Bailiffs to get powers of arrest

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The Independent Online

Civilians are to be given the power to arrest "bail bandits" and criminals who breach probation orders and suspended prison sentences under plans outlined by the Government yesterday.

Civilians are to be given the power to arrest "bail bandits" and criminals who breach probation orders and suspended prison sentences under plans outlined by the Government yesterday.

Civil rights groups, including Liberty, warned that the proposals could lead to dangerous door-step confrontations between criminals and untrained bailiffs as well as breaches of human rights.

The changes will, for the first time, give magistrates responsibility for ensuring that people who breach bail and other sentences are arrested and brought to justice.

The Government intends to implement the measures on 1 January 2001, to ensure that the courts have sufficient time to prepare for the formal transfer of responsibility on 1 April 2001.

Cracking down on "bail bandits" has been a common theme among ministers. In July, Jack Straw told the Association of Chief Police Officers that magistrates should be tougher on those who breach bail.

Under the proposals, bailiffs working for private companies would be able to make doorstep arrests for a wide range of criminal offences including breaches of community service and drug treatment orders and civil breaches of nonpayment of child support maintenance. The proposed changes introduced by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, include further provisions to increase the bailiff's power of arrest of people who default on fines or council tax.

Liberty described the move as worrying. Deborah Clark, its director of public affairs, said: "Powers of arrest are a severe intrusion into the public's personal liberties. They must be subject to proper training, accountability, supervision and appropriate procedures. The police are - bailiffs are not."

A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said the rationale was to free police from the burden of executing court-ordered arrest warrants. "Police time is more effectively spent combating crime."

In the consultation document, Warrant Execution - Transfer of Responsibility, the Government also sets out the standards under which court-approved bailiffs will have to operate. The powers of arrest can be exercised only by registered bailiffs who have contracts with magistrates courts. But the changes will also allow bailiffs to execute warrants without having to have them in their possession at the time of the arrest.