Published:

Oxfordshire County Council, a Conservative/Independents alliance, is proposing new bus lanes with the explicit intention of increasing revenue from fines. There are already far too many bus lanes. They are imposed to punish motorists rather than with a balanced view of whether they reduce overall journey times. Where bus lanes are in place, the damage they cause by increasing congestion could at least be limited by allowing taxis, motorcycles, and cars with two or more passengers to use them – a policy that Conservatives have considered in the past.

The proposal from Oxfordshire is particularly dubious after the ruling for Barnet Council that reinforced the existing law that councils can not increase fines on motorists in order to subsidise spending elsewhere. Not even other transport spending – for example a contribution to the Freedom Pass for pensioners using the bus or the tube.

In her ruling on the Barnet case, Mrs Justice Lang said:

"Where a public body uses its discretionary powers to levy taxes, the courts will strike down demands which are unauthorised by statute. In Vestey v Inland Revenue Commissioners [1980] AC 1148, Lord Wilberforce said at 1172D/E: "Taxes are imposed upon subjects by Parliament. A citizen cannot be taxed unless he is designated in clear terms by a taxing Act as a taxpayer and the amount of his liability is clearly defined."

Sounds right to me. It's a great thing about the British constitution that we have the rule of law rather than a bunch of state gangsters helping themselves to our money whenever they feel like it. It goes back a bit further than 1980. The Magna Carta of 1215 said "scrutage" – as tax used to be called – could be taken having "obtained the common counsel of our Kingdom."

In 1689 the Bill of Rights added:

"That levying money for or to the use of the crown, by pretence of prerogative, without grant of parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal."

I am pleased that Cllr Arash Fatemian, the Cabinet Member for Finance in Oxfordshire, is open-minded about finding ways to reduce costs and raise revenue. Renting out the County Hall as a wedding venue sounds good. I have already offered his council some other ideas that could be used instead of putting up Council Tax. The council leader dismissed criticism of the Council Tax rise saying this was "London/urban myopia." Then the council elections in Oxfordshire saw the Conservatives lose 14 seats and overall control of the council. Perhaps rural voters don't like tax hikes either.

But when it comes to imposing taxes without the authority of Parliament, under the pretence that they are fines, I part company with Cllr Fatemian. He is right to seek to avoid further Council Tax rises. But at least that tax is honest, legal theft. Stealth taxes are a poor alternative. Clogging up the roads of Oxfordshire with unwanted bus lanes as a brazen revenue raising scam is liable to land him in court. Perhaps the verdict will take a couple of years – which would be appropriate, offering a chance to uphold the Magna Carta on its 800th anniversary.

I urge Cllr Fatemian to look at other options.

Comments are closed.