Opinion: Control orders – not the only problem with restrictions on liberty

How far do we want to permit detention without trial? If Control Orders are regarded as an unacceptable deprivation of liberty under Article 5 of the ECHR legislation, what are we to make of police officers who summarily impose long curfews on those arrested but not charged with any offence?

Fanciful as it may seem, it is perfectly possible for a police officer to arrest someone, take them to a police station, have an interview with them, and then release the person on police bail for four weeks but impose a curfew from 9pm to 6am requiring the person to remain indoors; all this without any need to record the fact. Four weeks later, at a further interview ‘to help police with their inquiries’ the process can be repeated.

Now, I am all in favour of reducing paperwork, but surely someone in government should want to know if citizens are routinely, or even exceptionally, being deprived of their liberty, whilst just helping police with their inquiries? After all, this could not happen if the person was charged, because they would need to be brought before a court, and the issue of bail conditions argued by lawyers for the state and the defendant in front of judicial officers.

But, no such process exists for those arrested, but not charged.

Following a written PQ from Annette Brooke, the Home Office admitted just before Christmas that it doesn’t know what the police do with those who are arrested. So, that’s alright then.

A police state is my mind is one where the arm of the state dedicated to protecting the public decides to go further and take decisions of how to deal with suspected offenders without bothering to involve judicial process. Under Labour, it wasn’t just Control Orders but a whole raft of actions to deal with low level offending that were handed over to the police and local authorities. Penalty Notice for Disorder handed out by private security guards, traffic offences as a means of revenue gathering, and the iniquitous Conditional Cautions where prosecutors can determine individual sentences without regard to the courts at all were all introduced. It was as if, under Labour, the constitutional separation of powers was an unnecessary impediment to the control of crime.

Liberal Democrats applaud the Justice Secretary for wanting to reduce prison sentences, and not just short ones, but we must be equally vigilant to ensure that the forces of law and order don’t overstep the mark elsewhere in the criminal justice system.

No deprivation of liberty, however short, should be imposed on anyone who leaves a police station without the police first obtaining a court order. If there is insufficient evidence to charge a person, then there should be insufficient evidence to deprive a person of their liberty without the authority of a court. For a Liberal Democrat coalition to do otherwise would be to risk a fundamental principle enshrined in our opposition to Control Orders but that has a much wider application in society.

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