Thursday, March 19, 2009

Stopped and searched in the best possible taste

According to the Times, security is being stepped up in advance of next month’s G20 summit in East London. The fear is that, instead of attacking the actual venue, which is quite easily defendable, protesters will opt for soft targets such as hotels and public buildings.

This puts yesterday’s incident into perspective. Ros and I were heading to the London Regional Conference when, at Westminster station, I was called over by a British Transport Police officer. He courteously explained that he and his colleague were undertaking stop and search checks on individuals, and asked if their rather cute springer spaniel could check the small suitcase I was dragging. Naturally, I had no objection, placed the suitcase on the floor and stood back whilst the dog did its work.

I had assumed that the bag was being checked for drugs or explosives, although the rationale for stopping me wasn’t made entirely clear. I was asked whether or not the bag was mine, and had to acknowledge that it was Ros’s. They then took some details from her - name, address and the like - before explaining to us that the stop and search had been conducted under the auspices of Section 44(2) of the Terrorism Act 2000. A copy of the report was supplied, Ros put it in her handbag and we continued on our way.

I might have thought no more about it until this morning, when I read the document and, in particular, the back of it, which explains what should happen. Apparently, I should have been told why I was being stopped, and the relevant legislation quoted. I’m not going to get excited about it, and I’m confident that the officers had no malicious intent – most people don’t care about the legislative background, and are, like me, happy to cooperate with the police in the pursuit of their legitimate business, i.e. protecting us from criminals and terrorists. However, we all have a duty to ensure that those exercising power are held to account and, as we might see a lot of this over the coming weeks, here’s the legislation…

(2) An authorisation under this subsection authorises any constable in uniform to stop a pedestrian in an area or at a place specified in the authorisation and to search—

(a) the pedestrian;

(b) anything carried by him.

Section 45 (1) explains that suspicion is not required in order to carry out such searches…

1) The power conferred by an authorisation under section 44(1) or (2)—

(a) may be exercised only for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism, and

(b) may be exercised whether or not the constable has grounds for suspecting the presence of articles of that kind.

Authorisation must be given, in London at least, by an officer at Commander level or above. So, clearly, a senior officer has deemed it necessary to so authorise, which is where the story from the Times picks up…

Naturally, you are protected by statute from inappropriate application of this legislation. Given that many of you reading this will be keen to ensure that your rights aren’t taken from you unduly, here is Liberty’s advice on what those rights are


Andy said...

I was stopped a couple of weeks ago on Tottenham Court Road by an officer who just asked me "would you mind speaking to me for a couple of minutes?". It was only when I said OK and stopped to speak to him that he explained what it was about, asked me what I was up to, filled out a little slip and sent me on my way. I appreciate that these people have a quota of random stoppages to be filled, but it does seem a little bizarre. What would have happened if I just said "No, I'm in a hurry" in response to his initial question. If I was an actual terrorist, I probably wouldn't have been so accommodating.

Nick said...

Mark, I am surprised you are so relaxed about this. I worry about the 'hype' that is going on about the possibility of trouble at the G20 summit.

I suggest to you that the Times article was written by someone doing a quick trawl of the usual websites and writing up the quotes of cyber-warriors. The police quotes used in the story are to justify their continued use of powers that border on an abuse of our civil liberties.

Of course there are bound to be some people out to create trouble but believe me when I tell you that the police know every well who those people are and have probably got them under surveillance at this moment anyway. Come April 2nd the police will coral these demonstrators in to one place, surround them with officers dressed in paramilitary uniforms and stick video cameras in their faces.

Any rioting that does take place (and I am in no way condoning or encouraging anyone to riot!) will be equivalent to that which took place in Kensington High Street during the Gaza protests earlier this year. Nasty, stupid and expensive for a small number of local residents, shop owners and insurance companies, but not much more than happens very occasionally after a highly charged football match in some parts of the UK. But if the equivalent happens during the G20 summit it will be magnified out of all proportion. I can see the headlines now and the rolling ‘play by play’ coverage the news channels will give it.

In the next days and weeks the summit will be used as an excuse to conduct more searches of the type you underwent yesterday with more forms to be entered on databases and photos to be put on file. Like you I trust the police – for the time being – I just hate to be made to feel as though I should be afraid to travel around MY city and be made to feel grateful that my every step is being watched by a big brother.

PS: Good specch from Ros last night!

Mark Valladares said...


Under normal circumstances, I would agree with you. The area around the Palace of Westminster is slightly unusual, with police with weapons, barriers to deter vehicles from stopping nearby, and all the attendent paraphenalia.

I tend to expect beefed-up security there. Indeed, I am often surprised at how 'gentle' security seems there. The doorkeepers and police are courteous, helpful and, for the most part, trusting (the trust is earned). It doesn't look like the sort of setup that would deter a determined terrorist, and we are allowed a remarkable level of access to the surrounds of our Parliament.

On the other hand, if I was asked the same question at, say, Kingsbury station, I might take a different view...