The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter, the rain may enter - but the King of England cannot enter; all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement. - William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778)
Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. - A.J.P.Taylor
Herefordshire couple David Price and Liz Davis were the owners of a nine-year-old Jersey cow named Harriet. Harriet was bought as a present for the couple's son, and spent her entire life as a domestic pet.
Unfortunately for Harriet, she had been born on a farm where another cow had contracted Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - BSE or "Mad Cow Disease". Under a European Union directive, cows which are at risk of exposing the public to BSE must be destroyed, and officials from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) notified Mr Price and Ms Davis that they had decided to slaughter Harriet.
The family protested that the EU directive was aimed at cattle who would enter the food chain, whereas Harriet was a beloved family pet who was never going to be slaughtered for meat. They pointed out that written records showed that she had never had contact with, or shared food with, the infected cow. The Department was insistent however, and when the family appealed to the courts, DEFRA fought the case all the way to the House of Lords, which eventually ruled in the Department's favour.
After intervention by the local MP, Mark Harper, a DEFRA minister promised that Harriet would be given a "stay of execution" until a judge had reviewed the case.
But officials who are convinced they're right never let little things like the law stand in their way. At 9:30am on 10th January 2007, a team of 22 people, including 10 government officials and 12 police officers, swooped on Harriet's field, without any advance warning having been given. The hit squad had erected a road block to seal off the area, and used bolt-cutters to break into the enclosure.
Harriet's life was saved only by the family and a group of locals who rushed to the scene to confront the intruders after a tip-off. The DEFRA officials and their escort backed down. If the tip-off had not been made, Harriet would have been slaughtered and her carcass removed before the family knew anything about it.
Harriet has since died, so the issue remains unresolved.
The family had always resisted the slaughter of Harriet by legitimate, legal means such as appealing to the courts and contacting their MP. There was no suggestion that they would assault DEFRA inspectors acting in pursuance of their duties. So why did the Department feel it necessary to send 12 police officers? Why did the team arrive secretly, early in the morning? And why did they ignore the instructions of their own Minister?
The regulations allow that inspectors can force their way onto private land without the occupier's consent, without having to get a magistrate's warrant. They therefore have no need to prove to anyone that they have good reasons for their actions. They can enter premises at any reasonable time, but since they do not need to seek a warrant from a magistrate, it is up to them to decide what is a "reasonable time". The regulations give all officials acting under them blanket immunity from any personal liability arising from their actions, even if they were only "purporting" to carry out their duties.
By contrast, anyone "obstructing" an inspector (such as the crowd of local people who arrived to protect Harriet) can be fined £5,000 or even sent to prison for up to two years.
We took this story from a remarkable document called "Crossing the Threshold" published recently by the Centre for Policy Studies, in which author Harry Snook details that there are 266 separate Acts of Parliament that allow various officials to enter private premises, and that the owners of those premises face fines ranging from £200 to £5,000, or a two year prison sentence, if they try to resist.
We have clearly come a long way from the idea that an Englishman's home is his castle. You can download the whole document as a .pdf file here.
The GOS says: To my mind the people who come out of this with credit are the family and especially the neighbours who risked fines and imprisonment by intervening. Let's hope we'll all have their courage when the Elfin Safety storm-troopers arrive on our doorstep.
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