by David Ross
The European Court will rule next month on whether VAT should be charged on bridge and road tolls throughout the European Union, and nowhere is the result more eagerly awaited than on the island of Skye.
The imposition of VAT on the tolls on the Skye bridge would increase the cost of a car making a single crossing from spring to autumn by about a £1 to around £6.70. Coaches would be charged an additional £7.20 taking tolls to at least £48.40, whereas coaches with trailers would pay about £55 each way.
The UK has joined Ireland, France, Holland and Greece in opposing the European Commission on the VAT issue, but they are far from certain to win the argument. Indeed in January the independent Advocate General at the European Court, Siegbert Albert, published his opinion that the UK Government had failed to fulfil its obligations under the EC Treaty by not charging VAT on the tolls.
The Advocate General's opinion is not binding on the European Court, but it certainly will not be ignored, which could pose huge problems for the government. Already it has been estimated that it could add at least £14m to the total cost of the Skye Bridge. The Scottish Executive is committed to freezing the tolls on the bridge, but would that commitment still stand in the face of such a European Court ruling?
Any imposition of VAT would also apply to the Humber and Severn bridges, the Mersey and Tyne tunnels as well as the Forth, Tay and Erskine bridges in Scotland.
But some campaigners believe that the imposition of VAT on the Skye Bridge will finally serve to persuade the Scottish Executive that it makes little sense to continue to defend the toll regime.
This view was reinforced this past week when there was genuine astonishment at the terms of letters written by Lord Advocate Colin Boyd to Liberal Democrat leader/Ross, Skye and Inverness MP Charles Kennedy and North East MSP Irene McGugan. They had been pursuing Colin Boyd for a statement on the legal status of the Assignation Statement, the document which was required in law for the Secretary of State to assign his rights to charge and collect tolls on the bridge.
In June Professor Robert Black of Edinburgh University had studied the document and dismissed it as failing to satisfy the most fundamental of legal requirements. It carried no date and no signature, never mind an official seal: "There is no signature. It is simply seven pages of type."
The professor had also studied the terms of a ruling by Lord Sutherland following appeals by four campaigners at the end of last year. One of them Robbie the Pict had raised the issue of the absence of any signature and date and Lord Sutherland had acknowledged that. But he made no further comment on it, dealing only with other uncontentious aspects.
As it is, Lord Sutherland's ruling is to be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.
The Lord Advocate, however, insists that the assignation statement was made in accordance with statute and is valid.
A stunned Ms McGugan said: "The Lord Advocate's position is indefensible. Lord Sutherland made no such ruling. Is Scotland really prepared to go to the European Court defending such illogical nonsense?"
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 2000.
Most recent revision, 28 August 2000