Government revokes draconian powers, another victory for liberty
Thursday, Jul 8th, 2010
Police powers to stop and search anyone without reasonable suspicion under terrorism laws have been revoked by the British government following a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that stated they were illegal.
The Home Secretary Theresa May today stated:
“In order to comply with the judgment, but avoid pre-empting the review of counter-terrorism legislation, I have decided to introduce interim guidelines for the police.”
“I am therefore changing the test for authorisation for the use of section 44 powers from requiring a search to be ‘expedient’ for the prevention of terrorism, to the stricter test of it being ‘necessary’ for that purpose. And, most importantly, I am introducing a new suspicion threshold.” the home secretary told the Commons.
She added: “Officers will no longer be able to search individuals using section 44 powers. Instead they will have to rely on section 43 powers, which require officers to reasonably suspect the person to be a terrorist. And officers will only be able to use section 44 in relation to the searches of vehicles. I will only confirm these authorisations where they are considered to be necessary, and officers will only be able to use them when they have ‘reasonable suspicion’.”
The move represents a victory for those who have campaigned against the consistent abuse of the powers and the hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens, including photographers and journalists, who have been subjected to the humiliation of being accused of being terrorists by police while merely going about their daily lives.
The use of the powers by the police was originally ruled illegal by the European Court in January, a decision that paved the way for protesters, photographers and everyday citizens to fight back against such gross invasions of privacy.
The previous government attempted to challenge that decision, however, permission to do so was refused and the European Court also announced that any future appeals would not be accepted.
The court in Strasbourg referred to stop and search powers as not in “accordance with the law”, and a violation of article eight of The European Convention on Human Rights – the right to respect for private and family life.
Article eight states that “everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life”.
Furthermore: “There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security… or the prevention of disorder or crime… or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Judges noted that there is no grounds for considering the powers “necessary”, and that they are only “expedient”, adding that there is a “clear risk of arbitrariness in granting such broad discretion” to a police officer.
They also stated that the searching clothing and belongings interferes with the right to privacy as it involves an element of humiliation and embarrassment.
The use of the powers and their authorisation is “neither sufficiently circumscribed, nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse”, according to the court.
The court also highlighted a lack of judicial oversight, stating “The absence of any obligation on the part of the officer to show a reasonable suspicion made it almost impossible to prove that the power had been improperly exercised”.
The ruling refers to the case of Kevin Gillan and Pennie Quinton who were detained for attending a protest outside Europe’s biggest arms fair in London in September 2003.
Having finally achieved justice after more than six years of pursuing the matter, the pair were awarded €33,850 (£30,400) in costs and expenses. The full judgment is online here.
Gillan and Quinton, who like many others could have just walked away, should be commended as heroes for their efforts to defend freedom in the UK. They have paved the way for the total defeat of the draconian terrorism laws and helped push for a complete rejection of such abuses of power in the future.
The powers, which were initially conceived only to be used in emergency situations, have come under more intense scrutiny recently following the publication of multiple sets of figures highlighting huge increases in stops with a relatively miniscule success rate.
In May 2009, data released to the BBC revealed that the Metropolitan Police in London used section 44 of the Terrorism Act more than 170,000 times in 2008 to stop people in the capital. That figure equated to stopping and searching a member of the public every three minutes under terrorism laws.
The figures represented a more than 140% increase on 2007 numbers.
Of all the stops in 2008, only 65 led to arrests for terror offences, a success rate of just 0.035%. Furthermore, when you take into account how many of those arrests have translated into convictions, according to the Home Office, you come up with a round figure of 0.0%.
A separate Freedom of Information Act request in 2009 also revealed that the use of the stop and search power has increased exponentially by over ten times in less than ten years.
Furthermore, Ministry of Justice statistics, published in mid 2008, revealed that from 2006-2007 police used their powers to stop (but not search) nearly two million members of the public and demand they account for their behavior or actions, a rise of one third from the previous year.
This meant that in just one year around 3.5% of the entire British population was stopped in the street by the police under suspicion of terror related offences.
While not resulting in the prevention of any terrorism, the section 44 powers have been most notably used against the 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang for heckling Jack Straw at the Labour Conference; Sally Cameron for walking on a cycle-path in Dundee; the 80-year-old John Catt for being caught on CCTV passing a demonstration in Brighton; the 11-year-old Isabelle Ellis-Cockcroft for accompanying her parents to an anti-nuclear protest; and a cricketer on his way to a match over his possession of a bat.
Separate revelations in June 2010 that 14 different police forces in the UK had unlawfully used stop and search powers in 40 operations dating back to 2001 also provided the perfect pretext for scrapping them altogether.
This article was posted: Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 9:59 am