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Reading the Public Order Act

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The police do not need any new legal powers to deal with the kind of disorder that has been seen this week in English cities. The Thatcher government’s 1986 Public Order Act put the crimes of riot and violent disorder on a statutory basis, with those convicted being liable to terms of imprisonment of up to ten and five years respectively. Despite the prime minister’s snide remark in the Commons yesterday, there are no human rights concerns, ‘phoney’ or otherwise, that prevent pictures of suspects being circulated if that’s the most effective way of bringing them to justice.

The stop and search powers that came into force in 1986 have already been greatly expanded by legislation in 1994 and 2000 and are already arguably too broad rather than too narrow: police harassment of young men from certain ethnic groups has clearly already been a cause of huge resentment.

Though the old Riot Act of 1714 has been repealed, the law allows the police (and for that matter the rest of us) to use reasonable force to suppress an ongoing riot. This elastic provision would allow, in extremis, the deployment of troops and the shooting of civilian rioters (and others) that might well ensue. The police already use firearms and – another legacy from the Thatcher era – have the legal right to possess (and therefore to use) water cannon, baton rounds (plastic bullets) and CS gas if such equipment is ‘reasonably required… to discharge their functions’. Likewise, whether you want to call it a curfew or not, the common law has long allowed control of the movement of people if it is judged necessary to curb or prevent breaches of the peace.

The issue is not one of legality; it is of capacity. This is what makes the plan to make deep cuts to police forces across the country so politically risky.

Instead of addressing any of this, David Cameron has chosen to blame the police for making the wrong operational decisions and at the same time to propose giving them all sorts of new powers. They are apparently going to be able to remove face masks ‘under any circumstances where there is reasonable suspicion that they are related to criminal activity’. ‘Gang injunctions’ – civil court orders which restrict the movement of people accused of being in gangs – are now to be rolled out against children as well as adults. These injunctions are the replacement of ASBOs, which in a burst of civil libertarian zeal the government scrapped shortly after it took office; a breach of their terms may well land offenders in jail. There is even some suggestion of Chinese-style control of the internet, though it is hard to see how the prime minister can follow up on this pledge.

And all for what? So that the political classes can continue to pretend that their love affair with global capital has had no consequences in terms of broken communities, wrecked families and lost lives, and that all the mayhem is the result of a new evil spirit stalking the cities rather than a scream of anger and acquisitiveness: people working together, resisting the ‘feds’, planning, acting in concert to get stuff – surely what the prime minister has always wanted, a capitalist Big Society.

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