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New Labour's tame copper

Sir Ian Blair, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, is New Labour’s favourite copper. Ministers can always rely on him to back the government when others are reluctant to do so. In fact, when it comes to plans to extend pre-trial detention to 42 days, Blair is about the only supporter of substance that they can wheel out.

Blair’s arguments in favour of what amounts to internment are absolutely in line with home secretary Jacqui Smith’s view that it is better to have new powers just in case you might need them one day. Yesterday, Blair told MPs examining the legislation that suspects might "suddenly emerge from left field" and have to be arrested at a very early stage, leaving officers with “huge amounts of investigative work”. Then he claimed: “We have reached a point where at 28 days we feel sooner or later – and maybe sooner – something is going to happen to make that insufficient."

On that basis, the state might as well assume greater and greater general powers over ordinary citizens in all areas on the grounds that, well, the state might just need them one day. Of course, that is exactly what New Labour has been doing over the last decade. Ministers have consistently disregarded basic human rights laws and the rule of law to introduce draconian powers, starting well before the 9/11 attacks and the so-called “war on terror”. As a result, we now live under a fully-fledged surveillance state, where the citizen is secretly monitored in a variety of ways.

Blair’s approach to 42 days is the same “pre-emptive” mentality that lies behind actions ranging from the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the Met chief’s namesake to the execution by his officers of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005. Iraq could have had “weapons of mass destruction” – so let’s invade and wreck the country to make sure. Pity we couldn’t find any, says the government, but it is better to be safe than sorry. The same goes for the Brazilian electrician. He could have been a terrorist. The fact that he wasn’t makes him an unfortunate victim of the “war on terror”. Thanks to New Labour’s control of the Metropolitan Police Authority, no one – least of all Sir Ian Blair – is held accountable for their actions on that day. He is truly the government's man at Scotland Yard.

There are serious voices within the state opposed to extending the detention period from 28 days to 42 days (it was only 48 hours in 1997). These include Sir Ken Macdonald, the director of public prosecutions. The DPP told MPs yesterday: "For our part as prosecutors, we don't perceive any need for the period of 28 days to be increased. Our experience has been that we have managed comfortably within 28 days. We have therefore not asked for an increase in 28 days. It is possible to set up all sort of hypotheses ... Anything is possible – the question is whether it's remotely likely." And Britain’s most senior Asian policeman, assistant Metropolitan Police commissioner Tarique Ghaffur says increasing the limit will be “counter-productive”.

Whether such opposition will inspire enough New Labour MPs to vote against the proposal and defeat the government remains to be seen. Whether Blair remains in his post is also a matter for debate. That entirely depends on the outcome of the May 1 elections for mayor of London. Tory challenger Boris Johnson and Liberal Democrat (and former policeman) Brian Paddick wants him removed. Mayor Ken Livingstone running on the New Labour ticket, wants Blair to stay on. Who would have thought it?

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
23 April 2007

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