Yesterday was a good day for civil liberties.
Theresa May came to the Commons to make a statement in response to a decision by the European Court of Human rights that judged that the use of stop and search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 amounted to a violation of the right to a private life.
Section 44 was already going to be dealt with – so it was a decision welcomed by the coalition government. Alan Johnson, (Labour ex-Home Secretary) said he was shocked that this Home Secretary was not going to appeal the decision. He was pretty much on his own in this view – as other Labour back-benchers stood to commend the government’s actions. But it was a reminder how authoritarian the last government had been.
Having spent five years myself on the Metropolitan Police Authority (2000-2005) and seen the explosion of the use of these powers – I am delighted with the decision. The powers were never meant to be used, for example, to keep the whole of London covered permanently as it was. This meant that during those years anyone could be stopped without reason. Needless to say that resulted in some communities feeling the effects of the powers disproportionately.
The Home Office website describes it thus:
The court said the powers were drawn too broadly – at the time of their initial authorisation and when they are used – and did not have enough safeguards to protect civil liberties. This means that the laws setting out the use of stop and search powers had then to be repealed or amended to bring them in line with European law.
Interim guidance for the police has now been introduced which sets a new suspicion threshold. Officers will no longer be able to search individuals using section 44 powers. Instead they will have to rely on section 43 powers – which require officers to reasonably suspect the person to be a terrorist.
Police may search only vehicles under section 44 of the law, and then only if they have reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity.
The changes will bring the operation of counter-terrorism use of stop and search powers fully into line with the European Court’s judgment, while also ensuring that the public are protected.
Theresa May concluded: ‘The first duty of government is to protect the public. But that duty must never be used as a reason to ride roughshod over our civil liberties. I believe that the interim proposals I have set out today give the police the support they need and protect those ancient rights.’