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Too many laws, not enough order

02 November 2006


Are the police still allowed to use common sense? Trevor Barnes wonders

THEY say that if you go to the remote edge of that windswept moorland near Killarney in south-west Ireland known as McGillicuddy’s Reeks, you will find a sign. On this sign, so the story goes, is written an instruction. And the instruction reads: "Do not throw stones at this sign." As an exercise in futility it is matchless.

I was reminded of this sign last week as the Bill to outlaw religious hatred made its way though Parliament, only to be watered down after what many saw as a humiliating Government defeat. You see, this is the problem with rules, regulations, and legislation. When ill-judged and otiose, they serve, like the Killarney sign, to create offences where there would have been none, and potentially to criminalise the law-abiding or the merely dissident.

The veteran Labour activist Walter Wolfgang found this out to his cost at last year’s Labour Party conference, when he dared to heckle from the audience, and was ejected and refused re-entry. Mark Wallace knows it, too. He is a campaign manager for the Freedom Association, who fell foul of the Terrorism Act of 2000 when he attempted to collect signatures outside the same conference for a petition opposing ID cards.

Under the legislation, Mr Wallace was filmed by a police videocamera, detained, and questioned by police officers. He has now been told that details of his "offence" will be kept on file indefinitely. Potentially tarnished by what he says are entirely spurious terror associations, he now fears his freedom to travel abroad in the future could be compromised.

Now, the police, who one assumes are still allowed to use common sense and good judgement, could have surely seen that Mr Wallace was no terrorist — that no backpack, bulky clothing, or trailing wires were in evidence to suggest impending mayhem. Yet still they swooped, with the full force of the law behind them. Strange, however, that at last weekend’s London march against the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet, the Muslim youth who was wearing Hamas-style, suicide-bomber fatigues escaped without having his collar felt until later. But that is another story, and I digress.

Traditionally in this country, the rule of law has been balanced by the principle of order. Some years ago at a quite different Islamist march in London, I watched as a small but noisy group shouted inflammatory threats in the general direction of the American Embassy. "Isn’t this incitement to hatred?" I asked the officer in charge. "Shouldn’t you be doing something about it?" Calmly and, I think wisely, he explained that the small demo was under surveillance and that to wade in and make arrests would potentially exacerbate a situation that was essentially under control. In other words, as there was order, why bother with the blunt instrument of the law.

Increasingly though, we seem to be losing sight of this dual principle of law and order, preferring instead to introduce such a volume of legislation that judges (along with the Archbishop of York) have expressed concern. This increase does little to keep us safe from robbery and violence, as the latest statistics on street crime show.

The fact is that too often the laws we already have are underused. Take stop-and-search. A sustained, targeted, and respectful campaign of stop-and-search on city streets at known troublespots could make a serious dent in knife crime, for instance. A regular police presence on our streets would induce confidence and a feeling of security. Even the simple expedient of sending officers out singly, rather than in twos (remember the police adage: "Two coppers talk to each other. One copper talks to the public") could make a difference to our sense of well-being.

Better to use what laws we have effectively before we hastily introduce new ones that will criminalise everyone from the comedian who cries "Humbug" to the pensioner who shouts "Shame."

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