PSNI given new powers to seize documents

Police in the North are to become the first force to receive new powers to seize documents and files as part of a crackdown on serious crime.

Police in the North are to become the first force to receive new powers to seize documents and files as part of a crackdown on serious crime.

The provision allows police to confiscate material without having an explicit reason to suspect that a crime may have been committed.

The Assembly's national policing and justice committee has expressed concern about the development, and said it contrasted with recent steps to relax the local security situation.

SDLP Assemblyman Alex Atwood asked Security Minister Paul Goggins: "Why is it that when you have outlined that there is a changing situation to the point that you are getting rid of (anti-terrorism powers) … you are taking on to yourself even greater powers?

"That seems to me to be inconsistent both in your analysis of what is happening within the north and in your analysis as to how it works."

The minister assured the cross-party committee that officers would not be searching homes "willy-nilly".

He is introducing the clause into the Policing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Northern Ireland Order 2007, which is to be introduced in the British parliament this year.

It envisages a number of changes, including 400 extra community police support officers and more powers for the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman.

Mr Goggins said: "In the process, a police officer must have a reasonable suspicion that having examined those documents he may have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has taken place.

"The police can't go around willy-nilly seeking documents, there has to be a rationale here."

Legislation dating back to the 1970s allowing terrorism suspects to be tried without a jury is to be repealed this July.

The government has also announced a range of demilitarisation measures, including dismantling Army watchtowers and abolishing the domestic battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment.

Mr Goggins added: "We still feel that certain powers are needed to reflect the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland. There's a remaining threat, and it is that remaining threat that has to be treated seriously, whether that is in investigation of bomb-making equipment or in relation to organised criminality.

"It is a diminishing threat, but it's still there, and the police have to have the powers to deal with it."

He said that an anticipated 400 community-support officers would be appointed over the next four years to work in local areas.

They will be subject to the 50-50 recruitment procedures of Catholics and Protestants, which is designed to boost the number of Catholics in the force.

He added that they would be subject to strict vetting before being accepted. He said they were not a substitute for fully qualified police officers, and added that they would have some but not all their powers.

Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan is to have the power to recommend prosecution of police officers after they have been acquitted by a court if fresh evidence emerges or techniques like DNA profiling allow a case.

The minister also outlined changes to the recruitment process, which he said could save half a million pounds (€743,757). It costs £12,000 (€17,850) to recruit one officer, and the PSNI is hoping to boost the proportion of Catholics in the force from 20% to 30% by 2010.

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