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Friday, September 30, 2005 

More anti-social policy suggestions, straight from the heart of No10.

Just completely depressing and soul-crushing after a bad enough week:

Tony Blair's willingness to embrace the law and order agenda became clear last night as Whitehall prepares to draw up powers for the police to dispense summary justice to combat antisocial behaviour and binge drinking. The new police powers are expected to include:

· Instant Asbos: much greater use of injunction-style "interim Asbos" granted to the police without evidence or witnesses having to be heard or the defendant informed. Bans and restrictions remain in place until a full court hearing.

· New police powers to cancel late-night extensions for rowdy pubs and clubs without having to bother the courts.

· Fixed penalty fines of £80 for drunk and disorderly behaviour. Three tickets and persistent binge drinkers will face a "drinking banning order" barring them from pubs and clubs in a specified area for a specified time, possibly a month. Underage drinkers and those who serve them will face similar fines.

· Extending £80 and £40 fixed penalty fines handed out by police officers for rowdy behaviour to 10- to 15-year-olds. schemes are under way in seven police forces. Those who do not pay or go to court will face fines of £120 and £60.

· Extending existing powers implemented in January 2004 to close down crack dens by giving the police wider powers to evict drug dealers first and insist they can only challenge the police action in the courts later.

The prime minister confirmed yesterday that this "radical extension of summary police powers" will be hammered out in the next few weeks and published before the end of the year. It will put the rights of law-abiding people to live in safety before the need to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction if necessary.

"I don't think that the traditional law can give law-abiding people adequate protection. We are trying to fight 21st-century crime - antisocial behaviour, drug-dealing, binge drinking, organised crime - with 19th-century methods as if we still lived in the time of Dickens," Mr Blair said in his Labour conference speech.

He spelled out yesterday what is going to be involved: "I want to go further," he said in a round of end-of-conference interviews. "I will have meetings in the next few weeks on this issue. Whatever powers the police need to crack down on this, I will give them," he said.

Judges have already warned the Home Office that they are not happy with the idea of imposing restrictions on people's liberty without a proper hearing. One district judge told Home Office researchers last year: "It would come under the human rights situation, wouldn't it? Making orders without there being any evidence considered?"

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said the prime minister wanted the police to dispense summary justice: "They are no longer investigating crime but dishing out the punishments themselves. If he goes any further than he has already gone, he will be modifying policing in this country for all time."

Instant Asbos: It sounds like a new drink, but it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Asbos are bad and authoritarian enough: now the police will have the power to give summary "justice" by not even having to prevent any evidence or witnesses to a court. Such things could be based on pure hearsay. What if a person breaches an interim-Asbo? Will they be thrown to rot away in the cells until a court has time to hear them? Will they be applied to beggars and prostitutes in the same way that Asbos have been?

Fining underage kids is another great way to fill the tax coffers with the money of the poor, I guess. The kids get the fine, go home, get a thick ear or worse, a beating from their parents, who are the ones left out of pocket. What exactly is "rowdy behaviour?" Is it the kind of behaviour that intimidates people, just youths hanging about on street corners, but actually not doing anything wrong? Fines are another great way of putting a problem to the back of your head, especially as so many go unpaid. The sad fact is that if they were enforced completely, many would be left destitute.

The fines for those serving the underage will further limit the rights of those old enough to buy alcohol but who don't look it. This already expands to videos and DVDs. Why should I have to carry ID to prove my age when I'm old enough to legally purchase goods? Why should I have to carry ID full stop?

The other ideas/proposals are reasonably sane, thankfully, as long as they are not abused. In a week which has seen the Terrorism Act used to stop Walter Wolfgang re-entering the Labour conference, I can't say I'm convinced.

I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. If you feel as strongly about this as I do, you should join Liberty. I did at the beginning of last month. It costs £8 a year if you're unwaged, or £24 if you're employed. I think it's a small cost to support an organisation that is launching campaigns to safeguard our rights on all fronts, including ID cards. Here's what Shami Chakrabrati, the director of Liberty, said about Blair's conference speech:

“The Prime Ministers speech contained much rhetoric about progressive values and the responsibility of true leadership. But there is nothing progressive or responsible about rubbishing the presumption of innocence or dishing out yet more summary police powers; after eight years it is time he changed the record”.

I couldn't agree more.

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