At the Labour party conference the Unlock Democracy stall displayed a selection of badges. I still haven’t pinned on the one that said ‘I want Local Power!’, because every time I think of doing so, I ask myself a rather pertinent question – do I really trust my local authority with more power? The great Edmund Burke said, “the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse”. Some argue that local authorities already have too much power and are free to abuse it with relatively little scrutiny. It was only last year that Poole Borough Council was found to be conducting physical surveillance on families merely to ascertain whether they were living in the right school catchment areas for their children.
A statutory instrument made and laid before Parliament earlier this year will allow draconian police powers intended to catch out crime barons to be delegated to councils, quangos and agencies so that they may seize assets from members of the public. The powers will allow councils and financial investigators for organisations as diverse as Royal Mail, the Rural Payments Agency and Transport for London to freeze assets, search homes, seize cash, confiscate property and obtain private financial records. The new measures come into force this week and will allow these dangerous powers, intended to be used by Police for serious criminal investigation, to be used against fare dodgers, families unable to pay their council tax and other ‘dangerous criminals’. Up until now, the confiscation powers have been accessible to councils and other agencies only through the police. They will now be directly accessible without any police involvement. The statutory instrument, made on 2nd April and laid before Parliament on 14th April came into force on 12th May 2009, although it wasn’t until this week that the powers were delegated. Perhaps just as worrying as the new measures is the fact that there has been so little media coverage of them.
When it says that they were “laid before parliament” this means that parliament laid down before it. There was no discussion, debate, coverage, statement, or justification of a quite extraordinary and potentially dangerous extension of the coercive power of the state.
The confiscations powers or “Al Capone powers” were given to Police in 2003, intended by Parliament to be used to crack down on organised criminals by seizing their wealth. The intention was, according to David Blunkett, to target “the homes, yachts, mansions and luxury cars of the crime barons”. Call me crazy, but something tells me that families struggling to pay their council tax aren’t likely to own yachts, mansions and luxury cars. I’m also guessing crime barons don’t struggle to pay their council tax or hop over the ticket barriers on the Underground, yet the Home Office believe it’s acceptable to use the same measures on people who commit minor offences and almost certainly don’t live extravagant lifestyles.
Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that, according to the explanatory memorandum, “Investigation bodies will receive a share of money recovered as additional funding to incentivise further work in recovering the proceeds of crime”. Whether these ‘investigation bodies’ will act honestly when there’s a financial motive is highly questionable. Section 6 of the memorandum, entitled “European Convention on Human Rights”, reads “6.1 - As the instrument is subject to negative resolution and does not amend primary legislation, no statement is required.” Under ‘negative resolution’ procedure, expressed Parliamentary approval is not required in order for a statutory instrument to pass into law; a lack of objection is enough. Because the instrument is subject to negative resolution, the Government hasn’t even had to assess or explain its human rights obligations. Has New Labour abandoned the Human Rights Act? The same Government that brought in the aforementioned legislation has repeatedly violated it and no longer stands to defend it.
Under our excessively dominant executive, there seems to be more and more secondary legislation being produced without any parliamentary discussion, let alone scrutiny. Approximately 3,000 statutory instruments are issued every year yet only around a third of these ever become the subject of any real parliamentary debate and simply become law. There are ‘public consultations’ and one can always write in, although, speaking for myself, I can’t escape the conviction that I might as well save them the time and bin the letter myself. Statutory instruments can greatly infringe upon our civil liberties without facing the scrutiny or media coverage of a Bill. They may go largely unnoticed and largely unpublicised and are perhaps the latest threat to our liberty.
Former Conservative MP Sir Ivan Lawrence, QC, is cynical of the new measures:
“Far worse is the encouragement being given to non-police bodies to search for what they think are proceeds of crime but may not be and subject the victim to the draconian and manifestly unjust processes of the Proceeds of Crime Act. Does anyone in Government understand that if you give prosecutors, who are supposed to be unbiased ministers of justice, the bribe of a proportion of the money they can find, you are actually poisoning the roots of justice in our society?”
The Proceeds of Crime Act has successfully permitted the state to recover funds and punish serious criminals and has certainly been of great benefit, but even if we accept the new measures under the reasoning that they are somehow appropriate for minor offences, there is still the serious danger of abuse and/or errors. When those involved in ‘recovery’ get a share of the pie, the risk of victimisation is raised. What do we do if (or inevitably when) these bodies have got the wrong end of the stick? There’s no longer any police involvement and we have only the assurance that investigators will be accredited, trained and ‘monitored’ by the National Policing Improvement Agency.