motorway for five hours and you are dead – impaled in the central reservation after falling asleep at the wheel. Do the same journey as fast as conditions will safely allow and you are alert, responsive, and get there hours earlier. Which is safer?

But the law is the law and must be obeyed.

The law should be the servant, not the master. The law, as it applies currently, restricts the freedom of the individual to travel at an appropriate speed, and to make use of modern technology which allows fast travel in relative safety.

Remember, the 70 mph National Speed Limit was introduced as a temporary measure in December 1965 – the reason given was a spate of serious accidents in foggy conditions, but it is often claimed that the MoT had been alarmed by AC Cars testing their latest Cobra on the M1 at speeds up to 180 mph.

It was confirmed as a permanent limit in 1967. At the time, there was little debate, possibly owing to the fact that the average family car of the time could only just exceed 70 mph.

But cars are faster now, better equipped, safer in all respects – and motorways are also better designed and equipped. If there was a safety case in 1965 for restricting the top speed of motor cars to 70 mph, it no longer applies nearly 40 years later. The law as it stands is an unnecessary and unreasonable restriction on the freedom of the individual.

What about energy usage.

Speed limits are not applied on energy saving grounds. However, in 1970 my Hillman Imp used as much petrol on a trip, struggling to 70 mph, as my present car uses at 85 mph.

Over to you.

Time waster

They ain't all fans!

Peter Jackson writes me this merry little note:

"If timewasters like you obeyed the law and stopped wasting the time of the Council and the police, perhaps they would have time to tackle crime. I don't know how you have the audacity to criticise the police when you are a criminal yourself.

Your arrogant attitude amazes me. Speed limits apply to everyone and you are just as guilty of breaking the law as those who speed up Wibsey High Street. Speed limits are set by people who know a lot more than you do about road traffic, and road traffic accidents. Why don't you do a couple of calculations:

1. How much time do you save by travelling at 85 compared to 70.
2. How much extra energy does your car have at 85 compared to 70

After that why don't you pay your fines, slow down and shut up?"

There are several points I could raise with Mr Jackson, but I can't be bothered. What is interesting though is how members of the "anti-speed" lobby are so consistently rude and aggressive. Perhaps being so frustrated behind the wheel, lumbering along at 70mph, they feel the need to take it out on their fellow man (and woman).

But I do apologise for doing 85mph on the M6 in Cumbria. I am embarrassed to be recorded doing this speed.

Unfortunately, one of my catalytic converters was breaking up, which affected the performance of the car. Otherwise, on that stretch, I would have been doing 100mph indicated.

In Germany, on a road of that quality, I would have been doing 130mph... but there you go.

“We have no choice…”

Idling through the back copies of The Times, as one does, I picked up a cutting from 30 May 2004, with the headline "Protest: Gathering storm - the drivers ready to rebel".

It reported how Ernie Harbon, from South Normanton in Derbyshire, this year became the first person in the UK to be jailed for refusing to pay a speeding fine. The story continues:

He had been fined £60 for doing 38mph in a 30mph zone but claimed he had thought the limit was 40mph. Emerging from jail in January, after serving half his two-week sentence, an unrepentant Harbon said: "I'll stand by my original decision and go back to jail again if I have to. It's simply a matter of principle."

This is bad enough, but what particularly caught my eye was the story of John Hopkinson, who was jailed for five days for refusing to pay a fine for parking outside his home in Falmouth. The plumber had received a £30 fine in 2002 but refused to pay, claiming he needed quick access to his van for emergency call-outs.

This was rejected in court and the fine was raised to £65 with £35 costs. After another appeal failed, further costs of £50 were added. Hopkinson then agreed to pay - but only the initial £30; the magistrates said they had no choice but to jail him.

What is remarkable is the comment of the magistrates, who said they had "no choice" but to jail him. That is precisely what the egregious Brian Venables said to me when he jailed me. One wonders if these morons ever listen to themselves.

If the magistrates truly had no choice, what is the point of having magistrates at all? You might just as well have "go to jail free" robots. If you combined them with "speak your weight" machines, at least they'd have some use to society.

The point is, of course, that they did have a choice. In the Hopkinson affair, the magistrates could have adjourned the case sine die, leaving it on file without action. They could have told the prosecutor to rethink, and asked him to come back a few weeks later with his decision. Or they could have – after the famous scene in "A Bridge Too Far" - jailed him for 15 seconds. There does not appear to be a minimum sentence that they are bound to hand down.

Instead, these lame-brains supported the status quo, bleating "We have no choice". I would prefer a robot.

Think cow!

A Cornish farmer friend of mine tells me that, if you need a policeman, forget old ladies mugged, cars pinched or good old breaking and entering. Think cow!

Last night, he was just about to eat his supper, when a heifer walked up the drive and looked in at him through the window! He went out, opened the side gate into the paddock and with dog's help she ambled back to join the others.

An hour or so later the neighbour rang. Not one but two policeman and car looking for "badly injured, rampaging bullock... May need vet, may need to be put down. Where was it? Was it lying injured? WHOSE was it?"

By that time all was quiet, so he played dead too. Rampaged bullock with grave injuries? Err, not really. Very friendly yearling heifer, bulling (as they do) had stepped over crappy fence and had a six inch scratch on her brisket.

She'd explored the nearby estate, caused a rumpus which resulted in the two policemen, then come home to ask to be let back in the field.

All this falls into perspective when you realise that N. Cornwall only has two policemen on duty from Bude to Newquay at night! And, that night, the farm got both - or at least the heifer did.

Of course, if there had been a burglar breaking into the house....

Friday, July 09, 2004

Funny that...

Two police "panda" cars were parked up the top of the road for most of yesterday, in the bus turning area. This is such an unusual sight that it had most of the village (of the urban type) commenting on it. Is it a coincidence.

Meanwhile, a bundle of post arrived today, redirected from Armley Prison, including a delightful letter from an old-aged pensioner enclosing a fiver so that I could phone my wife from jail. I'm touched.

Also in the post was a letter from DVLA demanding an £80 fine for not taxing my car. Rather ironic that. I had all the papers in my pocket when I went down to Bradford last week.

After popping into the Court to sort out the minor problem with the Council Tax, I had intended to go to the main post office to get the tax, but somehow ended up in the nick - and haven't had a chance to sort it since.

I am now going to enjoy all the moralists tell me that it's all my own fault, but once again I seem to have a unique talent for falling foul of the system.

The car was due to be taxed on 1 May but, with my new day job and working from home, I wasn't using the car at all - didn't drive it for three weeks so I didn't notice. Woops... rush to get all the documents and find the MoT out of date.

That's easy... book an MoT with the garage, but the car has injector problems so it disappears for two weeks while they wait for parts from Germany.

Get the car back, eventually, and go rushing to the local post office with all the documents and the money, but they can't give me a back-dated tax disc and won't take my money.

I have to apply to the main post office in town. Hence all the documents in my pocket when I get sent down. So, a fine comes winging its way from DVLA.

Life is too short for all this crap.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Letter to Bradford Magistrates

West Yorkshire Magistrates' Court "Service"
Bradford and Keighley Magistrates' Courts
Magistrate Court
PO Box 187
The Tyrls
Bradford BD1 1JL

8 July 2004


I refer to the matter of my attendance in your Bradford Court before Mr Brian Venables on 2 July, when he took action to recover fines in respect of diverse motoring offences, despite my claim that no sums were outstanding. As I explained at the time, I had merely offset the sum owed to me by yourselves as a result of the unlawful action of your agents, and paid the balance – an entirely normal commercial practice.

However, since you have now – by force majeur – extracted the sum you believed you were owned, leaving the amount owed to me unpaid, I enclose my invoice for the same, to the sum of £975.50, in the expectation of immediate payment.

In this context, I have been advised by one of your own magistrates that I should seek recovery of this sum through the civil courts – a suggestion which I find unacceptable in view of the unlawful action of your agents. Why should I expend my time and money on recovering something which you should, in all equity, remit without recourse to such action?

Nevertheless, given the principle involved, I am quite willing to pursue this action – in the event of your non-payment – with the maximum of attendant publicity.

Yours sincerely,

Richard North (Dr)

The troops are muttering

Bundle of post in today, with congratulations and people agreeing with my stand. But also an intriguing note from someone who is taking the issue further. Instead of the individual "Council tax martyr" being picked off, the idea is to co-ordinate a group to have 30-40 all getting sent to prison at the same time.

Could be fun. They'd better start building some new prisons.

The sound of failure

Woken this morning by the insistent warbling of a burglar alarm. It continues uninterrupted, pentrating even the double-glazed windows.

Rarely do we go a week without an alarm going off somewhere in the near vicinity. Sometimes they go on all day, making the garden uninhabitable.

Virtually everybody in the area has bought one - and they are of course ignored by the police (probably with some justice as most of them are false alarms). But even if they weren't, the police are too busy dealing with "real" crime.

The annoying noise is now a normal part of the urban environment. It is the sound of failure - the failure of the police to protect property.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Of law and enforcement

Next week I am supposed to be in Court again – this time in Cumbria, to answer a charge of failing to supply driver details on who was driving my car when it was clocked at 85 mph in a 70 mph zone.

When I first got the forms, I simply put them in an envelope and returned them to the court, untouched. They were returned a few weeks later by a policeman based in Leeds – who actually made two visits in order to give me the documents back. I returned them again, once more untouched, only to have a summons served on me personally yesterday, by yet another policemen.

That means I have had three police visits to my house to chase up an offence which normally attracts a £60 fine – plus three points on my license. This, in itself, shows where police priorities lie. Get burgled and you get one visit – if you are "lucky" - some days later. Fail to respond to a £60 fine and you get three visits – so far. I suspect there will be more. You can see which the police considers more important.

Nevertheless, some people ask me why I do not just plead guilty, pay the fine - it's only £60 after all - and get it over with. And they have a point. After all, I am guilty: I was driving at 85 mph on a motorway when the posted speed limit was 70 mph.

But, although well-meaning, these people miss the point. This is not about law, it is about enforcement. I have been driving for over thirty years – the last 28 of those without an accident. The only accident I've ever had – that I caused – happened at about 10 mph in a town centre, when I clipped a parked car. No one was injured.

During that career, I've always driven fast on motorways – and slow on populated streets. It used to be that if you got caught speeding, the policeman would talk to you and make a decision as to whether to book you. A stern but friendly word was often the result – and you did take notice. I was nicked occasionally - but not often - and paid up.

These days, I'm stopped much more frequently and, the last few times, the cops have climbed out of their cars with the tickets already half-completed. There is no question of a friendly warning – it's robocop ticket dispenser. And their attitude is often truculent and unpleasant. Sure, I've committed an offence but I’m old enough to have sired some of the chaps who have stopped me. Courtesy never hurt anyone.

The point, though, is that in old-fashioned law enforcement, the cop made a decision. Now the decision is automatic, made as a policy directive by some bureaucrat in or out of uniform. None of the circumstances are taken into account.

But the Cumbria episode was even worse. This was a mobile camera, so you don’t even get to speak to the person who nicked you. The first thing you know is when the fine demand arrives in the post. No self respecting police officer would nick a motorist for 85 mph on a clear motorway in broad daylight. But a camera operator will. This is not about road safety – it's about making money.

So – stuff it. I'm not paying. I've had it up to here with them. And I'm not wasting a day driving up to Cumbria to a rubber stamp so they can charge me money. They can come and get me.

What do we have to do?

Since Friday, I have been innundated with messages of support and good will, demonstrating that there is more than a little sympathy and - as importantly - more than a little resentment against the "authorities" which claim to provide us services and do not.

But people have also been keen to share their own experiences, to the extent that I have had people turning up at my door, unannounced, to tell me their individual tales of woe. Some relate to relatively minor episodes - in the general scheme of things - and some seem pretty serious.

What they all have in common though is the indifference of the "authorities", who seem neither to know nor care what is happening, or who seem incapable of responding, and the feeling of helplessness, as to how to get through the system and make the point.

For my part, I sometimes wonder if I still live in the same planet that I was born on, as the values of the people who supposedly supply us with services seem totally alien to anything I was brought up with.

All of this poses the central question of what do we have to do to make it right? Today I had a telephone call from an inspector of West Yorkshire Police, and it seems they are - finally - looking into my grievences. But if their complaints system had worked, none of this need have happened.

I will try to put the broader points to them, if they get back in touch, but - from past experience - I am not at all optimistic that anything will come of it. Nevertheless, I will try to keep you all posted,

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Letter to the Chief Constable

Mr Colin Cramphorn
Chief Constable
West Yorkshire Police
PO Box 9

6 July 2004

Dear Colin,

Following all that horrid publicity recently about me being sent to prison for refusing to contribute to your wages, it was so very kind of you to despatch one of your officers to my street today in his little car, to carry out a patrol. You can be assured that I, my wife and my neighbours are very appreciative at your concern for our welfare.

And how very clever and efficient it was for you to combine this vital public service with the delivery of a summons from Cumbria police who have quite rightly expended their valuable resources on photographing my car on the near empty M6 in broad daylight, doing a scandalous 85 mph. We are highly encouraged that this police force is getting down to tackling such serious crime, instead of wasting its time on things like burglary.

Since I was on my way to our daughter’s wedding, however, I would be ever so grateful if you could ask your mate in Cumbria to send us a copy of the snap, so we can include it in the wedding album.

And it was so very, very thoughtful of your officer to give me such a big bundle of paperwork which invited me to see the Penrith magistrates on 12 July. Penrith is such a nice place this time of year don’t you think, and I am sure the magistrates are splendid chaps. Unfortunately, I can’t attend on that day as I have the problem of having to earn my living, which of course I must do if I am to keep up my contributions to your wages.

Knowing how much you love paperwork, however, I would hate to deprive you of the bundle your officer left with me, so I am sending it to you to add to your own treasured collection. I am sure your will be able to make much better use of it than me. Excuse me for not putting a stamp on the envelope, as my more recent contributions to the police welfare fund have left me a little sort of readies.

All the very best

Yours sincerely,

Richard North (Dr)
Aka: Prisoner JW7874

You have to give it to them...

No one can complain that West Yorkshire Police is not sensitive to public sentiment.

After complaining that it is so critically short of resources that it cannot possibly spare its precious policemen to get out of their offices and patrol the streets to deal with burglary, we actually had a policeman in our street today.

In fact, he had driven all the way from Leeds to come down our street.

Unfortunately, he was not actually in patrol mode. He was here to deliver a summons on behalf of Cumbria Police, in respect of a speeding offence I am alleged to have committed on the M6 on 19 November last year.

Cumbria is a particularly enthusiastic user of the talivan, and - as I recall - snapped me doing 85 mph in broad daylight on a near-empty motorway. I was on my way to my daughter's wedding.

It is good to know that, when it comes to upholding the law, no expense is being spared to deal with real crime.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

North – Prisoner 7874: the story

Banged up for not paying part of my Council Tax, the media at first put me down as another "Council Tax Martyr". But getting sent to prison was not part of the plan. In this blog, I explain what happened, and why.

I don't "do" prison. For sure, I'm a campaigner, but on agriculture, fisheries and the European Union. And I have a voice. I'm a best-selling author, I've written many times for newspapers, including The Mail, and work with Christopher Booker on his weekly column in The Sunday Telegraph.

I've done television, radio – the rest. And I work as a Parliamentary advisor for the shadow agriculture team. You want questions in Parliament – I’m your man. For my shadow ministers, I've drafted over 700 in the last six month.

But I don't abuse my position. If I have a personal problem, I sort it without trying to pull strings. All I wanted a sensible magistrate to deal with a series of official stupidities that were spiralling out of control, so I could get back to work. Instead, as chairman of the Bench, I got Brian Venables. Instead of common sense, I got fourteen days in Armley Prison in Leeds.

So how did this crazy situation happen?

Our house, where I and my wife Mary have lived for the past 20 years, is in a quiet suburb of Bradford. At least it used to be quiet. But we have now been burgled five times over the last four years.

What is more, virtually every house in the street has been “done”, many more than once. My elderly neighbour across the road was mugged on her front doorstep, in broad daylight.

The responsibility for stopping this falls to the West Yorkshire Police service – recently slated as one of the worst services in the country. But you wouldn’t think so from their web site, which proudly boasts, "We will provide caring support for those who are victims and witnesses of crime and reflect public concern by vigorously investigating cases…".

In fact, they are as much use as a chocolate fireguard. The last time the house was robbed, the constable who arrived – hours later – left a trail of muddy boot-prints across our carpet. He asked us a few questions about the robbery and left. We never heard from him again.

Normally, the police are invisible. In twenty years, neither my wife nor I can ever recall them walking down our streets past our house.

We occasionally see them on the high street - in pairs. They are weighed down with belts so packed with equipment that they can’t put their arms by their sides. In their fluorescent waistcoats, they look like grotesque penguins waddling down the road. Usually, they are engaged in deep conversation – oblivious to what is going on around them.

But we have seen the police in our street. We once had twelve of them all at once, blue lights going, in their vans and cars. They came because I was trying to stop a pair of thugs masquerading as bailiffs stealing my car.

Amazingly, they hadn’t come to help me. I was assaulted, arrested, locked up and charged with resisting arrest. The charge was miraculously dropped when I proved the so-called bailiffs were acting illegally.

The warrant, which they had refused to produce at the time, specifically prohibited taking cars and "tools of trade". No apology was offered. When I tried to make a complaint at the local police station, I was told loudly to "get out".

Why these so-called bailiffs stole my car is another story, but relevant to the sorry tale that ended in Armley Prison.

This started in the days before using hand-held mobile phones in cars was illegal. West Yorkshire Police (Mission statement: "to uphold the law fairly and firmly") were trying it on, booking mobile users for "not being in proper control" – a private-venture attempt to ban mobiles in cars.

Like hundreds of others, I got fined £30. Like the hundreds of others, I knew the charge was a crock. But I refused to pay. It's a fatal flaw in my character. If it ain't right, I won't do it.

I made a formal complaint to the chief constable. His lackey investigated and dismissed my complaint. When I complained about the brush-off, the same lackey reinvestigated the complaint, and found his conduct had been perfectly reasonable.

Bradford Magistrates then handed my case to the official bailiffs, who sub-contracted it to the thugs who arrived on my doorstep. Getting the car back from these "police approved thieves" cost me £350, plus my own costs.

By unfortunate chance, a few months later, I was picked for up speeding two weeks in succession, driving home in the small hours, each time on an empty motorway in fine weather.

Most drivers get £60 tickets but I do four times the average mileage each year. I have a second-hand 5-series BMW, my pride and joy - which I can scarcely afford. It makes me a "police magnet" and I am prey to bored cops with nothing better else to do than stack up their ticket quotas.

Despite 27 years accident-free driving, those two speeding offences cost me nearly £800. This I could not afford. So I deducted the money the "police approved thieves" had stolen, and my costs. I paid the balance to Court - £50.

Then there was my Council Tax. The very day I was about to sign the cheque, Mary’s car was broken into. Repairs cost us £78. It was the last straw. I deducted the £68 charged for the police, writing a note to explain what I had done.

I got the threatening letters, the visits from the Council bailiffs, and then the big boss. I explained firmly but politely what I was doing and why. It was to no avail. Each time the officials called, they added their "expenses". The £68 became £272.34.

Then the summons arrived, with a threat of three months in prison if I did not cough up. Here, you seriously couldn't make it up. It came from the Council's Customer Services Department.

I decided to take this mindless political correctness at its face value. If I was a "customer", I was going to exercise my right to refuse to pay for a service I was not getting.

But officialdom had different ideas. Having failed to give me the "service" I really wanted, it now insisted on giving me a whole raft of services I didn't. The Customer Service Department was going to drag me in front of the Court Service, so it could do me the "service" of ordering me to be locked up. I would then be handed over to the Prison Service who would do me the further "service" of depriving me of my liberty. I know we all want good public services – but this was ridiculous.

And while these ludicrous "service" was being provided for me, the criminals who robbed our house and smashed up Mary's car roamed free.

No wonder, when I turned up voluntarily in Court, I had high expectations that the magistrates would see the utter absurdity of the situation, rap the officials over the knuckles for being so stupid, and send me on my way.

Was that naïve? Not really. Some years ago I had a dispute over a parking ticket issued by an overzealous warden, and I was being threatened with prison for non-payment. That's exactly what the judge did.

But I had reckoned without the dire Mr Venables. After listening with deaf ears, he and his panel, a female and an Asian, trooped out to consider their verdict.

It was then the situation turned pear-shaped. Two huge Amazons from Group 4 appeared. One blocked the door of the courtroom and the other stood in the dock with me, closer than is polite.

In trooped the gender and ethnically balanced trio. Venables burbled perfunctory sympathy, and then uttered words that made my blood boil – no, not that I was to go to prison – that came afterwards. His words rank alongside the infamous "I was only obeying orders", or "I'm only doing my job". "I have no choice…", he said.

He had plenty of choice – all sorts of options, but he didn't take them. He didn’t have the sense, or courage. Instead, he hid behind that vapid, colourless expression trotted out by legions of vapid, colourless bureaucrats: "I have no choice!" This was not a magistrates' court. It was a rubber stamp.

I'd done what I could and I knew that if I now paid up, I could walk away and get back to work. I did not want to be a martyr. So I offered to pay.

At that point, the absurd became surreal. Up popped the clerk of the court, who had found my “unpaid” speeding fines. These were added to the £272.34. I now had to pay just short of £1,000. Nevertheless, I took out my cheque book.

Up jumped the clerk again. I was now a "convicted criminal", so only cash would do. Not even my gold charge card with a £2000 limit was acceptable – even though the fines office accepted plastic. Tony Blair was happy for vandals to be escorted to a cash machine to pay on-the-spot fines, but here, in the 21st Century, the court would only accept a fistful of fivers.

Not unreasonably, I protested that I was not in the habit of walking around with £1000 in my back pocket. "Helpfully" the clerk said that if someone else paid on my behalf, I could be released.

With that, the surreal became stratospheric. I had come on my own. No one else knew where I was. The Court would not let me make a telephone call to tell anybody. I was trapped.

Shackled to the Amazon, I was led downstairs to processing and the holding cells and thence, in a nightmare journey in a prison van, with murderers, drug dealers and thieves.

At the prison, the officers are polite and efficient, but you are just a carcass on a production line. But the process was not without humour. "Are you suicidal", I was asked. A vision of the pompous Mr Venables flashed into my mind. "No… homicidal", I replied. "Do you have any injuries?". "Not yet!" That got a smile.

My clothing had to be officially catalogued. "What colour are you underpants?". Er… do you know? Without looking? Honest? My shirt – a fashionable lavender – presented problems. "No code for lavender" complained the prison officer. "Purple!", his colleague offered. Purple it became.

But time was ticking away. From 10.30 that morning I had been incommunicado and it was now about 2.30. At last, I was summoned to the desk officer. He looked at my papers, looked at me, my suit, my polished shoes. "What the bloody hell are you doing here?" he asked.

I told him. "We don't call it Council tax here", he said. "We call it 'rip-off' tax". I was amongst friends.

From then on, the machine clicked into gear. I was separated from the rest of the prisoners, and locked in a waiting area. Shortly afterwards, a kindly and efficient female prison officer led me to one of their offices and parked me in front of a 'phone.

Now there was a problem of a different order. Ever tried to get hold of £1000 cash at 3.30 on a Friday afternoon? Mary – who is a special needs assistant – was on her way home, out of touch. Even if she made it to the bank, she had the rush hour traffic. Getting to the prison for 5 o’clock, before the office closed was impossible. It looked like I was in for the weekend.

However, the prison officer let me call Christopher Booker. But it was now gone four. Even he could not arrange anything by five.

Did the prison officers say, "We have no choice but to bang you up?" No. This was not Bradford Magistrates. They extended the opening hours of the payment office to 6.30. While I was waiting, they fed me and gave me a coffee. They even returned my daily paper.

It took until 6.25 pm. The door swung open. I was led to the desk. My possessions were handed to me. A cheerful, efficient lady officer said, "A pleasure to do business with you", and I was on my way out. The gates clanged behind me, to reveal a young man waiting for me.

My rescuer turned out to be Chris Brooke, a Daily Mail reporter. his paper had picked up the story on the wires, found out from Booker where I was and had despatched Chris to collect the money and race to the prison to spring me. Well done the Mail and Chris. I am eternally grateful

My abiding memory was the contrast between the Court and the prison. After the stultifying stupidity at the Court, the prison officers were efficient, professional, patient and incredibly good-humoured. I have nothing but praise for them.

Mary didn't know whether to give me a hug or hit me with a rolling pin when I got home. Fortunately, she chose the former.

But it left the underlying problem unsolved. I suspect that, until officialdom gets off its politically correct backside and does its job properly, I am going to see more of Mr Venables and his likes. At least though, there is some sense in this world – but at the moment you have to go to prison to find it.

Freedom - at a price

Actually, it's a little melodramatic to write that I am now enjoying my second day of freedom. After all, I was only banged up in the slammer for nine hours, and then not fully processed. I spent the time in a waiting room and didn't even have to change into prison clothing.

But what was amazing was the reaction.

At one time on the Saturday morning, I had a reporter from the Sunday Telegraph in the living room, with her photographer. I had a camera crew and reporter from Yorkshire Television in my dining room, and a reporter from the New of the World upstairs in my office, writing up her copy on my computer. I had a radio reporter at the front door and I was on the phone to the reporter from the local paper - who put the story on the front page.

The News of the World, however, had too many celebs bonking the wrong people to make room for my story.

And they all wanted to make me out a "Council Tax Martyr", which I wasn't. I've better things to do with my time, and better ways of making a point than kicking my heels in prison.

I've written my story, but the Daily Mail has first refusal, so I can't post it until tommorrow. I'll put it on this Blog sometime after midnight.

In the meantime, I've been told I may be on Littlejohn, on Sky News tomorrow, which should be fun.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

The Blog that started it off...

On Friday 2 July, I posted a Blog on my sister Blog, EU Referendum, warning readers that there could be an interruption of service. Little did I know then that I would actually end up the day in jail.

Anyhow, for the record, here is the text of that original Blog.

Despite the EU being the major preoccupation of this Blog, other issues do occasionally intrude. This morning, this author is attending Bradford Magistrates' court in response to an arrest warrant, for refusal to pay part of the Council Tax.

The proceedings are being taken by Bradford Metropolitan District Council, the department involved being – and I kid you not – the Customer Services Department. They have intimated that they will be asking for a three month jail sentence if I refuse to pay the outstanding amount – initially £78, but now inflated by costs to £272.34.

The initial sum was in fact the police precept, which I deducted from the Council Tax for a very simple reason. The West Yorkshire Police Service – recently slated as one of the worst police services in the country – simply is not providing a service.

Our house, in a quiet suburb of Bradford, has now been burgled five times. Virtually every house in the street has been "done", and my elderly neighbour was mugged on her front doorstep, in broad daylight, while she was getting her keys out to open her door.

In terms of prevention, or solving any of these crimes, the police have been as much use as the proverbial chocolate fireguard. However, that is not to say we have never seen them. We once had twelve of them in the street at one time – when the came to arrest me for trying to prevent a pair of unlicensed bailiffs stealing my car.

That time, I was assaulted, arrested, and locked up for five hours, and then charged with resisting arrest. The charges were miraculously dropped when the bailiff's warrant was finally produced, which proved that the bailiffs were acting illegally. No apology was ever offered, and when I sought to make a complaint in person at the local police station, I was told by the station superintendent, very loudly, to "get out".

Why the bailiffs were there in the first place is a long story, but related to an incident when I was charged for "not being in proper control" of a motor vehicle, when using a mobile phone, in the days before using mobiles in cars was an offence. The charge was a crock, and I had refused to pay the fine, instead making a complaint to the chief constable - which was ignored. Incidentally, with police aid, the bailiffs did steal my car, and it cost me £350 to recover it.

On the day that I paid the cheque to the Council for my tax, my wife's car was broken into, the side window being smashed. Coincidentally, it cost us £78 to repair, the same amount we were being charged for the Police precept. It was the last straw. I simply deducted the sum from the Council tax.

Now we have the interesting situation of a "customer" being charged money by a police service, which does not provide a service, and refusing to pay for the lack of the same, then being summonsed by the customer service department of the council, where I will be dealt with by the court service, who may well do me the "service" of ordering me to be locked up, and thus passed to the custody of the self-same police service who had done me no service, until I can be handed over to the prison service – or whatever it is called now – who will do me the service of depriving me of my liberty – while the criminals who robbed my house and smashed up my wife's car roam free. As they say, you couldn't make it up.

And, as they also say, I may be some time.

As they say... couldn't make it up.

North Wales Police Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom, scourge of motorists, friend of burglars (with one of the lowest clean-up rates in the country) has taken on a new role - tackling the UK's growing bat crimes.

Mr Brunstrom, a spokesman on wildlife issues for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), has been jointly responsible for bats becoming a police priority. "The emphasis of Operation Bat is on prevention rather than enforcement," he said.

The overall aim of it is to raise awareness of the legislation that protects bats so as to provide a clear message that bat crime is police business and will not be ignored.

For full story, click here.