On 10th July, Sheriff James Fraser found in favour of two toll protestors, one month after the trial in Dingwall. He basically found that the Toll Order was flawed (SKAT and Christine Kennedy have been saying this all along!) and that no individual is nominated to pay the toll. Unsurprisingly, the Crown have appealed and the very quick date of Wednesday 23rd July has been allocated to hear this. Legal Aid to defend the protestors case, normally automatically granted in cases of appeal, was said to be a problem. Why should this be or is this just more politics interfering with the law.
The Lord Advocate has also ordered the Procurator Fiscal to review the bridge cases and cancel any he deems suitable. This has resulted in most peoples cases being dropped, but not everybody's. One protestor with 8 charges now has a clean slate while one with 26 does not. This is also unfair on the people who have already gone through the mill and even paid their fines. What can they expect - compensation and a pardon, or a lengthy legal process to clear their names? The News would presume the latter!
The Skye Bridge Co. (Bank of America) have meanwhile instructed their Bridge manager to refuse passage to any vehicle whose driver will not pay the toll. However, before the toll collectors can prevent a vehicle from passing there must be a valid toll order in place which obliges the user to pay (Section 38(2) of New Streets & Roads Works Act 1991). No such order is in place.
The Bank of America and their collectors must also be in possession of lawful authorisation. This must take the form of certificates which are issued and signed by, or on behalf of, the Secretary of State for Scotland and which specifically name "Skye Bridge Company" as duly authorised to charge tolls and "Miller Civil Engineering" as duly authorised to collect tolls. No such certificates exist. Public notices must have appeared to that effect, and a statutory instrument must have been approved and published by Parliament - seen any??
The Bank of America are being prosecuted by the California State Attorney General and the city of San Francisco for fiscal improprieties amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. Any resultant fines will be triple the amount defrauded (California State Law). SKAT would like to take the opportunity to remind toll payers that their cash is sent by giro from the Royal Bank of Scotland in Kyle directly to Bank of America HQ in San Francisco.
It is therefore now more important than ever that people make a stand and refuse to pay. HGVs are refusing, Tourists are refusing, existing non-payers are refusing, new non-payers are refusing. With the possibility of a criminal record almost negligible there should be no excuse not to go down to the Bridge and register your protest. Every time you cross. Your Island needs you!
A couple of weeks ago, I was driving along listening to the radio. It was reporting the Government triumphing over the proposed £1.25 per crossing for frequent users. Donald was heard to say that Labour was being "discharged of their obligation to the Skye Bridge" by this tremendous breakthrough! There then followed a report about the rising Legal Aid bill for Scotland and an official came on to defend the rise saying it was proving that the law was defending more people and wasn't this a good thing? As one of the many who was refused Legal Aid for alleged offenses on the bridge, I changed station!
Do we want a £1.25 discriminatory whitewash which will not turn up, if at all, till the end of the year at the earliest, due to new legislation being required through Parliament. The season has started very poorly and, with the coming of the summer season, a lot of peoples "bread & butter" income for the year. Many people are still turning back rather than paying. The prospect of a greater cost difference can only dissuade more people from visiting Skye and surrounding areas. No toll is the only answer, and what would the real cost be to buy out the bridge company?
The News does hear, however, that ticket touts are now in the bridge ticket business. It is completely legal to resell bridge tickets from books of 10 providing you have a street traders license, which is more than be said for the legality of the bridge operators!
This months sponsors are two hardy SKAT supporters who wish to remain nameless - we'll just call the Robbie "the fastest painter & decorator in Portree" - for a free quote phone 01478 612203. And Moira, who would like to say thank you to the nurses at Raigmore for their generous donations to SKAT - despite their high parking charges!
"We have reports on the A87 Invergarry - Uig trunk road at the Skye Bridge. Seemingly, record numbers of toll protestors - seasoned and newcomers to the game alike - are registering their protest to the highway robbery taking place on Kyles recreation ground - Hamilton Park. Since the news from the court in Dingwall that the toll order is flawed, more and more people are refusing to cough up. the bridge company are now refusing passage, and the police have to come and allow them through." PC99, Hamish MacBeth, Highland Roadwatch.
For the record we should give some of the technical detail behind the drama of the glorious 10th in Dingwall.
On the 10th June, Michael Upton had argued that the complaint against his clients should be dismissed as irrelevant.
His motion was based on two submissions. The first was that the complaint was irrelevant because the libel was not sufficient in law to justify the court in calling upon the accused to plead the charge.
This submission was based on three grounds:
1) That the toll order had not been published and therefore was not in force on the date of the alleged contravention. The Sheriff did not rule that it had been published, but that the question on whether it had or not was a matter for proof during trial. The question thus remains live.
2) That the toll period had not been started according to regulations and could not have been started since these regulations did not exist in the first place. The Sheriff ruled that although there was, perhaps, a technical error the essential message that the crossing was opening on a certain date was conveyed. It is the opinion of the Legal team that the Sheriff had erred on this since the question was not about commencing special road schemes, but commencing toll periods. The available regulations only refer to the Roads & Bridges (Scotland) Act 1878 which bars the practise of tolling in Scotland following the Dunkeld bridge riots.
3) That the toll order does not specify who has to pay. It creates the right to charge a toll, but fails to identify the obligant. The Sheriff ruled that the submission was correct. "The law has to say what it means, and mean what it says." He accepted the fundamental propositions that:
a) penal legislation must be interpreted in favour of the accused.
b) legislation is ineffective if it is insufficient to identify the offender specifically.
c) the intention of the legislator is not to be deduced, but the court has to consider whether the words used are sufficient to mean what was intended.
Although "the most probable implication" was that the occupiers of tolled traffic were liable, "most probable" was not good enough. "Legislation must be clear and its provisions certain. To read in, or imply such provisions such as are set out (in the toll order) makes this legislation less than certain and, at best, no more likely. On that basis...the complaint is dismissed as irrelevant."
The Crown immediately sought leave to appeal, which was granted. This is simply a technicality to record the ruling on the statute books and give the establishment time to think what to do, now that their toll order has less value than a torn Beano.
Although we disagreed with the Sheriffs second finding, regarding the commencement of the toll period, it was unnecessary and potentially expensive to appeal it. We have a refined version of the same argument for Stella Anderson should it ever be needed.
An appeal by the Crown would, in normal circumstances, be funded by the State and Legal Aid would automatically be granted to the respondent. However, we are well aware of the politicisation of the legal aid process in regard to the Skye Bridge cases. In the full expectation that public opinion would be ready to condemn any such denial we have engaged St. Michael of Upton to defend our interests in Edinburgh.
In the broader picture, we have to focus on exposing both the Skye Bridge company's lack of legal authority to collect and Miller Civil Engineering's to charge. We must seek a death by lethal legal injection, otherwise we have no prospect of pardons, compensation, refunds or any other forms of redress. We owe this to our fellow campaigners who have unjust convictions to their names and to our fellow Islanders and any other users who have had considerable funds extorted from them. Beware of politicians, or would-be politicians bearing "best available packages" which are, in effect, parcel bombs.
The 1996 account of the Skye Bridge Co. show that the operators are taking £769,700 for administration for administration and toll collection. This represents £1.26 per vehicle, or half the cost of a concessionary ticket and is likely to mean a profit of £500,000 on the operation of the scheme each year; or about £10 million over the concession period.
The company also avoided paying any tax by showing that they made a loss of £556,792 during the year despite the fact the cash pile they had in the bank (of America?) increased from £448,672 to £1,547,925. We all wish we could manage that!
I bet we all thought that the £3,178,386 we pay to the company during the year would be used to pay off the cost of the bridge but due to the agreement signed by the previous Conservative government, the company is allowed to reduce the amount collected by 6% each year back to 1991. Meaning this year only £2,192,672 was paid off, even though inflation has been much less than 6% ever since 1991. It looks as if they have managed to make a further £400,000 this year by the accountancy adjustment.
The company cannot even be trusted to provide the correct details to Companies House, as the 1996 accounts show that despite being prepared 6 months later than those of 1995, a new loan of £1,737,434 has appeared supposedly in the 1995 accounts which rises to £2,148,870 in 1996. Why does one need a loan of this size if you have £1,547,925 in the bank? No doubt there is some benefit to someone from this alteration!
Perhaps this is why the Directors of Skye Bridge Ltd. approved the accounts on 30th April 1997, some would say a significant day in view of what happened on the 1st May. The accounts were sent to Companies House in Edinburgh for registration on the 15th May, whilst in 1996 they were delayed as long as possible and not registered till 1st November!
Until now, the Government has been able to say that they were not responsible for the legislation which created the toll regime. If the appeal against Sheriff Frasers ruling is successful and they intend to continue it, then they will be the authors of an unfair toll regime on the bridge.
Mr. Dewar stated that they had inherited a contract from the former Tory Government that would be expensive to rescind. If the appeal on the ruling in Dingwall is unsuccessful, we would suggest it would be a misuse of funds to amend and reinstate it. This is the dilemma now faced by Donald Dewar and the Labour run Scottish Office.
An unsuccessful appeal by the Crown means that a new toll order will have to be formulated, and objections allowed with the whole process taking place under intense scrutiny. It would be a volte-face of breathtaking proportions for them to attempt to produce a legal toll order and continue the toll regime and the criminal prosecutions especially given vehement condemnation of the previous governments activities in this regard. If non payment becomes a civil offense, we predict that Skye Bridge Ltd. would be seeking an early meeting with the Scottish Office to discuss a financial deal on repayment without the use of tolls.
There has been comment that the campaign is anti-Labour or just getting at the new Labour government. The reality is straight forward - as a single issue campaign we have worked and will continue to work for the complete abolition of the tolls on the Skye Bridge. Our campaign has centred on legal methods of challenge and on maintaining political pressure largely, for obvious reasons, on the party in government, which is now the Labour party. We didn't notice ant cries of "unfair" or "unreasonable" when we put pressure on the previous Tory administration; indeed some Labour MPs pledged their support, marched with us and even carried placards demanding action to remove the Skye Bridge tolls.
This weeks activity in court has rather overshadowed, if not eclipsed, the decision to reduce the tolls and the Lord Advocates announcement that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute each and every offence on non-payment or the Skye Bridge toll. We have always believed that criminalisation of the non-payment offence and the resulting prosecutions to be very much in the private interest and this weeks ruling confirms that these prosecutions are unjust.
With reference to the toll reductions and how they came about, it was interesting that the Scottish Office press release referred to proposals made by the Highland Council thus implying that the toll reduction measures had the seal of approval of the HC. The reaction of the HC Convenor did nothing to reassure us bu the fact remains that only Donald Dewar and the Scottish Office, in a political context, have the power to change the situation. Peter Peacocks words of welcome for the Scottish Office's toll reductions suggested that he'd been made an offer he couldn't refuse - certainly it wasn't the words one would expect for the Convenor of a Council which has adopted a no toll position. Not only did he welcome the measure but he implied that SKAT and the Skye Bridge Appeal Group would be unreasonable if they continued to press for no tolls. We do welcome it but it is not, and should not be considered, the end of the campaign as some commentators have suggested. There is nothing inconsistent in our approach to continue campaigning for the complete abolition of the toll. It is what we have stood for all along and what we continue to stand for.
Before all this activity, SKAT representatives met with the Forth Road Bridge Joint Board. The Board were very concerned with the possibility of a demonstration on the Forth Road Bridge largely, they said, on safety grounds. This, while they had their own porta cabins obstructing the emergency lane. They were particularly relieved about this weeks ruling as is evident from a letter obviously written shortly after the ruling came out in the Media.
A door to door petition throughout Skye yielded 3,312 responses with 94% of people asked coming out in favour of scrapping the toll. A similar poll was conducted on Teletext with viewers asked to phone in their opinions. 860 responses were recorded, with 91% in favour of a toll free bridge.
The children's TV programme "Up For It!" featured your Darren MacLean telling the younger viewers about the bridge. The programme included a Kyle girls walking to the booth to be picked up on the Skye side for a driving lesson, an interview with a lorry driver and Darren trying to get a telephone interview with the bridge company. They then conducted a phone survey yielding 88% of the younger viewers wanting the tolls abolished.
If you were one of the sensible ones who always asked for a receipt when you cross the bridge, then you may be able to ask for a refund through the Small Claims Court. One protestor is trying this out., See the next issue for an update. Meanwhile, if you must pay to cross, then for goodness sake, ask for a receipt!
One of SKAT's fundraising initiatives this season is the "grand raffle" with many valuable prizes at stake. These include:
Prizes are available by mutual agreement with the donors and those that can be despatched, will be. The draw is due to take place on 31st August 1997. Tickets are prices at 25p each. If anyone would like to buy any tickets, or sell some for SKAT, please contact Judith Shapland on +44 (0)1471 833308.
Other fundraising going on includes the SKAT 999 Club. Junes winners as follows: £100 Cyprus (247), £40 Sligachan(199), £20 Kyleakin(150), £10 Broadford(216) and £10 Portree(72). Next draw will take place on Saturday 26th July.
While all these "competitive" fundraising events are going on, we still have collection tins throughout the area and the generosity of donations both through the tins and direct to SKAT cannot be understated. Without funds, SKAT couldn't have managed to bring these inequities to justice. Starved of Legal Aid and faced with, although in many cases very favourable, legal bills we cannot continue without public support. Please do what you can by simply putting what you can spare into a tin, buy some raffle tickets, join the 999 club, or, if you wish, send donations to:- SKAT, Dun Flodigarry, Isle of Skye, Scotland. We're trying our best!
Some local broadsheets are tending to ply the perilous tightrope between wanting to support an anti toll campaign, but having to toe the line for fear of upsetting their political masters. Before the current administration there was absolute support for a not toll bridge shown; indeed a proprietor is on record in Hansard urging the Tories to reveal the confidential parts of the bridge contract in the publics interest. Now that the tables have turned and we still have not seen these documents and the no toll stance seems to have wavered - this slating SKAT got last week seems to reinforce this tendency. SKAT has one agenda only - to rid the bridge of the toll and nothing more. SKAT supporters come from many political denominations (though we would doubt if are many Tories concerned)! There are only two things left to say: "Single issue virgins"? - procreation is alive and well in the movement though for one purpose only and secondly isn't Ian Moireasdan's picture much better!
The local branch of the Labour party have put together questions and sent then to Donald Dewar at the Scottish Office regarding the Skye Bridge tolls. Copies were also sent to MPs Wilson, McLeish and Chisholm. They were :
The letter was despatched only recently so there has not been a chance for a reply. However, some of these questions may be overtaken by the current legal processes.
Charles Kennedy MP on 14th July tabled the following parliamentary questions to the Lord Advocate and the Secretary of State for Scotland:
When the Skye Bridge project was started, the District Valuer put a value of £300,000 on the land required. The final sum spent was nearer £784,000. The Press & Journal newspaper (30th May 97) carried a feature on this and the following information was extracted over sums paid out:
That's all the news from us for this month. Please keep checking the latest news on our Web pages and send us in any letters via Email. This campaign may not affect you - but wait until YOU have a road/bridge near you built privately and tolls imposed...
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 1997.
Most recent revision, 13 March 1998