Leading article: Beware these new ways of making us safer


We can all agree that our law enforcement services will have to adapt their methods if they are to counter the new ways that criminals are finding to pursue their ends. Smugglers and terrorists have been quick to utilise technologies such as mobile phones and the internet. And the increasing interconnectedness of the world means that new people-smuggling and drug-trafficking networks are constantly forming. All this clearly demands a pragmatic response from the police and security services. We do not expect those charged with upholding the law of the land to stand still.

And any evidence of fresh thinking is welcome from a public service that has traditionally been instinctively opposed to change. It is, for instance, encouraging to see that after years of opposition many police chiefs appear to be coming round to the idea of making evidence from phone-tapping admissible in British courts. It is also encouraging, from this perspective, that a new Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), which was officially launched by the Prime Minister yesterday, will apparently adopt a "what works" philosophy to disrupting criminal networks.

Yet serious doubts remain, particularly about the nature of Soca. Is it really necessary to establish a "British FBI" - as this amalgamation of Customs, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad has been christened - to achieve these ends? The project smacks of political grandstanding. There is, after all, little that ministers like more than to announce sweeping structural changes to public bodies. The trouble is that such grand schemes usually fail to deliver the ambitious promises on which they are sold.

It is a cause for concern that the head of Soca will be a former intelligence officer, with little experience of negotiating the pitfalls of the criminal justice system. And the fact that Soca agents will have access to intelligence information hints at possible future turf battles with MI5. There are also grounds to be wary of Soca's founding ethos. We are informed that its ultimate goal is to prevent "harm" to the public, as opposed to simply catching criminals. Such a paternalistic objective may sound comforting. But if its agents - who will have police powers, but will not actually be police officers - decide that their brief is wider than merely prosecuting criminals through the courts, there is a danger that they could overreach themselves. Their political impartiality could even be compromised. The Government's efforts to tackle Islamist terrorism in recent years should alert us to the perils of innovative ways of keeping the public "safe".

The organisation is tainted already by its association with New Labour. This Government has a wretched record of protecting civil liberties. Despite rising costs and little public enthusiasm for the scheme, ID cards continue to be forced though Parliament. And Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, has hinted that he may revisit the proposal to detain suspects for 90 days. We should not discount the possibility that the new capabilities of Soca will be utilised in pursuit of this illiberal agenda. Tony Blair did nothing to dispel these concerns yesterday when he said: "There is absolutely nothing that should come before the basic liberties of people in this country to be freed from the tyranny of organised crime." Such populist rhetoric does not bode well.

If Soca is truly to be a British version of the FBI we must demand that it be subject to the same level of democratic scrutiny as that organisation. We cannot allow ourselves to be beguiled into sacrificing yet more of our liberty in the name of greater security.

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