Yet another huge questionmark was raised last night over the convictions of hundreds of motorists fined for refusing to pay Skye Bridge tolls. It came after a ruling by the European Court of Justice that VAT should be imposed on the price of toll crossings.
The move to impose VAT brought widespread criticism from anti-toll campaigners and politicians, who claimed that previous convictions in court should be quashed following the ruling that tolls are civil charges in order to make them subject to VAT. If the tolls are subject to VAT because they are run by a private company, the charges for non payment of tolls should have been civil, not criminal as they have been.
That anger was focused on the Government, even though Treasury officials have asked Customs and Excise to devise a scheme under which the Government, and not motorists or operators, will bear the extra cost of the tax.
Reacting to the imposition of VAT on tolls, John Farquhar Munro, the Ross, Skye and Inverness West Liberal Democrat MSP, said: "The Treasury of the Scottish Executive must pay the VAT as in the past they have given assurances that the tolls would remain fixed over the lifetime of the bridge I will be expecting them to honour this pledge.
"There is now a new legal position for those who were wrongly prosecuted. I will be expecting the Executive to make sure all sentences are quashed, fines repaid with interest and an apology is given to those who have suffered.". Malcolm Bruce, the Gordon Liberal Democrat MP, said: "This means refusing to pay can only be a civil offence and many will now be applying to have their convictions quashed.
"This is the way it should always have been treated. It should never have been a crime."
And Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, said: "The people of Skye have been dealt another blow today. Adding VAT to Skye bridge tolls serves only to swell the coffers of the Treasury and further depress tourism in the Highlands."
SKAT have continued to call the Skye Bridge assignation statement unlawful in that it was not signed, dated and published. The assignation statement granted the Scottish Secretary powers to delegate to parties the rights to charge and collect tolls on the bridge. Speaking about the imposition of VAT, Robbie the Pict said: "In general terms, this screams out for a public inquiry. You cannot impose VAT with an unlawful regime and we have enough evidence that it is an unlawful regime.
"It now costs £96.80 to get a coach across the bridge how that will stimulate tourism I do not know. We now have to review all the convictions which were served in Dingwall. Each person is entitled to challenge that conviction directly with Donald Dewar."
And Scots Tory leader David McLetchie said: "The Executive's position has been thrown into doubt again today after UK Treasury Minister Andrew Smith said that he is determined to protect motorists from the impact of this unwelcome ruling.
"The truth is that the Government's position on this is a complete and utter shambles. Mr Dewar must clarify his stance without delay. Will he defend the freeze on Skye Bridge tolls as previously promised, or will he renege on this promise, forcing them even higher?"
The decision of the Luxembourg-based court to impose VAT has landed the Government with a £10million bill for back taxes to 1994 and the cost of absorbing the VAT in future.
The court ruling came after the European Commission took legal action to force the UK, Ireland and France to impose VAT on all tolls. Appeals to quash the convictions are expected to follow a European Court of Justice ruling that tolls are civil charges in order to make them subject to VAT.
Scottish Executive spokeswoman denied the European Court ruling had any implications for the convictions of the toll-dodgers. She said: "This ruling does not change anything. As far as the Executive is concerned the legal basis for the charges has been proved in court and we expect no change in that following today's ruling."
SKAT will be holding a demonstration on Saturday 16th September 2000 - all are invited along to help support us.
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 2000.
Most recent revision, 14 September 2000