I’ll start this post with a short conversation between Ben Sixsmith and me which took place yesterday:
I’ve long thought his domestic policies were far more damning than the Iraq War.
— Tim Newman (@whitesundesert) January 7, 2018
One of the worst pieces of domestic legislation passed under Blair was the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 which abolished the concept of an arrestable offence. Up until then, there were categories of offence for which specific powers of arrest existed (or not): arrestable, non‐arrestable, and serious arrestable offences. These categories were introduced by the Criminal Law Act 1967 to replace the ancient term felony. They were then updated by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which defined an arrestable offence as:
1. An offence for which the sentence is fixed by law; i.e. murder.
2. Offences for which a person 18 years old or older, who had not previously been convicted, could be sentenced to a term of 5 years or more. This constituted the vast majority of offences, including [rape][theft]], serious assault, burglary and criminal damage.
3. Offences that were listed in Schedule 1A of the Act, which contained a long list of offences that do not attract a 5-year sentence but were considered to require the powers an ‘Arrestable Offence’ designation confers. Examples included possession of an offensive weapon, ticket touting and driving whilst disqualified.
It is worth noting that with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 police powers of arrest increased significantly from the Criminal Law Act 1967, and the 1984 act was itself amended several times to increase these further. Nevertheless, the idea that only certain offences could result in an arrest remained on the statute books. This is probably why for years many visa forms have asked this question (the one below is from a Russian visa application):
The question supposes that people aren’t arrested willy-nilly for trivial matters, but following New Labour’s aboliton of the term “arrestable offence” with the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, it’s an assumption that is no longer valid. Consider this tweet from whom I assume is a lawyer:
Just represented someone at the Police Station – arrested and interviewed by two Police Officers’, for allegedly ‘liking’ a picture on Facebook.
I’m feel slightly ashamed at having been a participant in this strangely pantomimic episode.
— Ian Justin Owen (@ianjustinowen) January 4, 2018
Can you imagine the person concerned having to explain on a visa application form why he was arrested? He will also have had his fingerprints and DNA taken, which (I think) will remain on record for life (even if only at the local police station). He will also face the choice of either lying on application forms or risking being automatically rejected for telling the truth, all because Plod is drunk on their powers of arrest.
Of course, this is a feature, not a bug. The police know that anyone arrested will have to spend a lot of money, exert a lot of time and effort, suffer a loss of reputation, and face a lifetime of administrative difficulties even if they are wholly innocent. What’s more, Plod can make arrests with impunity (the two who arrested the person for liking a Facebook post should be fired immediately, along with their superiors). Nowadays securing a conviction is unnecessary: the process is the punishment, just as it was in the Soviet Union.
The creeping powers of police arrest may have started before Blair, and things weren’t looking good before the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (a student was arrested before it came into force for calling a police horse “gay”), but it was under New Labour that it was cemented into law and encouraged. I have not been able to find statistics on the increase in number of arrestable offences during Blair’s time in office, but I would be surprised if it were less than tenfold. Now the British police take a positive delight in arresting ordinary citizens for minor “offences”.
What makes it more depressing is that this appalling rise in authoritarianism happened in full view of the public, many of whom were cheering at the time. I’ve been arguing for some time that the sooner the British people wake up to the nature of their police forces and start treating them accordingly, the better.
See also this from my friends at Samizdata.