Monday, October 03, 2005

Counter-terrorism at the Labour Conference (S44 Terrorism Act 2000)

The Sussex Police have been criticised by several people for what could be called a disproportionate use of S44 (Terrorism Act 2000) stop and search powers during this year's New Labour Conference in Brighton & Hove:

<http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/southern_counties/4294838.stm>
<http://news.scotsman.com/uk.cfm?id=2028602005>

As far as I'm aware, Walter Wolfgang was the first person at the conference to appear in the national press as having been stopped by police using S44. Wolfgang was removed from the Conference for 'heckling' Jack Straw, and not allowed to re-enter, then stopped by police exercising S44 powers while they awaited a Labour official to confirm whether or not Wolfgang could be let back in:

<http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4291388.stm>

The media made a lot of noise about New Labour clamping down on elderly hecklers but relatively little about the use of S44 on people who aren't suspected of being terrorists. However, the media (and one or two politicians) made enough noise for Chief Supt. Jeremy Paine to comment:

"This is the largest counterterrorism operation that Sussex Police runs. It involves hundreds of police officers and staff working hard to keep the conference and the city safe. As part of that operation, police officers were given the power under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act to stop and search any persons in Brighton & Hove. This power does not require any suspicion and is used to detect and deter acts relevant to terrorism."

He went on to say: "It is clear from media reporting that they have been keen to give the impression that this gentleman [Walter Wolfgang] was somehow arrested, detained or treated as a terrorist."

<http://www.sussex.police.uk/news_feed/index.asp?uniqueid=14622>

I didn't get that impression. My impression was that the media were claiming to be concerned about the use of S44 powers on people who weren't suspected of being involved in terrorism.

According to Paine, roughly 600 people were stopped and some of them were searched. None were suspected of being involved in terrorism in anway. Paine said that this provided a deterrent effect. I will take his word for it but will comment that it is hard to measure.

Now, under other legislation the policeman can usually only use stop and search powers if he is acting on a 'reasonable suspicion', which seems pretty reasonable to me. Why should they stop and search me if they don't suspect me of wrongdoing? But 'reasonable suspicion' is not required by S44.

As I understand it, Paine is correct with regard to S44 in that the police are not required to have a 'reasonable suspicion'. Sections 44 and 45 state that the police are authorised to use stop and search powers within a designated area, for the purposes of searching for articles that could be used in connection with terrorism, even if the officer has no grounds for suspecting the person possesses such an article.

So the police were using those powers to stop and search people in Brighton & Hove who _weren't_ suspected of being involved with terrorism, for the purposes of detecting and deterring terrorism.

According to Home Office statistics, "the number of 'stop and searches' of pedestrians under section 44(2) increased by 70% from 4,774 in 2002/3 to 8,120 in 2003/4... In 2003/4 five arrests in connection with terrorism resulted from section 44(2) searches compared to seven in the previous year. Arrests under non-terrorist legislation rose from 79 in 2002/3 to 112 in 2003/4."

Last week in Brighton & Hove, the 600* stops and searches under S44(2) resulted in _no_ arrests. I have no way of estimating the deterrent effect but I am aware that the police have annoyed a number of the law-abiding public, including anti-war and anti-Blair protesters, and £3.7m of the cost of the policing operation was paid for by the taxpayer, from the Home Office budget.

The Home Office and the courts claim to be concerned about disproportionality. After Liberty went to court over the use of these powers at an arms fair, the Home Office changed their guidance and told the police to issue a form to every subject of the S44(2) powers.

*The Sussex Police website now says that many of the 600 forms were standard 'street intervention forms', not s44.

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