Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The state has 266 ways to enter your home

By Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor

Last Updated: 6:49am BST 24/04/2007

The state now has 266 powers to draw upon when its agents want to enter homes, according to research.

A report from the Centre for Policy Studies says that an Englishman's home is less his castle and more "a right of way'' for police, local government officials and other bureaucrats.

English law has traditionally regarded a citizen's home as a privileged space

In the 1950s just 10 new powers of entry were granted by statute. In the 1980s and 1990s an extra 60 were added.

For the first time, Harry Snook, a barrister and the author of the study, Crossing the Threshold, has drawn together the full list of entry powers in the state's possession.

Force can be used in most cases.

The research comes at a time of heightened concern over the lengthening arm of the state, with ID cards around the corner and more sophisticated surveillance equipment being used to watch people.

Mr Snook says: "The state today enjoys widespread access to what was previously considered to be the private domain. Entry powers - some of which have their origins in EU legislation - have proliferated over recent decades.''

One of the most powerful bodies is HM Revenue and Customs whose officers can exercise a "writ of assistance" with almost unlimited rights of access.

Its holders can break into any private house to seize any goods which the customs officers believes are liable to be forfeit without seeking prior judicial approval.

However, Mr Snook discovered that HM Revenue and Customs does not keep a regular record of the use of this entry power.

Under English law, a citizen's home has traditionally been regarded as a privileged space. Courts have insisted that servants of the state cannot enter a private home without the occupier's permission unless a specific law authorises them to do so.

However as the state's role in society has expanded so have the number of statutes that allow forcible entry.

"As a result of the proliferation and variety of entry powers, a citizen cannot realistically be aware of the circumstances in which his home may be entered by state officials without his consent, or what rights he has in such circumstances," says the report.

"Force can be used in the exercise of almost all these powers. In part this is due to its specific authorisation by law; in part to the courts' readiness to imply a right to use force on grounds of necessity."

It adds: "In many cases, discretion as to what is considered as reasonable behaviour in exercising an entry power is left to the judgment of those wielding the entry power.''

Laws now going through Parliament will give bailiffs additional powers to enter homes in pursuit of traffic penalty debts.

But Mr Snook says: "Many powers are drafted so broadly that the citizen has little or no protection if officials behave officiously or vindictively. Some carry draconian penalties for obstruction, including heavy fines and prison sentences of up to two years.''

His report says the disparate provisions should be harmonised under a new Act.

This should make clear that officials should always seek permission to enter a home; a reasonable time for entry should be specified; and state officials should always have to get a warrant before they can force entry to a private home.

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