dh | 10.08.2003 23:46 | Terror War
THE war against terrorism is set to be masterminded by a new UK police force dubbed "Blunkett’s Stormtroopers", Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
Within weeks, the government will lay out radical plans for a unified Special Branch - effectively a British FBI - which would have the power to arrest terrorists and other serious criminals anywhere in the country.
A UK-wide ports police force would also be created under the proposals, which are expected to be included in a consultation document on the future of policing due to be unveiled by Home Secretary David Blunkett.
Currently, each regional police force in Britain has its own team of Special Branch officers under the command of the chief constable in the area. The new body would be centrally controlled from London, although it would probably retain significant numbers of officers across the country.
Terrorism experts said an FBI-style police force was a welcome measure that would help thwart attacks by the likes of al-Qaeda. But human rights campaigners claimed the move was a step towards a police state.
The plan was revealed at a recent meeting of senior police officers by Bill Hughes, director of the National Crime Squad.
He told the meeting the Home Office had been drawing up plans for two years to develop a massive new law-enforcement organisation as part of the "homeland defence agenda". This would have included the police, Customs and Excise, Inland Revenue, immigration, the Security Services and other bodies including the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency.
However, according to a source, Hughes went on to say: "The proposals currently being discussed for a national Special Branch and national ports policing are effectively breaking up the original concept into more digestible sizes, and the focus is now on the other elements."
A Scottish police insider said there would be some resistance to a national force among senior police officers because of the loss of regional control.
"If you are arrested by local officers, they are accountable locally," he said. "But what happens if it’s Blunkett’s Stormtroopers who kick the door in and arrest you at 3am? Who do you complain to then?"
Grampian police chief Constable Andrew Brown, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers Scotland’s crime committee, said: "In principle, I’m not opposed to a single UK organisation to address these issues, but the devil is in the detail," he said. "The principle is one which I could easily embrace, but I would need to look at how it worked out. I think it’s possible, but I don’t think it would be easy because of the different legal systems in Scotland and England."
The Home Office last night confirmed it was looking at "links between national law enforcement agencies", but stressed that no decision had been reached.
A spokeswoman said: "We are consulting law enforcement agencies and others, whose views are clearly key.
"Agencies are performing well in tackling the most serious crimes, and co-operation is better than ever. But we are always looking to see where improvements can be made. We want to make the UK the most difficult place in the world for organised crime to operate."
Officials were ordered to review the current system amid concerns the fight against terrorism and crime was being damaged by inter-agency rivalries, inefficiency and a duplication of roles.
Terrorism expert Professor Paul Wilkinson, of St Andrews University, gave the proposals for a national Special Branch a cautious welcome.
"The most important thing is to have national co-ordination of the agencies concerned," he said.
But John Scott, of the Scottish Human Rights Centre, claimed the move was a first step to a police state. He said: "When the powers that such a body would have are centralised, and under the Home Secretary, there’s too much danger of abuses taking place."