The myths of England’s “absurd laws”

Something that annoys me no end, and I realise there are probably more important things to get annoyed about, but do bear with me, are urban legends, specifically those concerning old laws of the UK.

On Tuesday the 6th of November 2007, UKTV Gold published the results of a survey they conducted, where they asked 3,931 people to select the most ludicrious laws “from a shortlist of bizarre rules” (says BBC News) — I think they probably took the lists that were published in silly season August (e.g. this one at The Times). It obviously being a slow news day, this has been picked up by the Telegraph, the Mail, even the Register, blindly quoting “Britain’s most ludicrous laws”.

But nowhere do any of them provide any evidence that the options presented in the survey are actual, extant laws of this country. So this amounts to little more than UKTV Gold saying some things are laws, some people saying they’re ludicrous, and the media parroting the press release, going “Blimey, these laws are ludicrous!”

I realise this might have involved doing some journalism, but this is especially embarrassing for the BBC, which ran a lovely piece on antiquated laws by Tom Geoghegan back in January 2006: Ever been drunk driving a steam engine? — and which they allude to in one paragraph of their current article. You can tell which paragraph it is as it quotes its sources.

To go into more detail on the 10 most ludicrous “laws”:

  1. Illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament: A state funeral requires a motion or vote in Parliament, so Nigel Cawthorne, often quoted on this “most ludicrous” law can't be correct when he says dying in Parliament entitles you to a state funeral. BBC article debunks this. (maybe dying in a Royal Palace means the state pays for your funeral) once and for all.
  2. Treason to put a stamp of the monarch upside-down: not true. The law on treason dates from 1351 and is quite clearly defined. Wikipedia entry on Treason, Relevant BBC News article (thanks to Chris).
  3. Illegal to be topless in Liverpool except as a clerk in a tropical fish store: Liverpool City Council deny any such by-law or law exists.
  4. Illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas Day: All of Cromwell’s laws were repealed after the end of the Interregnum, so not true since sometime around 1660.
  5. Required in Scotland to allow someone to use your toilet if asked: BBC article doubts this, Law Commission finds no evidence
  6. Pregnant woman able to relieve herself anywhere (a policeman's helmet is mentioned for some reason): BBC article debunks this
  7. Whales are the property of the monarch: This one’s true! See, here’s the law, 17 Edw. II c. 11
  8. Illegal to not tell HMCE what you don't want them to know, not illegal to not tell them stuff you don't mind: Section 7 of the Tax Avoidance Schemes (Prescribed Descriptions of Arrangements) Regulations 2006 does indeed say it’s illegal to keep a tax avoidance scheme secret which is vaguely similar.
  9. Illegal to wear armour in Parliament: This one’s true! A Statute forbidding Bearing of Armour (1313)
  10. Legal to murder a Scotsman in York if they're carrying a bow and arrow: I don't think I need to say anything about this…