Tuesday, June 27

We are all free men (and women)

by Dr Richard North

As one who has been led down to the cells in handcuffs for non-payment of Council Tax – mine for refusing to pay the police precept after our house had been burgled four times and my wife’s car broken into, I can totally empathise with Josephine Rooney, the 69-year-old pensioner who was yesterday imprisoned for three months by South Derbyshire Magistrates for refusing to pay hers.
Her story is told in detail in The Daily Mail and elsewhere, noting that, unlike ordinary criminals, who get an automatic fifty percent remission of their sentence, there is no rebate for Council Tax debt and Josephine.
Thus, says The Mail,
...at a time when the Government seems to be taking every opportunity to stop sending genuine criminals to jail - and once inside, releasing them as early as possible - she will spend the next three months mixing with drug addicts and murderers after being sent to New Hall prison near Wakefield in West Yorkshire.
Of course, Derby City Council deputy leader, Dave Roberts, like any true state apparatchik, disowns the decision. "The council has no wish to send anyone to jail," he says. "Miss Rooney had ample opportunity to pay her council tax, but she has steadfastly refused. Her sentence is the court's decision, not ours."
But actually, there was no decision. The Magistrates have no discretion in this matter, so the penalty is automatic. To save taxpayers' money on the courts, they would be better of having "go to jail" machines on the lines of "speak your weight machines" in the foyers of police stations, leaving more time for the Magistrates to release the day's crop of burglars and muggers.
But the central point which I addressed when I was last arrested is that this makes a mockery of any idea that we are free men and women.
Essentially, you retain your liberty only if you pay your annual license fee to the Town Hall.
For me personally, the situation is even worse. With shared ownership of our house, my wife's name also appears on the Council Tax bill. But, the apparatchiks who send out the bills, knowing that I am prepared to make a stand over "services" we pay for but don't receive, have now reversed the order of the names, so that hers appears first. It his her, thus, who receives the summons and if I don’t pay the bill, she goes to jail.
Jail I can stand but the thought of dealing with my wifec after she has been released…? I want to live, so I pay up.
And all this is arranged by the kindly "Customer Services" department of the Council. And that is what really pisses me off, this total perversion of our language, the dishonesty of it all.
If I was really a "customer", could my wife be jailed because I did not pay a bill for services I was not receiving? I think not.
Dr North is co-editor of www.eureferendun.com


RK said...

While there is a point to the campaign of Josephine Rooney this article is a flurry of specious arguments and misdirected anger. While you see these sorts of polemics all the time, especially if you read the Mail, there was one line I had to reply to. Apparently the state apparatchiks (using that term when talking about liberal democracies always makes me laugh, it says a lot about the users politics) implementing the law of the land “…makes a mockery of any idea that we are free men and women”

Hilarious. It would make a mockery of the idea that you lived in an anarchistic society Dr North, but actually you live in a liberal democracy. Rule by the people. A key part of democracy is the ‘rule of law’. Your liberty is entirely conditional upon you abiding by these laws. If you break the law, for example you murder someone or rob a bank then you will be punished and that may mean a temporary restriction on your liberty. If you disagree with the laws or the proportionality of the punishment then you and those who agree with you have the power to change them through your elected representatives. That does not mean you can pick and choose which laws to obey (murder, bank robbing etc) and those you will decide are not for you (paying tax). End of story.

You also said “If I was really a "customer", could my wife be jailed because I did not pay a bill for services I was not receiving? I think not.”

I think the matter of whether or not you could have your wife sent to jail because you are being billed for services you are not receiving from her is a separate matter, although you might want to consider an annulment.

Peter Troy said...

Your comment R-K is typical of someone who has spent all his working life employed by a large organisation (probably the police). I have no idea if that is the case but it would account for your institutionalised thinking.

The Daily Telegraph today has the salient principle of Miss Rooney's and indeed Dr North's protest piece bang on.

Andrew O'Hanagan in an article headed '' Josephine Rooney deserves a(nother) medal writes:

'' Miss Rooney is in jail this morning for standing up to the useless, deaf, meandering officials of Derby council, and those officials should now hang their heads in shame''

O'Hagan describes in graphic detail the serious decline in the state of the street in which she live and the lack of any action by the local authority.

The article concludes: '' ...... the efforts of Miss Rooney are the opposite of criminal: her community spirit is such as any one of us might follow. You won't be supprised to here that this Government ''tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'' - saw fit to champion the same Miss Rooey not long ago. As a part of its Respect Campaign, it gave her a Taking a Sand award.''

Miss Rooney indeed took a stand - in the Magestraits court and was sent to jail. Dr North did the same two years ago following four break ins to his home and zero police reponce and other unsatisfactory services from his local council.

The Telegraphs leader (one of the best that I have read in many years) is the best retort there is to your institutional attitude RK:

''Breaking the law is wrong.

Miss Josephine Rooney is required to pay her council tax like the rest of the citizens of Derby. If she feels that the council does not give adequate value in return for this tax, that is not a legitimate reason to withhold it. The penalty for non-payment is prison: to prison Miss Rooney had to go.

So much for the technically legal facts of the matter. There is a natural law, too - a morality that stands behind the abstract edicts of statute, and here Miss Rooney stands acquitted. The basis of the political order is the understanding that we yield certain powers (such as the right to tax us) on condition that these powers are used in our interests and, broadly speaking, in accordance with our wishes. If we decide that our trust has been misplaced, we reallocate it - that is, we vote the rascals out and vote a new lot in. The situation in Derby, however (and, for that matter, in communities across the country), does not conform to this traditional arrangement.

What used to be genuinely local government, with direct democratic accountability to the neighbourhood, has become an outpost of the central state. Three quarters of councils' budgets come to them from Whitehall, with as many strings attached as Whitehall feels are necessary to "deliver" the national government's agenda. Councils are accountable to their communities only in the sense that they are nominally supervised by elected representatives. But, in reality, councils are run by their officers, and their officers obey the people who pay them from faraway London.

Little wonder that Miss Rooney, plainly a good woman and kind neighbour, was unable to effect a change in the simple matter of how her local council dealt with her own street. Across the country, communities are suffering the entire scale of incivicility and degradation - from petty crime up to gang warfare - for the siple reason that they themselves are not in charge of council and police policy.

This is an ominous development. The estrangement of citizens from the agencies that supposedly serve them threatens greater civil unrest than protesting pensioners. Unless central government relaxes its grip on local councils, we can expect more than steadily diminishing standards of service. The next generation of rebels will be far less wel-behaved and decent than Josephine Rooney.

So there RK, the aperatchiks have a problem but they don't yet know it.

Sarah Hoperty said...

Well I think that the article is excellent. Don't let the aperatchiks get you down, Dr North !

RK said...

Dr North and Miss Rooney broke the law. A defence based on a political argument is no defence at all and sending them to jail is the logical, technical, legal and yes even moral consequence of their actions. It does not in any way make a “mockery of any idea that we are free men and women” and it is this point I was responding to.

I have no reason to doubt the logic or veracity of your post Peter. But I’m afraid your reply is entirely specious because the issue of whether or not council officials are accountable to local or national politicians (and the apocalyptic consequences you fear will follow) is utterly irrelevant to the above point. The aperatchiks or indeed the apparatchiks may have a problem or they may not, I don’t know. The thing is though whether they do or not does not justify wilfully breaking the law. If you break the law you deserve to face the consequences. By all means applaud their stand, empathise with their plight, understand their reasoning but do not expect their sentence to be overturned. Perhaps I should take this moment to mention the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. Elsewhere in your blog you enthusiastically demand the punishment of the guilty. I happen to think the “cause” those Policemen acted in is nobler than Miss Rooney’s but I don’t think that should excuse them of punishment.

If people riot because of the poll tax, globalisation, G8 or race relations in Bradford the decision on whether or not to punish those guilty of violent behaviour should not rest on why they were protesting. If it is which of the above causes are sufficiently good enough, who decides? Can the animal rights protestors that dug up a corpse be allowed to excuse this act because of the righteousness of their principles? You can probably see where I’m going with this line of reasoning. Your position appears to be that you can break the law with impunity if your political argument is just. This has some very dangerous consequences and one admittedly extreme example is the justification of terrorism and political violence. A more likely consequence though would be a breakdown of central government. If everyone with a gripe withheld their tax the result would not be better government but a bankrupt one. That would not mean the better policing Dr North aspired to but no police.


I have never worked for the Police. You shall have to account for my institutional thinking in another way. Personally I don’t think believing in the rule of law an example of institutional thinking.

Peter Troy said...

Believing in the rule of law is not I agree an example of inisitutional thinking. I did not state that it was. However, a belief that the status quo can not be changed is.

The so called political class of our country is becoming distant from those they seek to govern. Civil disobedience,as yesterday's Daily Telegraph leader alluded to, is the regretable, unintended, yet inevitable consequence of distant governance.


PS On second thoughts, perhaps you are an academic. Most certainly you are not a busisness person.
Whatever your background thank you for your serious contribution to this blog.

Kelly said...

Let me see if I have this right. Ms Rooney objected to the taxes levied against her and refused to pay them so that now she is being sent to prison. A prison that is funded by tax dollars, probably some of her own that she paid in previous years. AND that her refusal was due to the fact that the council that receives her money have not kept up her neighbourhood as they might have. So that she was being asked to pay for something that she was not receiving or hadn't received.

She didn't burn down a school or drive her vehicle into a building in protest of this. She just quietly with harm to no one took it upon herself to stand up for her rights and the fact that she was paying for goods and services that she wasn't receiving.

Civil disobedience? Sounds like the start of a new revolution to me. Sort of like some other people that I am especially thinking about at this time of year, being an American and all.

Good Luck Ms Rooney! You go Girl!

and the same to you Mr. North.

Where would any of us be without the right to voice our opinions and displeasure at what we view as wrong. How else should she have brought this situations to light? IF she had paid her taxes and wrote a letter of complaint, how many of us would even have heard of her name let alone her story? Without the stand she took her cause would have not received the attention that it should have.

PS I understand that the "currency" of most prisons is cigarettes. Does anyone know how to send some to Ms. Rooney? (no not to smoke but for whatever else she might need on the inside.)