Friday, August 13, 2004

Blunkett to extend long arm of the law

UK: Sweeping changes to police powers were proposed by the government yesterday, with officers in England and Wales to be permitted to arrest suspects for any offence, rather than only those which attract prison sentences.

The idea, included in a consultation paper published today by the Home Office - just two days after the Conservatives made a series of hardline crime and order proposals - could be on the statute books by next summer.

But civil rights campaigners have already branded the idea of arresting people for offences such as graffiti and dropping litter "disproportionate".

The 30-page consultation paper also raises a series of other proposals, including roadside fingerprinting, extending search warrants to cover all properties connected to a suspect, and greater powers for community support officers (CSOs). The police minister, Hazel Blears, said the moves would "maintain the crucial balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the individual".

However, the director of civil rights group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, said of the arrest proposals: "When you create a broad, unnecessary power there is a danger of arbitrary and racially discriminatory use.

"This comes just a couple of weeks after statistics showed a 300% rise in the number of Asian people being stopped and searched.

The Home Office says the detail will be set out in guidance - an approach which has failed as far as stop and search is concerned. If powers are truly needed then parliament should debate them and perhaps pass them. But I have yet to hear any serious voice in policing in this country say that the problem the police faces is that they don't have powers to arrest people for dropping litter," she told Radio 4's Today Programme.

She added: "In a democracy you do not create extremely broad powers and say they will not be used in practice - you give the police powers they actually need.

However, Ms Blears insisted that a "necessity test" would ensure that not all suspects were arrested for petty crimes. "What we are saying here is that in future all offences will be arrestable but that does not necessarily mean that everybody will be arrested, because there will be a necessity test.

A constable could come upon an offence and he might not be sure whether it is arrestable or not. In future that would be very clear, she told the BBC.

The shadow home secretary, David Davis, said: "Today's announcements are just another headline-grabbing initiative from a gimmick-crazy home secretary. "We agree with the efforts to make the definition of arrestable offences simpler. But will we now find ourselves in a crazy situation where a litter lout is arrested and a cannabis smoker is not?  

"Every arrest brings with it reams of paperwork," he added. "The government is in danger of encouraging police to make arrests based on their heavy workload of paperwork and not on the seriousness of the offence."

The new principal speaker of the Green party, Keith Taylor, dismissed the proposals as the "latest in a series of attacks on civil liberties". He said: "This government already monitors its citizens more closely than any in Britain's history.

"The power to arrest on the suspicion of even the most minor offences undermines the fundamental right to go about one's day-to-day business without interference from the state. "As with current stop-and-search procedures, there is also the risk that these new powers could be disproportionately used against members of certain communities."

The consultation period ends in October, enabling the government, if it wishes, to table bills based on the proposals in a November, [war criminal], Queen's speech.

The paper - entitled Modernsing Police Power to Meet Community Needs - also suggests giving CSOs greater powers to direct traffic, tackle beggars, [?] search people for weapons and enforce bylaws, leaving police officers free to concentrate on frontline duties. It also proposes that CSOs - who can already issue £40 on-the-spot fines for being drunk and disorderly - be given extra powers to deal with drunks and underage drinkers.

The proposals, which originate with the Home Office rather than the police forces, were given a guarded welcome by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The association's vice-president, Denis O'Connor, said: "There is undoubtedly a need to rationalise some of the powers we currently hold and strengthen those we need most. "We are supportive of the government's effort to enhance the powers of the wider police family, particularly CSOs, enabling them to assist the police in tackling crime and disorder." He added: "However, we would sound a note of caution at any major extension of powers for CSOs before the Home Office evaluation is complete."

The Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers and is opposed to the expansion of the role of CSOs, gave the proposals a lukewarm reception. Its vice chairman Rod Dalley said: "Any use of or change in police powers should be taken seriously.

"Therefore we will carefully consider the Home Office paper and will be engaging fully in the consultation process. In particular we will be closely examining any proposals to extend the powers given to CSOs in view of the fact that no evaluation of their role has taken place."

Other proposals include:

- Testing people arrested for property crimes for class A drugs.

- New powers to fingerprint suspects at the roadside and to take DNA samples and footwear impressions.

- Allowing police to take DNA and fingerprint samples covertly.

- for example, by undercover officers

- to determine identification of suspects and their possible involvement in an offence, although such material would be for intelligence use only and not as evidence in court.

- Allowing revenue from motoring fixed penalties to fund automatic number plate recognition systems, which are already in use in 23 forces in England and Wales.

- Removing the requirement for civilian investigators to wear a uniform, so that they can go "plainclothes" if required.

- Allowing the courts to remand in police custody anyone suspected of swallowing parcels of drugs

- possibly for as long as 12 days

- to allow the drugs to be passed and seized as evidence.

- Create a new offence of "keeping an incorrectly registered vehicle" to tackle the problem of an estimated 1.2 million untaxed, unsafe or uninsured vehicles on Britain's roads.

- Giving police a new power to stop, search, seize and confiscate fireworks where they suspect the items are held illegally under the Fireworks Act 2003.

- which made possession by under-18s illegal.

- Possible new legislation to deal with demonstrations outside parliament.

- Allowing officers to photograph suspects outside the police station, and use moving images such as video.

By Matthew Tempest posted 13 August 04


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