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It’s not the end for stop and search

Jane Fae Ozimek
The Register
July 12, 2010

Fears were growing today that the latest attempts by Home Secretary Teresa May to put policing back on a more sensitive, acceptable footing may yet backfire.

In the Commons last Thursday she announced that she is ready to bring the UK back into line with Europe by revising the government’s guidelines on terror stops and searches. Subsequent statements by police and the Home Office suggest that matters may be a little trickier, and that simplistic press reports that a much disliked law is now dead and buried are premature.

First up, those pesky stop-and-searches. The last government brought in two powers that it believed would aid the police in combating terrorism. The first, s43 of the Terrorism Act 2000, gave the police the right to stop and search individuals where they had “reasonable suspicion” that they were involved in terror activity or activity that could support terrorists.

Far more controversially, s44 gave police extensive powers to stop and search without suspicion in designated areas. As added provocation to the civil liberties lobby, many designated areas remained secret, on the grounds that revealing which areas were designated would itself provide terrorists with useful information as to where the state hoped they would not be operating.

The European Court of Human Rights pulled the plug back in January, declaring s44 breached the right to a private life.

The Coalition declared early on that it was unhappy with s44. On Thursday, following further legal advice, May told the Commons: “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.”

Of the European ruling, she said: “The government cannot appeal this judgement, although we would not have done so had we been able.”

It therefore looks as though s44 is on its way out.

Or is it? On Wednesday, young photographer Jules Mattson, 16, was stopped, allegedly dragged through a crowd of spectators and searched under Section 43 of the Terrorism Act. His offence? Violating a supposedly “sterile area” in front of Prince Charles.

An official statement by the Met said: “If an officer witnesses what they deem to be suspicious behaviour then they are justified in carrying out a stop. In this instance the officer spoke to him about his behaviour”. Note the use of s43: some, including Amateur Photographer magazine, have speculated that this was due to police nervousness over long-standing criticism of the way in which they use s44, and an ever-growing list of unpopular and expensive court cases.

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