Michael Howard has told the Police Staff Association that he will attach new proposals to the current Criminal Justice Bill, now going through the Commons, but only if the police can convince him that their ideas to tackle violence on the streets can be put into practical effect.
Chief constables want new powers to conduct specific but pre-emptive 'sweep, stop-and- search' operations in areas where they have information about criminal activities, such as drugs trafficking or carrying of weapons.
Existing legislation, principally the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, enables officers to stop suspects only if they have 'reasonable suspicion' that the person may be committing, or about to commit, a crime. The police say that this is insufficient to cope with the rise in incidents involving guns and knives, which are now being carried routinely in many inner-city areas.
Any suggestions of increased powers along these lines are likely to cause serious alarm among civil liberties groups concerned at the potential for abuse, and the implications for relations between police and ethnic minorities. They see any powers as harking back to the discredited 'sus' laws of the 1970s and early 1980s, which enabled police to stop people merely on the suspicion that they were committing an offence.
Home Office sources emphasised yesterday that Mr Howard was also anxious to avoid encountering the same problems, and is concerned that what the police want is unworkable in practice. But, in what is clearly a political move to assuage public opinion at a time of increasing alarm about the incidence of weapons, he has signalled his intention to introduce the new powers if convinced of their practicality.
Mr Howard's hand has also been forced by Labour, who have tabled an amendment to the Bill which would allow widespread stop-and-search operations but only after a criminal incident rather than, as the police would like, in advance of trouble.
A spokeswoman for the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, said last night that they would be happy to support the Labour amendment as a 'second-best' solution if the Home Office rejected their proposals. The Labour amendment has been temporarily withdrawn.
The federation spokeswoman said: 'The present laws are completely inadequate to deal with the situation on the streets. You actually have to see a knife being carried before you can stop somebody. But we are not seeking powers to simply stop people at random and would only be able to act in response to specific intelligence.'
Home Office officials are also concerned that the Labour amendment, tagged on the back of tougher anti-terrorism measures such as powers to create road blocks, could bring administrative problems in drafting the finer details. 'We are concerned to make sure that any legislation is correctly drafted and workable.'Reuse content