Police and retailers are backing proposals for short-term “Tesco jails” for shopping malls and major sporting venues as a way of speedily dealing with shoplifters, drunks and football hooligans.
Mobile units would also be used to deal with protesters at key defence installations and to tackle suspects detained during disorder at major railway stations or at entertainment centres. Retailers called for the short-term jails to be compulsory at all shopping centres to help to tackle shoplifting, which cost £767 million in England and Wales last year.
Suspects could be held for up to four hours in the units to allow police to establish their identity, take a DNA sample or handout a reprimand or caution.
But magistrates and lawyers expressed concern at the idea and insisted that there would have to be safeguards to ensure high standards of care for those held in the units.
Police and shops’ backing for the development of a network of “short-term holding facilities” was disclosed yesterday when the Home Office published responses to a consultation paper on modernising police powers issued earlier in the year. The aim of the facilities is to help police to process high-volume crimes such as shoplifting, large-scale public disorder and big protests and get officers back on the streets more quickly.
“From an operational perspective, benefits were seen in enabling custody facilities to be located in areas of high offending and for access to those facilities during periods of high demand,” the Home Office summary of the response said.
Several police forces called for the units to be more widely used and saw benefits in mobile facilities which could be deployed anywhere.
Sergeant David Warren, of Kent Police, said that the concept of a short-term holding centre was exactly what forces such as his needed.
“Short-term holding facilities should not be restricted to shopping centres, but should be an option that the police should use at other facilities such as smaller police stations, sporting or entertainment centres, hospital sites or local authority sites,” he said in the force’s response.
The British Retail Consortium said: “It should be compulsory for retail shopping centres to provide these facilities and it is vital that they operate against strict criteria.”
But the consortium said that it did not want to end up “becoming a babysitting service” for people who had been taken into custody.
It said that retailers would provide space for the cells but the funding, upkeep and management should be by the local police service. Discussions have already started about building a “retail” jail inside Selfridges, in Oxford Street, London, after the store offered redundant space to the police. Suspects would be held in a small room with a clear plastic front so that they were visible to custody officers.
The Ministry of Defence called for mobile units that could be moved swiftly to the scene of large-scale disturbances and protests.
It would allow MoD police to process protesters without having to travel to police stations with suspects.
But while the proposal won support from some forces as a way of easing the burden on officers, magistrates expressed serious reservations.
Sonia Andrews, of the Magistrates’ Association, expressed “serious concerns” that “speed is being put before the individual and [the short-term jail system] is a downgrading to the entire approach to crime”.
Sue Johnson of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association said that short-term jails would be “rapidly abused and overcrowded”. She said: “If someone is to be detained, they should be detained properly and humanely.”
The Home Office admitted that developing a network of short-term jails raised significant public concern. It is to bring forward more formal proposals early next year and hold a three-month consultation on reforms.
“Moving away from the standard that a designated station provides should only be considered with significant caution and any departure would need to ensure its own high level of protection,” the Home Office document said.