Thousands of people are being stopped and searched by the police under counter-terrorism powers simply to provide a racial balance in official statistics, the government’s official anti-terror law watchdog has revealed.
Lord Carlile said in his annual report that he has got “ample anecdotal evidence”, adding that it was “totally wrong” and an invasion of civil liberties to stop and search people simply to racially balance the statistics.
“I can well understand the concerns of the police that they should be free from allegations of prejudice,” he said. “But it is not a good use of precious resources if they waste them on self-evidently unmerited searches.”
The official reviewer of counter-terrorist legislation said there was little or no evidence that the use of section 44 stop-and-search powers by the police can prevent an act of terrorism.
“Whilst arrests for other crime have followed searches under the section, none of the many thousands of searches has ever resulted in a conviction for a terrorism offence. Its utility has been questioned publicly and privately by senior Metropolitan police staff with wide experience of terrorism policing,” said Carlile.
He added that such searches were stopping between 8,000-10,000 people a month.
Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the “section 44 stops” allow the police to search anyone in a designated area without suspicion that an offence has occurred. But Carlile is critical of the use of the powers used by the Met police, saying he felt “a sense of frustration” that the force did not limit its section 44 authorisations to some boroughs or parts of boroughs but used them across its entire area.
“I cannot see a justification for the whole of the Greater London area being covered permanently. The intention of the section was not to place London under permanent special search powers.”
None of the many thousands of searches had ever led to a conviction for a terrorist offence, he said. He noted, too, that the damage done to community relations was “undoubtedly considerable”.
Examples of poor, or unnecessary use, of section 44 abounded. “I have evidence of cases where the person stopped is so obviously far from any known terrorism profile that, realistically, there is not the slightest possibility of him/her being a terrorist, and no other feature to justify the stop.”
The Met has announced a review of how it uses section 44 powers. And the home secretary, Alan Johnson, is to issue fresh guidance to the police, warning that counter-terrorism must not be used to stop people taking photographs of on-duty officers.
Carlile uses his annual report to endorse complaints from professional and amateur photographers that counter-terror powers are being used to threaten prosecution if pictures are taken of officers on duty.
He said the power was only intended to cover images likely to be of use to a terrorist: “It is inexcusable for police officers ever to use this provision to interfere with the rights of individuals to take photographs.” The police had to come to terms with the increased scrutiny of their activities by the public, afforded by equipment such as video-enabled mobile phones. “Police officers who use force or threaten force in this context run the real risk of being prosecuted themselves for one or more of several possible criminal and disciplinary offences,” he warned.
He mentioned an incident in which two Austrian tourists were rebuked by officers for photographing Walthamstow bus station, in east London.