As I’ve argued, “nothing to hide nothing to fear” assumes there will be no wrongdoing and no incompetence. My page on data abuse aims to provide real-life (as opposed to hypothetical) examples of what can happen.
Not Saussure has an article on what happened to his friend when a mistake was made with her CRB check, the outcome of which meant she couldn’t do voluntary work for a church playgroup. It took five months – and what seems to be a lot of effort by her – to be resolved.
Yes these databases are useful. But let’s not assume they – or their users – are perfect.
We read on Sunday that Tony and John want to push through new powers in their last four weeks in office. Among these is the power to stop and question – or “stop and quiz”, as the BBC puts it, which seems to put a friendly spin on it.
Government plans for new police powers to stop and question people were greeted with a barrage of criticism yesterday, after it emerged that senior police officers had neither requested the change nor been consulted.
The Home Office confirmed that the power would be included in a counterterrorism bill to be announced in early June. But the vehemence and breadth of criticism led Home Office ministers to signal a willingness to compromise after the idea was also attacked by MPs, civil liberties and Muslim groups as unnecessary and harmful.
Aha, looks like they were testing the waters.
The new powers, contained in a leaked letter
As SpyBlog asks, will this ‘leak’ will be investigated?
from the counter-terrorism minister, Tony McNulty, to Tony Blair, would make it an offence punishable with a £5,000 fine for a person to withhold their identity or refuse to answer questions. He wrote: “Arguably one of the weaknesses of [stop and search] is that although it enables a search of an individual, it does not enable a police officer to ask that individual who they are or where they are going.”
Presumably though, if the individual was found to be carrying a bomb or doing anything illegal it wouldn’t matter where they were going: they would either be arrested or shot. I suspect a terrorist is unlikely to volunteer that he’s carrying a bomb, so questioning wouldn’t help, but searching would.
On the other hand, if the individual wasn’t carrying a bomb or doing anything illegal, it wouldn’t matter where they were going, would it?
Police sources told the Guardian that neither Scotland Yard or the Association of Chief Police Officers had officially asked the government for an extension of stop and search powers. Acpo also said it had not been consulted. One senior officer called the proposal “bizarre”.
I applaud the Yard and ACPO for telling us they haven’t been consulted.
Most startling to ministerial colleagues were remarks by the Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Hain, on BBC1′s Sunday AM that a revival of the old “sus” laws, which allowed the police to stop and search people purely on suspicion that they might commit a crime, risked creating “the domestic equivalent of Guantánamo Bay”.
Mr Hain experienced South Africa in his early years, which might colour his perceptions somewhat in favour of civil liberties, having perhaps some experience of the regime’s human rights infringements, which included detention without trial and the arbitrary suppression of political parties.
Officials protested that the Home Office had been urged to adopt Northern Ireland’s version of “stop and question” – a legacy of the Troubles – in a letter to Mr Reid from Mr Hain. The province’s police were said to feel that it is less intrusive for those stopped – who do not have to be searched, merely questioned – and wasted less time for police officers who do not have to file a report every time.
The context for such exchanges was said to be Belfast’s current work to “normalise” its post-Troubles policing at a time when London is seeking both to cut police paperwork and to further refine its counter-terrorism tools. Belfast suggested that, rather than repeal its own procedure, the mainland might adopt it too, Whitehall sources said.
Labour chair Hazel Blears told Sky News: “What I understand is that the request has come from the Northern Ireland Office because they have the powers, they want to be able to carry on using them, they find them useful.”
Yesterday two of the country’s most senior police officers told the Guardian that the latest proposals left them baffled and could prove counterproductive. One said: “It does not seem that it’s something the service has been clamouring for. The benefit is not immediately obvious. It’s quite strange where this has come from.”
Another of the country’s most senior police officers told the Guardian: “It seems bizarre. I’m struggling to find any use for this, I don’t see the purpose of it.
“We’ve got adequate powers … if you are stopped and say ‘sod off’ to a police officer, you’re going to get nicked.
Not entirely sure what that’s got to do with the price of fish…
But I wonder who these senior officers are and why they aren’t named.
It could worsen community relations.”
In a speech last month, Scotland Yard’s head of counter-terrorism said current laws were generally robust enough. Peter Clarke said: “My personal view is that we now have a strong body of counter-terrorist legislation that by and large meets our needs in investigating these crimes and bringing prosecutions.”
The police do indeed seem to have adequate powers (718Kb PDF manual).
The Metropolitan Police district in particular is designated as an area under which s44 of the Terrorism Act can be used. This allows stops and searches of vehicles and their occupants, and pedestrians, and authorisation has been renewed every 28 days since the Act came into force in February 2001. Reasonable suspicion is not required for searches under s44.
This is intended, apparently, to have a deterrent effect.
There are other powers to stop and search mostly covered by PACE Code A – see page 64 of the manual – or the end of the Guardian article (which doesn’t include all of them, by the way, just the main ones).
Also there is a power called “stop and account”, or more simply a “stop”. This seems to be similar to the proposal: the officer may ask what you are doing, why you are behaving in a certain way, why you are in that particular place, and why you have a particular item in your possession.
However, I have yet to find any more information on it than that, and today is the first I heard of it. I’m not sure what law provides this power, and I’m not sure why the Home Office Stop and Search website doesn’t provide more detail.
The difference I suppose is that at present you aren’t obliged to give your name or address, and the officer can’t arrest you just because you refuse to provide that information.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said the proposed new power was unnecessary and would lead to people being stopped randomly.
Well, aside from complaints about the disproportionate number of searches of ethnic minorities, such things are fairly random but that’s kind of the point – it’s supposed to be random in order to have a deterrent effect.
(In 2005, 23 stop & searches recorded per 1,000 white population; 99 per 1,000 black population; and 31 per 1,000 Asian population – source).
In fairness it would be silly to restrict searches solely to people with, say, rucksacks, because terrorists would then use something other than rucksacks to transport their bombs, wouldn’t they?
“I have no doubt that, like the old sus laws, it will be completely counter-productive. I can’t help but think this is more political gesturing from [the home secretary] at the fag end of his career.”
All criminal offences, however minor, are now arrestable and if someone is suspected of withholding information about terrorism that can also lead to an arrest, she said. “This new power doesn’t fill a gap because there is no gap.”
Under terrorism laws, police have powers to carry out searches without reasonable suspicion, under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
Since September 11 2001, all of London has been declared by the home secretary as an area where such stops can be carried out, as are all railways and airports, and other sensitive urban areas which could be targeted.
Until yesterday the debate within police and government had been about scrapping section 44 stops or better targeting their use.
For example, Andy Hayman, assistant commissioner at the Met, responsible for counter-terrorism, has questioned their value. There was even a concern that some police might stop and search in order to improve their performance rating (see page 49 of the manual).
Critics say their widespread use has alienated British Muslims – as the old sus laws once did young black men who were excessively targeted.
The shadow home secretary, David Davis, said: “The driving imperative of these draconian announcements appears to be more of a wish to project the reputation of [John] Reid and [Tony] Blair in their last weeks in office, than a need to protect the British public.”
I think that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? Sending out the “right signals” about John and Tony’s law and order record, not our nation’s intolerance of terrorism. And then they can join Charles in moaning about their successors.
How often is section 44 used?
A total of 32,062 searches were made under section 44 in 2004-05 compared with 29,383 in 2003-04, an overall increase of 9%. Over the same period there were 21,121 searches of vehicle occupants compared with 21,287 in 2003-04
It’s a pity the Guardian didn’t see fit to tell us how many arrests occurred as a result of all those searches, because it seems to me the journalist copied and pasted the figures from a Home Office publication.
thirty five [0.17% of those searched - ukliberty] arrests of vehicle occupants in connection with terrorism resulted from section 44(1) searches, compared to 14 [0.07% of those searched] in the previous year. Arrests under non-terrorism legislation following the use of this provision fell from 358 in 2003/4 to 240 in 2004/5.
In 2004/5, 24 arrests in connection with terrorism resulted from section 44(2) searches compared to 5 in the previous year. Arrests under nonterrorist legislation rose from 112 in 2003/4 to 153 in 2004/5.
(source: Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2005 667Kb PDF)
In comparison, “In 2004/5, 11% of stop and searches [under PACE, which requires reasonable suspicion - ukliberty] resulted in an arrest, compared to 13% in 2003/4. This proportion varied between police force areas, from 7% in Gwent to 20% in the City of London.”
And it’s a pity that Home Office document doesn’t tell us how many of those arrested were charged and subsequently brought to trial (or not) and convicted (or not). I haven’t yet made time to hunt these figures down, but by the looks of things it won’t be a particularly high proportion.
By the way, for those people who wonder what the fuss is about, that people should be willing to be stopped and searched, David Mery’s account of being stopped and searched (and then arrested) is perhaps well worth reading.
David Mery has information on the positions of the MPA and MPS.
Harriet Harman calls for end to the “culture of spin”, reports the BBC, and says Labour “must turn over a new leaf”. Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said there would be plenty of time for consultation.