This is about politics, not policing
Crime is at a record low, so why does Labour talk of crackdowns?
Friday August 13, 2004
When a government floats changes to the criminal justice system, look for the context as much as the content. The political parties are using the summer to test-run ideas ahead of a frenetic election year. There can be no other reason why David Blunkett has, two days after a speech from Michael Howard, decided to unveil another pot-pourri of ideas in the never-ending "battle" against crime.
The consultation document, Modernising Police Powers to Meet Community Needs, is extraordinary in its scope. It ranges from allowing police to arrest people for all offences, extending the use of DNA, giving community support officers (CSOs) more powers, potentially banning all protest near parliament, making search warrants apply to every home of a suspect, and making it harder for animal rights protesters to harass scientists - all this in one bill coming our way in the Queen's speech in November. Why else would ministers have set the consultation period at exactly eight weeks, if not to give them just enough time to frame the outlines of legislation for the next parliamentary session?
The issue for the government is to prove that these measures are needed, that as ever on this issue, the benefits - reduction in crime - outweigh the human rights ramifications. The issue for civil libertarians is the reverse. For the moment both sides have only broad principles to go on.
Ministers said yesterday that the idea of making all offences arrestable, including dropping litter, was nothing more than a tidying-up exercise. This might seem strange given that the police were not bothered by the situation as it stood. Until now, officers could arrest a suspect only if the offence was punishable by a prison term of five years or more, if it had been listed as an exception to that rule (such as kerb crawling), or if the officer believed a breach of the peace had been committed. Offences that do not fall into this category include impersonation of a police officer, failure to heed an order to hand in a passport, unauthorised access to obscene computer material, or the sale of a weapon.
Hazel Blears, Blunkett's deputy, suggested that officers would have to prove a "necessity test" before making arrests. She also claimed the reforms were not designed to increase the number of arrests, but merely to make the process simpler. Maybe she is right. Everyone knows that if a policeman wants to arrest you, he will find a reason, and breach of the peace has always done the job. But is that enough reason to legislate again?
As for the other proposals, CSOs are beginning to perform a useful function as a cheap substitute for police, so giving them more powers might be helpful. But should they be allowed to operate in plain clothes? Surely the whole idea was to reassure the public of an official presence on the streets. Then there is the "super warrant", allowing police to search any property a suspect is deemed to be associated with. Perhaps that is needed in limited cases, but does the home of the mother-in-law where the suspect kipped for a few nights fall into that category? In the case of drug dealers, should the refusal to submit to a strip search be admissible in court?
Perhaps the most worrying item is the idea of banning all demonstrations outside the Palace of Westminster. We know why the government wants to do it. Labour MPs have complained about the ever-present protest against the Iraq war opposite the Commons, where their cars sweep in. These people do not pose a security threat. The police have checked them enough times to know.
The detail of the changes will emerge only after the two-month consultation. But the record of the Home Office is a rush to legislate imprecisely. For example, one of the effects of the 2000 Terrorism Act was to give police powers to detain people across London they suspect of endangering national security. This led to a number of instances of random detentions of peaceful protesters, most famously outside an arms fair in Docklands. When blank cheques replace carefully proscribed powers, the problem is not so much the badly trained officer, but the badly framed legislation.
Over the past decade this government and its Tory predecessor have introduced more than 30 criminal justice acts. This is about politics, not policing. On Tuesday Howard teamed up with "Robocop" Ray Mallon, the mayor of Middlesbrough and importer into the UK of "zero tolerance" policing in the mid-90s, to pledge another crackdown on crime. Talk, and legislation, is cheap. The Labour government is trying to have it both ways. It says on the one hand that crime has reached record low levels; on the other it competes with the Conservatives in the language of "crackdowns". If the news is as good as ministers say, they should proclaim it and leave it at that. They should ensure the country has enough police officers to deal with crime, and just for once leave them to get on with the job.
· John Kampfner is political editor of the New Statesman