Christopher Booker's notebook
New kind of justice where plaintiff is judge Break silence or be broken, Mr Howard To the rescue of damsel in distress (again)
The Labour government set up its Standards Board three years ago, complete with an army of "Ethical Standards Officers" on £61,000 a year, to promote "confidence in local democracy" by policing the conduct of our local councillors. It might have been predicted that this would lead to considerable mayhem in our town and village halls, not least since one of its purposes was to incite councillors to complain about each other's conduct.
Not untypical has been a three-year long drama unfolding in Telford, Shropshire. A Conservative councillor, Lt Col Denis Allen, formerly chairman of Wrekin Conservatives, publicly accused the Labour-dominated council of "double standards". This so upset the council leader, Phil Davis, a considerable luminary in Labour local government circles, that he formally complained to the Standards Board that Cllr Allen had brought his council into disrepute. After a year-long investigation, the board's officials have now referred back Councillor Allen's behaviour for judgment by the same council he is accused of defaming.
The drama began back in 2001 when two Telford councillors were caught breaking the law. One, a Labour councillor, was found to have been regularly making fraudulent expense claims, amounting to more than £1,000. The other, a Conservative councillor, was found, after voting on the council's annual rate, to have unwittingly been £37 in arrears with his council tax. Councillors and officials did not formally report the Labour councillor to the police, who agreed that it was acceptable for the council to deal with the crime internally (eventually the miscreant resigned). But as soon as the Tory councillor's offence came to light, Telford called in the police. Only after investigation by the Crown Prosecution Service was the matter dropped.
When a Tory councillor asked Cllr Davis to explain what procedures had led to the decision not to report the Labour councillor for criminal investigation, he was subjected by several of the Labour group to ridicule. Cllr Allen then wrote a letter to the Shropshire Star, pointing out that the contrasting response to the two cases seemed to show the council to be operating "double standards".
His letter provoked mayhem. Firstly Telford's chief executive was so incensed that the letter mentioned his name in connection with the affair that he ordered Cllr Allen to sign a five-page grovelling apology. When Cllr Allen said he was only prepared to apologise for a technical breach of protocol in naming him, and then wrote a further letter to the press, Cllr Davis came into the fray, lodging a formal complaint with the Standards Board that Cllr Allen had brought the council and himself into disrepute.
On June 16 last year Cllr Allen was interviewed by Emmanuel Acquaah of the Standards Board for England. A transcript of their exchanges reveals an almost comical lack of mutual understanding, as Cllr Allen tries to explain what he meant by "double standards", while the official solemnly tries to explain how the council had correctly followed all the required procedures.
Now, after considering the case, the Standards Board has ruled that Cllr Davis's complaint against Cllr Allen must be ruled on by Telford council's own Standards Committee. The board has been swamped by the deluge of complaints it was called on to investigate, and so each council has been empowered to set up its own judicial procedures. Cllr Allen must thus now be judged by a tribunal of his fellow-councillors.
As Cllr Allen put it in a letter to the Ethical Standards Officer who heard his case, he still cannot understand why it rested with a group of councillors, not the police, to decide whether or not one of their own number should face prosecution for committing a crime. "I am aware," he wrote, "that the Deputy Prime Minister can assault a member of the public and be immune to prosecution. It would now appear that the immunity to prosecution bestowed by membership of the Labour Party applies to councillors as well." As for the charge that he brought the council and its leader into disrepute, he fears he can predict his fellow councillors' verdict.
The indications are that tonight we will be looking at one of the most remarkable political events of our lifetime: that the British people will have risen up in extraordinary numbers to say "no to the European Union" by voting for the UK Independence Party, putting it ahead of one or more established parties all over the country.
One of the greatest mistakes made by the political establishment in assessing this phenomenon is to imagine that this revulsion against the EU is due to "xenophobia". What the British people have instinctively most come to resent - as I know from thousands of letters I have received in recent years from readers who will have supported UKIP last Thursday - is the realisation that we are being taken over by a wholly new form of government.
They view this system as alien, not because it is "run by foreigners" - they are well aware that our own political class plays just as active a part in it as those of other countries - but because it is undemocratic, oppressive and because it does not work.
No one will the "UKIP rebellion" put more firmly on the spot than the Tory Party. For years it has tried to anaesthetise its supporters by limiting reference to "Europe" to just a few empty "Eurosceptic" slogans, otherwise seeking to suppress any proper discussion of just how far this new system of government now dictates how our country is run.
What this meant in practice is that the Tory Party has had to abdicate from its role as a proper opposition. Currently, as a result of handing over the control of our policymaking to the EU, we are faced with all sorts of problems - the huge looming crises over energy and waste being just two - to which, because these are "European competences", the Tories seem terrified of giving any proper response.
Almost the only issue on which the Tories have been doing their job as an informed, effective opposition is the crisis of our fishing industry, where Michael Howard last week reaffirmed his pledge that a Conservative government would take back national control, if necessary by exercising the sovereignty of Parliament.
As our main opposition party, the Tories get £4 million a year from the taxpayers. If, as the Government itself admits, half our laws are now made in Brussels, then for at least half that sum we are not getting value for money. To show themselves fit to govern, the Tories must first show themselves to be a proper opposition. That is the lesson they must learn from the disaster which, as will emerge tonight, the British people inflicted on them last Thursday.
Last January I reported on the alarming experience of Flo Robinson, who had just become ladies' president of Filey golf club in Yorkshire. Returning to Hull after a day-trip to Holland, she was told by an immigration official that, "under new EU regulations", she was not entitled to stay in England, where she has lived since 1935. Within six months she could be deported.
This was because, although Mrs Robinson has been married to an Englishman since 1951, she had spent the first five years of her life with her English parents in Canada and still had a Canadian passport. Under EC law, she was told, the rules about allowing non-EU citizens to remain in the EU had changed.
Thanks to a helpful lady at the Home Office, I was able to reassure Mrs Robinson that the official was wrong. Under EC regulation 1030/2002, she could now, for a mere £155, get a new stamp in her passport entitling her to remain here indefinitely. But to avoid further complications, she decided instead to apply to become a British citizen.
In February, on the advice of an official in Liverpool, she sent her passport and her husband's to the Home Office.
Last week I had an anguished letter to say she had heard nothing more. The documents had not been returned, the six-month time limit had expired, should she now pack her suitcase to await deportation?
The same helpful lady at the Home Office reassures me that Mrs Robinson has nothing to worry about, her naturalisation should come through by September. Phew! Thank heavens the EU can allow her to remain here after all!