Courts to get their own private 'police'

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A private security force, with police powers to arrest and detain suspects, is to be introduced in courtrooms, the Lord Chancellor said yesterday. Opposition MPs reacted with dismay, saying that give private guards the same powers as the police was a step towards privatisation.

Lord Irvine of Lairg said security measures in courtrooms were "troubling" and "fractured" and a single force should be introduced to patrol them.

The Lord Chancellor, giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, said the new force should have powers of arrest and detention. They would be "police officers by another name". But Bob Russell, Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, said: "Police are authorised to arrest and detain. These powers should not be privatised. This is the thin end of the wedge."

The court force could arrest people who assault judges or witnesses or abscond while on trial. There have been a spate of attacks on judges and court personnel from defendants and repeated attempts to abscond. Lord Irvine said the recommendation came from Lord Justice Auld's review of the criminal justice system, published last month.

The Lord Chancellor also announced plans to abolish political appointments to the magistracy. Now, magistrates are asked how they voted to ensure there is an equal political balance on the bench. But Lord Irvine said the political system, introduced when people's voting intentions reflected their class, was "old hat".

He said he expected recommendations from civil servants shortly about the way of ensuring "a social mix which is less offensive". Successive Governments have struggled to find enough Labour-voting magistrates for a Tory-Labour balance among the magistracy.

Lord Irvine is likely to look at choosing magistrates on the basis of income or other non-political criteria so all sections of society including ethnic minorities are represented.