Mon, 12 Jul 2010

Halting section 44 stop and search powers

Powers to stop and search anyone and everyone without any reasonable suspicion, on the off chance that a random pedestrian may be a terrorist, have been suspended. These powers, section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, have been used to harass people from ethnic minority communities (black men and young Muslims in particular), photographers, peaceful protesters and more.

Confirmation from the European Court of Human Rights, two weeks ago, that it had rejected the British government’s final appeal over section 44 stop and search powers was cause for celebration, and 'Photographers not terrorists' met in front of New Scotland Yard (see pictures). The court in the case brought by Kevin Gillan and Pennie Quinton found 'that the powers of authorisation and confirmation as well as those of stop and search under sections 44 and 45 of the 2000 Act are neither sufficiently circumscribed nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse. They are not, therefore, “in accordance with the law” and it follows that there has been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention.'

Victory Flashmob – Section 44 is Dead!Innocent at New Scotland Yard (c) Peter Marshall

Last week, Theresa May, the Secretary of State for the Home Office finally decided to halt the use of these stop and search powers. She made the following short statement in Parliament:

On Wednesday last week, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that its judgment in the case of Gillan and Quinton is final. This judgment found that the stop and search powers granted under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 amount to the violation of the right to a private life. The Court found that the powers are drawn too broadly—at the time of their initial authorisation and when they are used. It also found that the powers contain insufficient safeguards to protect civil liberties.

The Government cannot appeal this judgment, although we would not have done so had we been able. We have always been clear in our concerns about these powers, and they will be included as part of our review of counter-terrorism legislation.

I can, therefore, tell the House that I will not allow the continued use of section 44 in contravention of the European Court’s ruling and, more importantly, in contravention of our civil liberties. But neither will I leave the police without the powers they need to protect us.

I have sought urgent legal advice and consulted police forces. In order to comply with the judgment—but to avoid pre-empting the review of counter-terrorism legislation—I have decided to introduce interim guidelines for the police. The test for authorisation for the use of section 44 powers is, therefore, being changed from requiring a search to be “expedient” for the prevention of terrorism, to the stricter test of its being “necessary” for that purpose; and, most importantly, I am introducing a new suspicion threshold. 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 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”.

These interim measures will bring section 44 stop-and-search powers fully into line with the European Court’s judgment. They will provide operational clarity for the police. And they will last until we have completed our review of counter-terrorism laws and taken any relevant action arising from that review.

The first duty of Government is to protect the public. But that duty must never be used as a reason to ride roughshod over our civil liberties. I believe that the interim proposals I have set out today give the police the support they need and protect those ancient rights. I commend the statement to the House.

Powers to make everyone a suspect don't cut crime

It is refreshing to hear a Home Secretary considering the protection of our civil liberties a cross-political duty. This is particularly important when considering additional powers the police may ask for. The final ruling of the European Court of Human Rights obviously motivated the government to make such an announcement. However widespread concerns about the overuse of these powers, their lack of effectiveness (much less than one percent resulted in arrest and even fewer in conviction; 'very few arrests result for terrorist related offences'), and settlements obtained for wrongful use of the powers were other incentives for the government to reach such a position.

[...] Finally, the shadow Home Secretary said to me that I, as Home Secretary, need to understand. I think what the shadow Home Secretary needs to understand is the degree of concern that there has been about the use of these section 44 powers under the Terrorism Act 2000—the degree of concern that did arise, not just initially from the way in which they were being used by the police, but a continuing concern about the impact on our civil liberties. I make no apology for the fact—[Interruption.] I believe the shadow Home Secretary was looking at a Liberal Democrat, Tom Brake, and muttering about “their obsession”. I have to say to the shadow Home Secretary that a desire to protect our civil liberties is not an obsession; it is something that we throughout this House should want to do, regardless of political party. I believe it is the duty of Government to balance the need to give the police the powers they need to protect us, with the need to defend our civil liberties, and I believe that is what the statement does.

One cause for the overuse of section 44 stop and search has been the targets set for its use (recently abandoned by most, if not all, forces). At the National Policing Conference, last month, Theresa May announced the scrapping of targets: 'targets don’t fight crime; targets hinder the fight against crime. In scrapping the confidence target and the policing pledge, I couldn’t be any clearer about your mission: it isn’t a thirty-point plan; it is to cut crime. No more, and no less.' Some of these changes will surely be resisted by entrenched interests in the Home Office and the police. A good compromise would be the nine principles of policing from 1829, published soon after the creation of the Metropolitan Police Service, that defined policing by consent.

When celebrations for the suspension of section 44 stops and searches of individuals are over, vigilance will still very much be necessary. The guidelines introduced in May's statement are non-statutory and interim; they could be revoked at any time. What is required to make these changes more definitive is a change of legislation: a repeal of section 44 (if not of the whole Terrorism Act 2000). New legislation will happen only after the announced review of existing counter-terrorism laws is completed.

A potted history of sections 43 and 44

Theresa May reminded officers that 'instead [of relying on section 44], they will have to rely on section 43 powers, which require officers to reasonably suspect the person to be a terrorist.' Both these powers were created by the Terrorism Act 2000. Assistant Commissioner Yates recognised that 'a lot of the stops under section 44 were actually under section 43, where you require reasonable suspicion, so it was a misguided, mis-briefed use of the powers.' Officers have used section 44 even when they had reasonable suspicion, probably to avoid having to justify themselves. (I was stopped and searched under section 44 even though officers stated to have found my behaviour suspicious.)

From 19 February 2001, when the Terrorism Act 2000 came into force, until June 2007, its stop and search powers were mostly used by specialist units. At the very end of June 2007, two car bombs were found in London and a burning car was driven into the Glasgow airport terminal building. For a few days, the threat level in the UK was raised to the the highest: 'critical'. This marked a jump in the use of the Terrorism Act 2000 stop and search powers.

The Metropolitan Police Service (Met) did its first section 43 stop and search in February 2005. During this same month, it was already making 1,296 section 44 stops and searches. The British Transport Police (BTP) started earlier: in June 2003 it was making two section 43 stops and searches and 46 section 44 ones. Most months the number of section 43 stops and searches was in tens, increasing to hundreds for the Met from September 2008; monthly section 44 stops and searches were in thousands or tens of thousands. Most of the counter-terrorism stops and searches, 96% of the use of section 44 in 2009, are by the Met and the BTP.

S44 stops and searches 2005-2009S43 stops and searches 2005-2009

For the whole of 2009, a total of 148,798 section 44 stops and searches were conducted in Great Britain, a fall of 40% from the previous year; these led to 688 arrests (an arrest rate of 0.5%). During the same period, a total of 1,450 persons were stopped and searched by the Met under section 43, out of which 28 were arrested. As can be seen in the graphs above, the number of counter-terrorism stops and searches peaked in December 2008.

A section 44 stop and search can be done only in an area where there's a prior authorisation. Until August 2009, the Met had in place a London-wide authority for section 44, reviewed every 28 days or close to. From that time, until this week, the Met moved to a patchwork use of section 44 authorisations limited to sites across London of an iconic nature and/or key strategic importance (e.g., transport hubs), and specific tasking in response to the intelligence picture. Detective Chief Superintendent Mike McDonagh at a conference earlier this year stated that, there was an authority for section 44 in place in about 10% of London and that in January 2010 there were about 4,000 section 44 stops and searches in transport hubs and the government security zone, and 600 done at borough level.

The Home Office has always refused to publish the list of section 44 authorisations. SpyBlog has made several attempts to get this information, and its freedom of information requests are still ongoing. Last month, Baroness Neville-Jones disclosed that errors were made in the authorisation process for the stop and search powers under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, hence some stops and searches were unlawful. In May, the Metropolitan Police Service quietly published a list of authorisations it requested for section 44 stops and searches from 19 February 2001 til 18 May 2009. As officers can still use section 44 in relation to searches of vehicles, it is still important to be able to verify that an authorisation is in place to ensure that a section 44 search of a car is lawful. The Counter Terrorism Command promised that 'Each police service within the UK will now confirm if they have a Section 44 authorisation in place at that current time, although forces still will not provide details of exactly where for operational reasons.'

Other ways to stop and search without ground for suspicion required

The halting of the use of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 does not mean the (interim) halting of all powers that allows stops and searches of individuals without reasonable suspicion. Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 enables police officers to search any person or vehicle anywhere within an authorised area – for offensive weapons or dangerous instruments to prevent incidents of serious violence or to deal with the carrying of such items. An authorisation lasts up to 24 hours and can be extended for a further 24 hours. The number of section 60 stops and searches, in England and Wales, nearly trebled from 53,319 in 2007/08 to 150,174 in 2008/09 with corresponding number of arrests of 2,069 and 4,273 respectively.

Criminologist Marian Fitzgerald pointed out that the figures on a borough level show little connection between section 60 stops and searches and reduction in number of stabbings. Not only is the efficacy of this power not clear cut, but the European Court of Human Rights ruling that section 44 of the Terrorism Act is unlawful because 'the powers are drawn too broadly [... and] contain insufficient safeguards' should apply equally to section 60.

Yet another power not requiring reasonable suspicion but more limited in where it can be used is defined in Schedules 7 and 8 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This is the power to stop, question, detain (up to nine hours) and search individuals at port and border controls. There were 10,404 examinations longer than one hour in the period between 1 January 2004 and 30 September 2009. Of these 1,110 persons were detained under the powers in Schedule 7 and 8, leading to 99 arrests for terrorism-related offences, of which 17 were initially charged in relation to offences under the Terrorism Act 2000 and 31 were charged with other terrorist-related offences. Of those charges there were 43 convictions. (From the introduction of the Terrorism Act 2000 up to 31 December 2009, fingerprints and DNA samples have been taken under Schedule 7 on approximately 1,200 occasions.)

When the Terrorism Act 2000 was passed, it is likely MPs intended its stop and search measures to be used to reduce the threat of terrorism and not as a general power to make suspects out of everyone. Some police officers justified their use of section 44 powers by considering it a preventative measure, i.e. the fewer resulting arrests are to be found a proof of its effectiveness as deterring potential terrorists to walk around equipped with items that could help in the preparation of an act of terrorism. Massive use of these powers and zero arrest being the ultimate perfection, according to this perverse logic. I witnessed such logic, with incredulity, in interventions by police officers attending a stop and search conference at Kings College. This is yet another reason why the Home Secretary and parliament must give a very clear message to all police officers of what is acceptable in a democracy... before being forced by the European Court of Human Rights.

Bootnote 1 The data used for the section 43 and 44 graphs was obtained with freedom of information requests to the Metropolitan Police Service (Met) and the British Transport Police (BTP). A year ago, neither the Home Office nor Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, had any data on the use of section 43. The Home Office explained in May 2009, '[s]tatistics on the number of Section 43 stop/searches carried out by Police Forces is not collated centrally; any statistics are collated by individual Police Forces.' Since my requests, the Home Office has regularly published section 43 statistics from the Met in its Home Office Statistical Bulletins. In this instance, the Met was helpful, but the BTP initially refused to provide section 43 or 44 statistics and required some further persuasion from the Information Commissioner's Office. One of the stated reason for non disclosure was that '[t]he law enforcement role of the force could very possibly be compromised by the release of this information.' Considering that it was common for other police forces to publish section 44 statistics and that some section 43 data had published in a Metropolitan Police Authority report into 7/7, this was a surprising reasoning!

Bootnote 2 Azad Ali from the Muslim Safety Forum, mentioned earlier this year at a conference on stop and search at Kings' College some of the allegedly typical (and astonishing) questions asked to Muslim men stopped at borders under the powers of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000: Are you good with computers? Have you studied science? What do you want to do in life? What do you think of the Israel-Palestine situation? What does Jihad means to you? What does Ummah means to you? What's your view on arranged marriage? What's your view on the Muslim Council of Britain? Can you tell me what a moderate Muslim is?.

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