In Cambridgeshire, John Prescott is planning a new town for 20,000 people, Northstowe, on land owned by a body, English Partnerships, run by his department. It is the biggest single planning application ever submitted in the UK.This story, although not directly linked with EU affairs, is nonetheless relevant in that it illustrates our thesis that our membership of the EU is but a symptom of a broader malaise, the most visible signs of which are the gradual but inexorable erosion of our democracy.
Yet the councillor for the community most immediately affected by these plans has been told that, under Mr Prescott's "Code of Conduct" for local councillors, he cannot in any way represent the views of his electors, must leave the room whenever the plans are discussed and that it will be an offence even for him to discuss the subject with other councillors or to attend informal briefing meetings on the planning application.
There cannot be a clearer example of the way Mr Prescott’s Code of Conduct is being used to stamp out democracy in our local authorities than the ruthless gagging of Councillor Alex Riley, who was elected to South Cambridgeshire district council in 2004 specifically to voice the concerns of the villagers of Longstanton over the plan to build this new town next to their village.
Councillor Riley was astonished to be told in October 2005 that he would no longer be permitted to put the views for which his neighbours elected him, This has been made repeatedly clear to him by Colin Tucker, the council's "monitoring officer", a post created by Mr Prescott’s Local Government Act 2000, to enforce the new Code of Conduct for councillors issued by Mr Prescott in 2001. The Code is ultimately enforced by the Standards Board for England, the body of which few had ever heard until it suspended Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London.
Mr Tucker has ruled that, because Councillor Riley lives near the site of the new town, this gives him a "personal and prejudicial interest", which not only excludes him from any discussion of it in the council but bars him from even discussing it with fellow councillors.
Councillor Riley's latest "offence", which he has been warned could lead to his disqualification to act as a councillor anywhere in the country, was to send emails asking for help in rectifying inaccurate council minutes of a meeting relating to Northstowe from which he had been barred.
So widespread has been concern in the council over this issue that, in January, South Cambridgeshire's chief executive, David Ballantyne, sought advice from David Prince, the chief executive of the Standards Board. He explained that many people felt that Mr Tucker's interpretation of the Code of Conduct was "over-zealous" and were troubled by the fact that Mr Riley was not being allowed to represent the views of his electors. But he enclosed a QC's opinion, commissioned by Mr Tucker, which supported Mr Tucker's view and suggested that one option would be for Councillor Riley to resign.
Mr Prince conceded that similar concerns about "over-zealous interpretation" had been expressed "up and down the country", but confirmed that Mr Tucker’s reading, "far from being over-zealous", was fully supported by the Standards Board. Since I first reported on this issue, which is arousing growing alarm and anger in many councils, I have been approached by several MPs. Next week I hope to report on another case which suggests that the Standards Board is relying on a fundamental misreading of the law.
In the Observer today, Henry Porter gives another example, commenting on the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill which, when enacted, will give the government power to ministers to make laws without the scrutiny of Parliament and, in some cases, to delegate that power to unelected officials.
While this is raising considerable concerns, we on this blog have been largely underwhelmed, recognising that this Bill simply codifies that which is already current practice in the way we are governed. After all, what is EU law, other than law made without the scrutiny of Parliament, which MPs are then obliged to implement – notwithstanding that EU Regulations come into force without any reference to Parliament?
For the rest, by far the bulk of legislation going through the system comes in the form of Statutory Instruments, which receive only notional scrutiny. They are framed by unelected official, they cannot be amended and are virtually impossible to overturn.
However, if the new Bill means that some of the "clever-dicks" are getting worked up about the erosion of our democracy, that can do no harm. Give them time, and they will put two and two together, and make the EU link.
As to Booker’s second story, he picks up on our report last week, on the JSF. The Business covers the JSF today as well, so we shall do a separate post on both stories.
Booker also deals with the British Chambers of Commerce report, that we covered on the blog and, for his finalé, he has a tilt at the Kinnock dynasty, with the following put-down:
Some readers were struck by my reference last week to the fact that, as a former vice-president of the European Commission, Lord Kinnock is entitled to a pension worth £75,000 a year, since this is a higher figure than has been quoted before. It derives from a written answer given to Lord Pearson of Rannoch on January 11 2005.In the Kinnock dynasty, we have the embodiment of the "snouts in the trough" gravy train, that family doing more to bring the EU into disrepute than any hundred Eurosceptics. In that respect, they are almost worth what they cost us.
This shows that, on reaching 65 in two years time, Lord Kinnock will draw 45 percent of his final salary of £165,000, and is entitled to draw most of that already. On this he pays tax, at a special preferential rate for EU employees of only 11 percent, to the Belgian government.
This is of course in addition to what he receives as chairman of that increasingly rum body the British Council; not to mention the rewards received by the rest of his family, including his son Stephen, head of the British Council in St Petersburg; his wife Glenys, who receives £200,000 a year in salary and expenses as an MEP; and daughter Rachel, also on the EU payroll as her mother's researcher.