Police in talks with Home Office to ensure immediate surrender of passports after case of Londoner suspected of being masked man in Isis video
Rules on police bail are ‘fairly toothless’ because police are unable to prosecute breaches of any bail conditions, the Met’s counter-terror chief, Mark Rowley, has told MPs. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
Ministers are looking urgently at strengthening police powers to enforce conditions when they bail terror suspects. The move follows an embarrassing case in which a British jihadi was politely asked to surrender his passport 36 days after he had left the country.
The Metropolitan police’s counter-terror chief, Mark Rowley, told MPs the police were in talks with the Home Office about making it a criminal offence to breach conditions of police bail and to ensure suspects immediately surrendered their passports if required.
The rules on police bail – as opposed to much tougher court bail – were “fairly toothless” because they were unable to prosecute breaches of any conditions that might be laid down, Rowley told the Commons home affairs select committee. It is only a criminal offence if the suspect fails to surrender on the scheduled date the bail expires.
The urgent talks follow the case of Siddhartha Dhar, who has been named as the prime suspect as the masked man in the latest Islamic State video. Dhar, from London, left Britain for Syria within 24 hours of being bailed in connection with terror offences in October 2014.
The Met sent a polite letter to his London address asking him to surrender his passport and get in touch with them 36 days after he had fled to join the Isis.
David Cameron told the chair of the committee, Keith Vaz, he would be “happy to look carefully” at the need to strengthen police bail powers. The prime minister added that he knew the Met counter-terror chief was likely to raise the issue with Vaz’s committee.
Rowley told the MPs that so far the passports of 20 potential British jihadis have been seized under new legislation to prevent them travelling to Syria but that police powers to bail suspects needed to be strengthened.
He said about a third of the 339 people arrested in connection with terror offences in 2015 had been released on bail, many of them with conditions attached.
Rowley confirmed that ports and airports were informed in cases in which it was thought they might try to leave the country. But he hinted that exit checks were “less robust” at some ports and airports than others.
The counter-terror chief played down the significance of the letter in the Dhar case, saying that was a matter of legal process. Rowley told the committee that what matters was the practicalities involved in seizing a passport, adding that it was difficult if a suspect had hidden the passport or passed it on to somebody else.
He said the current police bail laws meant that while a suspect could be re-arrested for breaching conditions they could not be prosecuted as it was not in itself a criminal offence.
Cameron said that in the Dhar case his passport had not been immediately available and the police could not continue to hold him at the time he was bailed because he had already reached the legal limit.