5 reasons you should be worried about the divisive Policing and Crime Bill

Posted by Sara Ogilvie on 12 April 2016

Today, the little-noticed Policing and Crime Bill returned to committee stage in Parliament. Beneath its deceptively dull name, this Bill is bubbling with divisive measures that threaten inter-race and police-community relations.

If we let these into law, we risk sleepwalking towards unfair trials, politicised complaint handling, endless criminal investigations and severe breaches of our international obligations.

Here are the five areas where Liberty is calling for change:

1. Police and immigration officers would be able to ask anyone under arrest to state or prove their nationality, and require defendants in criminal courts to provide details of theirs.

Failure to do so could result in a year in prison – yet most offences have absolutely nothing to do with immigration, and even less with nationality.

We all inevitably have some stereotypical perceptions of foreign nationalities – whether they be Somalian, Nigerian, Irish or American. Forcing people to reveal where they come from upon arrest and in court can lead only to discrimination and unfair trials.

And these plans reflect a wider pattern. The Government is building anti-immigrant sentiment into every aspect of British life – turning neighbours against neighbours and raising suspicions against anyone who looks or sounds like they might be foreign.

2. Police would gain powers to force ships to be taken to a port in England and Wales or anywhere else in the world and detained there. Officers could use these powers as long as they suspect a criminal offence has taken place on board, or that the ship is being used to commit an offence – trying to enter the UK without proper documentation, for example.

These powers could quite clearly be abused to send ships containing refugees and asylum seekers to foreign ports – perhaps even the place they are fleeing from. This would amount to a serious breach of the UK’s international obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The inclusion of this measure is particularly striking after the Immigration Minister assured MPs similar powers contained in the Immigration Bill, currently in the House of Lords, could not be used to “turn ships back”. He said: “Vessels may be diverted only to a port in the UK.” This new power has no such restrictions.

3. The Bill proposes a number of changes to the police complaints system, which is in desperate need of reform. But rather than building a fair and effective process for resolving all complaints against the police, the Government appears to have left some of these crucial reforms up to Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).

These elected overseers of police forces – often party political and required to have no particular qualifications or experience – would be allowed under the Policing and Crime Bill to choose to take responsibility for certain parts of complaint-handling. It allows PCCs to make themselves judge and jury by taking on both complaints and appeals, or to hand the whole process over to someone else – perhaps a company like G4S, or even their own family members.

It is a vital part of policing by consent that complaints are handled independently and consistently. Letting PCCs elect to take them on risks politicising what should be an impartial process, and creating a postcode lottery of complaint-handling.

4. The police bail system would be reformed, with an initial bail period of 28 days introduced, but the Bill allows this to be extended indefinitely and makes it easier for suspects to be re-arrested.

This approach leaves both suspects and victims with an endless shadow hanging over them. Liberty wants to see police bail limited to six months – so that police have enough time to properly investigate crime, but suspects don’t wait endlessly for a resolution.

5. Chief officers would be able to hand civilian staff and volunteers any police powers other than arrest, stop and search and anti-terror powers. Community support officers and volunteers could also be given additional special powers.

Allowing individual police chiefs to decide what their volunteer officers can and can’t do will create a confusing patchwork of powers across the country – and leave the door open to abuses. How are we supposed to know whether a volunteer in uniform is acting lawfully when their responsibilities vary from town to town?

The Policing and Crime Bill was an opportunity to restore public confidence in fair and effective policing. The Government has used it as a chance to progress its disturbing programme of making Britain a “hostile environment”, not just for illegal immigrants, but for all of us – particularly the BME community and those with foreign-sounding names or accents.

Liberty will be campaigning to stop these divisive measures in their tracks. Find out more about the Policing and Crime Bill and how you can support our work here.