Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The Radioactive Goat Principle

Fighting serious crime is a difficult job. There might even be times when special powers have to be introduced in order to combat a particularly dangerous threat. The process is quite simple and involves two stages. First, a gap in the present law is identified by which the police and security services are not able to undertake certain investigations in the way that is necessary to protect against a genuine threat to the country. Secondly, a new law is drafted to give the powers that were previously lacking. It is all very simple.

At least, it is all very simple in principle, but practice shows us that a third stage is often involved. It is the stage at which someone puts up a hypothetical situation far removed from the situations the police and security services have identified as relevant. I call it “The Radioactive Goat Principle”. “What if”, some keen back-bencher in a marginal constituency opines on the floor of Parliament, “someone stands in the road outside this House with a radioactive goat? How will these new measures protect Honourable Members from deadly radiation? If it can happen here in Westminster, it can happen at schools, railway stations, airports and shopping centres. And it need not be a goat, it could be any animal or even a human being. We have a unique opportunity to protect this country against a potentially devastating threat. My constituents need to know that they will be protected and I will not rest until the good people of Bogshire North can sleep safely in their beds.” He secures the headlines he wants in the local newspapers by raising a fanciful threat which, if it occurred, would be very serious.

The government wants the Member of Parliament for Bogshire North to retain his seat and makes an amendment to the draft legislation to give a power to seize any animal capable of being irradiated if it encroaches within 200 yards of any building holding or capable of holding more than 20 people. For practical reasons the power is one that can be exercised by local councils as well as the police and security services. The debate continues and it is pointed out that the chance of someone walking the streets with a radioactive goat is slimmer than a supermodel’s spindly legs. The response of the government minister leading the debate is to accept it is a small chance but it is better to have the power for use if the unlikely event occurs, if the event does not occur there is nothing to fear because the power will not be used. The measure is passed into law, including the radioactive goat provision. That there is already ample law to deal with the problem of someone walking a radioactive goat seems to be of no interest to anyone.

A week later Mrs Bloggins is walking her dog by the church, as she has done for thirty years, and is accosted by a local council official who invokes the new law and hauls her and her pet to the local police station. Mrs Bloggins spends six hours in a cell before a geigercounter is brought in from a local school and it is ascertained that neither she nor Ploppy the poodle would be of any use if slotted into the core of a nuclear reactor. The whole exercise achieved nothing positive, although it diminished the country as a whole. It brought the law into disrepute and terrified a lady who was simply taking her dog for a walk. Never again will she feel safe when going about her ordinary business.

Who is to blame, the council official or Parliament? No doubt the council official’s suspicion was groundless, but what he did was entirely within the law. The real problem lies in the passage of an unnecessary law to combat a fanciful threat.

The Chairman of the Local Government Association has issued guidance to local councils about how they should use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Under this Act local councils have been spying on people. The law giving them the power to do so was said by government ministers to be a necessary measure against the threat of terrorism - that was the argument that got the Act through Parliament. And what has it been used for? To see whether people live in the catchment area of the school they have chosen for their children, to see how much rubbish people put in their bins and countless other pettifogging matters wholly unconnected to a terrorist threat.

Exactly the reasoning behind the Radioactive Goat Principle has been wheeled-out by the government in support of its proposal to allow people to be detained for 42 days without charge. Both David Milliband and Hilary Benn have used precisely the same argument on Question Time – the situation might arise in which 28 days is not enough, this new law is there just in case. In the same way that my hypothetical “just in case” law to protect against the risk of a radioactive goat caused Mrs Bloggins and Ploppy to suffer, so the 42-day law will cause other innocent people to suffer. To suggest that the new law, if passed, will be used only in cases involving serious acts of terrorism is not borne out by experience.

Fighting serious crime is a difficult job. Introducing new laws should also be a difficult job. Any fool can draft legislation to match the concerns of the latest scaremongerer, but legislation has consequences. Unless the bare minimum is enacted to deal with real and not fanciful threats we will sink deeper into a morass of unnecessary and misused over-regulation.

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