The Home Secretary Theresa May has announced that powers under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which allow police to stop and search individuals without reasonable grounds for suspicion, are being restricted with immediate effect. Under new guidelines police will now only be allowed to use the powers if they "reasonably suspect" someone of being a terrorist.
The announcement follows the European Court of Human Rights ruling in January this year that Section 44 violates the right to respect for private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights.
Section 44 powers have been widely abused by police officers in cases that clearly have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism for years. Many people who've attended a protest in recent years will have had the unpleasant experience of being harassed and intimidated by police officers using Section 44. It's happened to me on several occasions.
In most instances it was used as a first resort by officers attempting to establish their authority and disrupt whatever it is I was doing. Needless to say, the experience of being treated as a "terrorist" when you're only seeking to exercise your democratic rights, tends to make you angry and distrustful of authority and less likely to "co-operate" in future.
According to the law, the powers were only to be used in specific "areas" designated by a Chief Constable (and later approved by a Home Secretary) but it gradually became clear that for the convenience of police officers vast areas, including the entire of Greater London, had been made designated areas.
It has been well-known for years that these powers were being abused. An internal review by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism found that thousands of people had been illegally stopped and searched under Section 44. Ministry of Justice figures from 2008 showed that only 0.1% of those stopped were arrested for "terrorism" offences whilst black and Asian minorities were four times more likely to be stopped than white people.
Responding to the announcement in the Commons this morning, shadow home secretary Alan Johnson stuck to the goading authoritarian approach he's taken since leaving office. He said he was surprised the Coalition hadn't challenged the ECHR ruling and accused the Coalition of being "obsessed" with protecting civil liberties.
The Labour frontbench have clearly decided to attack the coalition from the right on liberty and defend even the most illiberal parts of their legacy. But it was pleasing to see Johnson look isolated. Tory, Lib Dem and Labour MPs stood up one after the other to welcome the announcement. Several Tory MPs even spoke highly of the European Court. If I was a Labour party member I'd feel very uncomfortable indeed seeing the Labour frontbench goading the Coalition for seeking to uphold our human rights obligations. They ended up defending measures which are an affront to personal freedom and privacy and quite obviously counter-productive and open to abuse.
The announcement on stop and search is welcome news for all those who care about privacy and the right to protest. Let's hope that the current review of counter-terror powers looks at other catch-all powers that are regularly abused by officers policing demonstrations. The preposterous Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act, which is repeatedly used by officers to prevent photography in public places, should be first on their list.
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