Thursday, 10 June 2010

Thousands Unlawfully Stopped and Searched Without Authorisation

In another victory for submitting Freedom of Information Act requests, it has been revealed today that thousands of people have been unlawfully stopped and searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

This is the police power used in the the arrest of a press photographer covering climate change activists at London City Airport and the stop and search of a BBC photographer at St Pauls Cathedral. In 2008 it was used against a a 15-year-old schoolboy in south London who was taking photographs of Wimbledon railway station for his school geography project. Last year, the Tory MP for Croydon, Andrew Pelling, was stopped under section 44 after photographing a "long-neglected bicycle and pedestrian route" that had been of concern to his constituents. In January, European Court of Human Rights ruled that the London-wide blanket use of section 44 was unlawful.

This morning, police minister Nick Herbert finally acknowledged what most of us already know - that section 44 is routinely abused. An investigation by the Home Office has revealed that 14 forces had unlawfully used their anti-terrorism stop & search powers in forty different operations, by failing to obtain authorisation from a Home Office minister within the statutory 48-hour deadline.

However, as The Register rightly points out, Herbert's statement relates only to the continued, secretive use of ministerially approved stop and search sweeps, which are only one of many objections to the use of section 44. It "doesn't appear to cover coppers' alleged tendency to cite the Act to stop photographers, er, photographing".

In January the Tories promised to curb the indiscriminate use of anti-terrorism stop & search powers. Today, ITV's Crime Correspondent Keir Simmons claims the Home Secretary, Theresa May, is "spitting blood" over the misuse of section 44. So now is her opportunity to honour her party's promise.

LATER - 5.30pm

The extent of Ms May's ire becomes clear - she is so angry, she's actually writing
for those 'leftists' over at the Guardian:

I have ordered the Home Office to conduct an urgent review of the systems currently in place. I am also writing to all police forces, requesting that they take whatever steps necessary to ensure that their own systems are robust. And we will go further: this government will put an end, once and for all, to Labour's abuse of our liberties...

So I would like to reaffirm what we set out in the coalition agreement – a robust review of counter-terrorism legislation, with the use of stop and search powers being just one part of this. Right now, we are considering the precise timing and scope of this important review, and I intend to provide details shortly.

Sounds good, no? But as Conor Geart pointed out in early May, "the Conservatives have a long record of deploying state power to crush dissent to which their attacks on the poor and on organised labour have invariably given rise". Understandably, I think we'll wait and see whether things have really changed.

1 Comment:

Arun said...

At a conference in March, Chris Grayling, the then Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, said that a future Tory government would abolish section 44 but widen the regular stop and search powers (so-called PACE powers). Grayling didn't get the Home Secretary job, probably because of the embarassment caused by his homophobic comments earlier this year. But I would have thought such an outcome is as likely from Teresa May. I suspect the basic Conservative objection to Section 44 is that a power introduced to target terrorists (read brown people) is being used for other purposes (read white people). The solution will be to scrap the now discredited section 44 (currently the sole legal basis on which officers are allowed to conduct ethnic profiling on the streets) but at the same time quietly rewriting the existing guidance on so-called PACE stop and search, thereby allowing for ethnicity to be legally used in identifying people to stop and search. What this will mean is that the government can claim a civil liberties victory by abolishing the controversial section 44, while actually giving the police a greater licence to discriminate.

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