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.


At 8:28 pm, Blogger JO said...

How long has it been the practice in Britain, to imprison people for "debt" ( whether deliberate or not)?
It's reminiscent of Dickens.
How are decent people supposed to protest at unfair taxation if they are thrown in jail for doing so?
It is shocking!

I'm not sure of the actual facts.. it was a while ago... in South Africa, after the fall of apartheid, when the ANC government took over.
There is an affluent white suburb called Sandton in Jo'burg. It is bordered by Soweto the black township. ( I think it was Sandton, but I may be wrong, because it doesn't seem right geographically now i come to think of it?)
Anyway.. before apartheid collapsed, blacks in S.A. didn't have to pay for utilities, neither did they pay "rates". Of course, when they became enfranchised, they had to.. but very few did. Consequently,Soweto was always in big financial trouble. To get around this, the newly appointed ANC " council" decided to alter the municipal boundaries and include said rich white suburb within the Soweto municipal area,hike their rates to a ridiculous level and wait for the cash ( intended to pay for Soweto utilities) to roll in.
But the Sandton residents were having none of it.
They hired themselves a good lawyer and a firm of accountants or whatever, and instead of paying their rates to the council each month, they paid them to the firm of accountants who held the money in trust until the matter was settled through the courts. In effect, they were saying to the ANC council... " we are not refusing to pay our rates... see.. its all there in the bank... but until you scrap the increase, and be damn well reasonable about this, thats where they're staying!"

I have often wondered if a similar action would work here in Britain. In fact when I first came back from SA, I actually consulted a solicitor about the legality of it. He did say that residents were legally entitled to withold council tax if a justified reason were given but that the council were also perfectly within their rights to take legal action against anyone who did. But he also said that of course,the more people who did withold council tax, the less likelyhood there would be of any legal action being taken against them.
I have no objection to paying council tax per se, but would definitely be prepared to withold any amounts for which I didn't think I was getting value for money. i.e. The Police precept.
I really cannot think of any other way of making a protest against the appalling lack of policing in our area.
I am very sorry you had to go through the ordeal of prison. I had an Uncle-in-law who spend some years in Armley Jail, and its really not a very nice place.
Pleased your home safe and sound.
p.s. Sandton didn't win its case outright, I don't think, but managed to reach a pretty good compromise as I remember. People power, you see.

At 9:12 pm, Blogger Dubhdara said...


What a terrible thing to have happen. What is happening in our country - and how often, I wonder, does this go on every day across the nation?

Well done for standing by what is right.

D. Andrews

At 12:38 pm, Blogger Mark Holland said...

What terrible experience. It's a positively Soviet story.

Kudos to you for making a stand.

At 1:01 pm, Blogger Paul said...

Just heard you talking on Radio 2. Certainly made for interesting listening, especially those berks who phoned in!

At 3:04 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The main problem seems to be that you were using a mobile in a vehicle. This falls directly in line with "not being in proper control of a vehicle" and was therefore against the law long before it had to be spelt out in big letters.

Common sense should tell you to focus on the road. Common sense should tell you its dangerous not to do so. Common sense was clearly lacking. You then chose not to assume responsibility and to "protest" the charge. You chose not to pay tax for the police, accusing them of being useless without any real knowledge of what the police do. Just because there was no evidence to trace your burglar does not mean the police should have ignored your dangerous driving (not to mention your repeated speeding....when will you ever learn?)

Therefore, you also chose to go to prison. Protest all you like.

At 6:39 pm, Blogger Greg_L-W. said...


may I take issue with the last comment - IF you wish to make a reasoned attack on someone's view or belief have the basic integrity to do so without the cowardly device of anonymity or a false identity.

I do not believe that it is wise to encourage others to make any protest where they can be victimised one at a time but I endorse the right of self determination where an individual may make such protest against the state as they deem appropriate.

I do believe prosecution for an action NOT deemed illegal at the time is worthy of protest but unfortunately making up or altering commitments under law to suit ones own perception of the given law's validity does seem rather a recipe for disaster - from both sides of the fence.

That Local Rates are a poor way to handle tax and funding is indisputable.

Since Labour introduction of Cabinet syle local government democracy by any standard is over at local government and centralised law making by an alien power manned by unelected ENARCs is a total denial of democracy.

That Richard North thinks about these issues and then acts on his genuine beliefs IN HIS OWN NAME is commendable if somewhat doomed!

Hope over experience!

That others take the cowardly options to berate is beneath contempt - Put up or shut up!



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