Mark Steel: The compelling case for more police powers

Is it supposed to give us confidence that they need 90 days to work out who they arrested?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The police clearly require more powers in this battle. Now the vote on 90 days has been lost, they'll continue to be tied down by constraints such as the regulation that if they shoot someone eight times on an underground train for no reason, they face up to nine seconds of mild regret from the Prime Minister before he praises their overall magnificence. Surely most people recognise that new guidelines allowing the police to chase the innocent and execute them would be a rule of which the innocent had nothing to fear.

The police case was put by Andy Hayman, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. He explained that the current terrorist threat is more serious than in the days of the IRA, so it takes a long time to put together the evidence. You can see their point, because even in the old days of trying to capture the IRA, it could take them 18 years to work out they'd got the wrong people altogether.

The slightly confusing part of his argument was that, even without extra legislation, the police can detain someone as long as they like if they charge them. And to do that, they don't need sufficient evidence to prosecute them, just enough to arrest them. Mr Hayman dealt with this by stating: "Establishing the identity of suspects often takes a considerable amount of time."

Is that supposed to give us confidence in the police, that they need 90 days to find out who they've arrested? So now it's only 28 days, we'll hear numerous announcements of: "We have run out of time and therefore released our suspect, although our enquiries were going very well. Indeed, we were on the brink of working out his name. We'd got it down to between N and T, and are confident that with another 62 days we'd have got it spot on."

Mr Hayman went on: "There is often a need to employ interpreters who can work in dialects from remote parts of the world ... such interpreters are difficult to find." Presumably he means remote areas such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, home of the remote people known as "Arabs". Or this might be unfair, and the police were eager to arrest a cell of Apache Indians and Eskimos, but had to let them go after 14 days of the Chief Commissioner yelling: "Surely someone here must be fluent in Innuit."

Another argument was that "there is now a need for religious observance by detainees that was not a feature in the past". So it takes an extra 76 days to charge someone because they spend all that time praying. But even if they do, that doesn't stop the police using that time to continue ascertaining the suspect's name, does it? Perhaps Mr Hayman's first draft went: "The trouble is, these days we have to be so sensitive we're not allowed to torture them during Ramadan."

All these arguments were presented to persuade Labour MPs to vote for the change. So I wonder why representatives of the Asian community weren't invited to put their case. Because they know phrases such as "remote areas" and "religious observance" are code for "let's face it, at least the Paddies played by the rules. This lot are bloody nutters".

In any case, the police always want more powers. If the 90-day amendment had gone through, they'd have been back for more, complaining: "Terrorists are still slipping through the net. For example, officers sometimes dream that a suspect is guilty, but under the current system dreams are not admissible as evidence, and terrorists are exploiting this anomaly to put the public at risk. Similarly, astrological charts are not recognised by our outdated system. Therefore, even if a suspect's Saturn is in direct line with his descending Venus, indicating that today should be a good day to blow yourself up in public, our officers are unable to carry out the prosecutions necessary to safeguard the public."

These new laws, remember, were even said to be draconian by the Law Lords. To come up with legislation even they find too restrictive is like going out for a drink with George Best and hearing him say: "I'm going home mate, I can't keep up with you."

It amounted to an argument so daft it couldn't even be justified by parliament. The only explanation for it getting presented in the first place is that, in return for rolling out miles of red carpet, decking out central London in red flags, and eulogies from the Queen, the President of China allowed us to copy word-for-word his rules on how to get a police force to keep the public nice and safe.