Our the US and UK mirrors in abusing citizens and going back on their word?
Minister's plan for new stop-and-question powers takes senior officers by surprise
· Police did not ask for stop and question legislation
· Muslim and civil liberties groups attack proposal
Michael White, Vikram Dodd and David Pallister
Monday May 28, 2007
A police officer fills in a stop and search form. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty
The new powers, contained in a leaked letter 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."
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".
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".
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. 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."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said the proposed new power was unnecessary and would lead to people being stopped randomly.
"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.
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."
Azad Ali, chair of the Muslim Safety Forum which works to improve police and community relations, said: "This looks like the old sus laws, and will further alienate people and exaserbate the sense people have that the community is being victimised. There are enough powers for the police to do their job."
What the law says now
What new power is being proposed?
Home Office ministers want to give the police the power to stop and ask people questions about their identity and their movements. Refusal would be a criminal offence.
What powers do the police currently have?
The power to stop and search a person or a vehicle is principally contained in three laws:
Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1994 This allows an officer to search for a stolen or prohibited item or for something intended for use in acts of criminal damage. The officer must have reasonable suspicion of a crime.
Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 Section 60 allows an officer of the rank of inspector or above to authorise searches - usually for dangerous or offensive weapons - if there are reasons to believe incidents involving serious violence might take place. The officer also has the power to demand the removal of disguises.
Terrorism Act 2000 Section 44 gives officers the power to stop and search for articles that could be used in terrorism. No reasonable suspicion is required. Authorisation for stops in a defined area must be given by an officer of the rank of commander or above and last for up to 28 days. The whole of London is an authorised area all the time, with ministers renewing the power every 28 days. Under section 43 an officer may stop and search someone whom he or she reasonably suspects to be a terrorist.
Other searches can be made under the Firearms Act, the Misuse of Drugs Act, the Aviation Security Act, the Public Stores Act, the Control of Alcohol Act, the Crossbows Act and five acts concerned with wildlife offences.
What happens if you refuse?
The police must seek the cooperation of those to be searched. A forcible search may be made if the person is unwilling or resists.
Can you refuse to give your name and address?
Yes. There is no obligation to provide these details and there is no power of detention if the person is unwilling to do so. The officer must then write a description of the person in the record.
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