Section 44 must go, says SACC

Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) welcomes Tuesday's ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that Stop and Search powers under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 breach Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to respect for a private life). SACC says that Section 44 of the Terrorism Act should now be repealed.

The judgement concerned a case brought by Kevin Gillan and Pennie Quinton, who were stopped by police while their way to a demonstration at an arms fair held in London in September 2003. However, the judgement was framed in very general terms and it seems almost certain that any use at all of Section 44 stop and search powers would be similarly in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Section 44 allows police to search people for items that could be used in connection with terrorism, without needing to have any reasonable grounds for suspicion. The searches can only be carried out in areas where authorisation for them has been granted. Most people are unlikely to know whether a particular place is in such an area or not, and police and the Government are secretive about these authorisations. The Strasbourg judges ruled that the stop and search power itself and the authorisation process "are neither sufficiently circumscribed nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse."

SACC has long argued that Section 44 stop and searches are unjust and arbitrary. We are glad that the European Court agrees with us. Any police force that continues to search people under Section 44 will be skating on very thin legal ice indeed. There is no need for arbitrary stop and search powers of this sort. Where police have reasonable suspicions about someone they have perfectly adequate >search powers without relying on Section 44.

Parliament should act urgently to clear up this mess by repealing Section 44. It needs to respect both the letter and the spirit of the Strasbourg ruling. MPs need to resist any Government attempt to re-bake Section 44 in a rights-proof form. When the Law Lords outlawed the arbitrary powers of detention contained in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Government devised its bizarre control orders scheme in order to evade the ruling. This obstinacy lead to a catalogue of injustice and litigation. We don't want that to be repeated. We need a clean break. We need Section 44 to go.

116 section 44 stop and searches were carried out by Scotland's regional police forces in 2007, 1376 were carried out in 2008 and 878 from 1 January to 31 August 2009, according to a statement made last September by justice minister Kenny MacAskill. The number of section 44 stop and searches carried out by British Transport Police in Scotland is unknown. 117,278 section 44 stop and searches were carried out in England and Wales in the year 2007/8.

Section 44 stop and searches haven't prevented a single act of terrorism. All they have done is signal to Muslims they are the target of police suspicion (since they are disproportionately likely to be searched), signal to other communities that Muslims are to be regarded as suspicious (since they are observed being searched), and to promote amongst everyone an exaggerated fear of terrorism.

SACC will continue to campaign for the repeal not only of Section 44 but of the whole of the Terrorism Act 2000, which manufactures injustice and fear in many other ways besides those considered in the Strasbourg ruling.

Notes

  1. Full Strasbourg ruling in the case of Gillan and Quinton v. the United Kingdom
  2. Figures for Section 44 searches (provided by Kenny MacAskill in reponse to question S3W-26459 by Anne McLaughlin MSP).
  3. More about stop and search in Scotland - SACC Briefing