I've always thought that the test of whether a law is good or bad is the extent to which it copes with harmless eccentrics. And by this yardstick, I have no hesitation in condemning the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act as a bad law.
Last week's over-excited headlines about the closure of Sticker's Tortoise Garden missed the slightly important point that this reliable source of amusement closes to the public at the end of September every year, as many of the tortoises bed-down for the winter.
For the sake of clarity - and because lawyers care what I write - I should make it clear that I am not describing the owner of the tortoise sanctuary, Joy Bloor, as eccentric. But since she has devoted the past 20 years of her life to caring for tortoises, I think I can safely describe her as harmless.
Without the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act, which (lest we forget) was introduced by Margaret Thatcher's first government, Daily Mail readers would not have been so easily incited to send some truly offensive letters to Cornwall Council's Lance Kennedy, who I also believe to be harmless and, in the case of Sticker's tortoises, more sinned-against than sinning.
As I have blogged previously, the 1981 Act provides a partial schedule of animals which should be considered (my emphasis) for licensing. It says nothing about tortoises, but clearly devolves responsibility for interpretation of the law to local authorities. This is why, for two decades, the former Restormel Borough Council stoically ignored invitations from the Born Free Foundation to investigate.
Over the past year I have received a number of emails from Defra confirming, in plain English, that Cornwall Council has absolute discretion in the matter of whether or not the Sticker Tortoise Garden is a zoo. I have forwarded a copy of the most recent Defra email to the council, who I have challenged to produce any correspondence from Defra which, in plain English, would force it to act one way or another.
The real problem with poorly drafted legislation is that no-one knows what to do. Everyone wants to do the best and be seen to fair, and so they summon professors and lawyers and seek the best possible advice from professional experts. And the trouble with this approach is that it leaves no room for politicians, who are left giggling or shouting on the sidelines when they should actually be centre-stage and taking responsibility.
More often than not, the professional experts are absolutely right and save the politicians from themselves. Without their official wisdom and advice, the politicians would make even bigger fools of themselves and quite possibly end up in jail.
But the question of whether or not tortoises belong in a zoo is actually a political question - the answer dependent upon your view of animal rights and plain common sense.
What would happen if Cornwall Council simply followed the example set by Restormel? What would happen if Cornwall Council challenged Defra to prosecute it for failing to enforce the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act? The answer, I suspect, is nothing at all - until Defra updated its discredited law and clarified the difference between a zoo and an animal sanctuary.
I find it bizarre that Sticker's Tortoise Garden could have generated so many acres of newsprint, mostly highly damaging to the council's reputation and at considerable cost to taxpayers, without once coming before any kind of council committee for debate.
And that's why I hope the council's Miscellaneous Licensing Committee, having temporarily run out of lap dancing clubs and sex shops to investigate, could provide us with even more fun by having Sticker's tortoises on the agenda for its next meeting.