Reid tries to tough out scandals with new 'super-Asbos'

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Indy Politics

Sweeping powers to target drug traffickers, fraudsters and gang leaders have been announced by the Home Office as it tries to go on the offensive after a difficult week.

It also set out moves to allow the public sector and private companies to share information on people suspected of fraud.

But John Reid's department suffered another setback when it was forced to reactivate emergency plans to house newly convicted prisoners in police cells because of jail overcrowding. To the dismay of ministers, prison chiefs even had to hold a handful of offenders in court cells in London this week because no police cells were available.

In bitter Commons exchanges with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, the Tory leader, accused Home Office ministers of being more interested in saving their skins than protecting the public in the wake of the criminal records fiasco.

"Super-Asbos" against suspected major criminals could impose restrictions on where they can travel, who they contact, access to the internet, how much money they carry and use of specified bank accounts. They would be imposed by the High Court, using the lower standard of proof required in civil courts than in criminal convictions.

Each order could cost the taxpayer £40,000 and double that if the suspected criminal appeals against the restrictions imposed upon him. But ministers argued that was a price worth paying to thwart the activities of underworld figures against whom it would be difficult to assemble evidence that would stand up in a criminal court.

They have also been forced to scale down their ambitions, predicting 30 criminals a year could be targeted by the orders. They have previously said there were as many as 1,000 "Mr Bigs" that they wanted to put out of business.

Breaching one of the orders, modelled on antisocial behaviour orders and control orders against terrorist suspects, would be a criminal offence that would carry a maximum prison sentence of five years.

Vernon Coaker, the Home Office minister, said: "There are people who try to stay remote from crime, who try to encourage crime but never get their hands dirty - we want to ensure that, while our methods are proportionate, we can get to them. People who believe they are beyond the law and untouchable will know that the Government is on the side of the ordinary law-abiding majority."

The Serious Crime Bill, which was published yesterday, included a range of serious offences which could lead to the orders being imposed, including drug trafficking, prostitution, people trafficking, money laundering, fraud and counterfeiting. But it also detailed environmental crimes, including fly-tipping and "fishing for salmon, trout or freshwater fish with prohibited implements".

It also included a new offence of "encouraging or assisting another person to commit an offence" and set out wide-ranging new powers to allow the public sector and private companies to share information on people suspected of fraud. For example, if someone was believed to be committing bank fraud, their details could be passed to government agencies in case they were also involved in tax or benefit fraud, said the minister.

Jago Russell, a policy officer with the rights group Liberty, said: "We used to believe in hard evidence and fair trials in this country - now we dispense rapid-fire justice as quickly as the Government can develop a catchy four-letter acronym for it. These new orders targeted at the 'Mr Bigs' will likely be as unfair and ineffective as Asbos and Control Orders before them."

John Stalker, the former deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, told BBC Radio 4's World At One programme that the Government was going down a dangerous route.

A failing mission at the Home Office

John Reid arrived at the Home Office on 5 May last year with a mission to get a grip on the beleaguered department. Since then he has suffered a series of setbacks. They include:

* 18 May 2006 - Five illegal Nigerian workers are caught cleaning the offices of the immigration service.

* 9 October 2006 - Plans announced to hold prisoners in police cells because of overcrowding in jails. The prison population passes 80,000 the following month.

* 12 October 2006 - Two terrorist suspects are reported missing despite being on control orders supposed to monitor their every move. A third absconded this month.

* 19 December 2006 - Plans for a single database to underpin the identity card scheme are scrapped. Records will be held on three existing Whitehall databases instead.

* 9 January 2007 - Police chiefs disclose that files detailing crimes committed by Britons abroad have gathered dust in the Home Office.

* 10 January 2007 - The number of murderers who have vanished from Sudbury open prison, Derbyshire, reaches five as two more abscond.

Nigel Morris