Government Should Repeal Counterproductive and Arbitrary Law
July 4, 2010
The case for scrapping this stop-and-search power is overwhelming. The benefits are dubious but the costs for human rights and community relations are easy to see.
Benjamin Ward, Europe and Central Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch

(London) - The new UK coalition government should repeal an abusive counterterrorism power that has led to hundreds of thousands of people being stopped and searched without reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 64-page report, " Without Suspicion: Stop and Search under the Terrorism Act 2000," examines the use of the stop-and-search power under section 44 of the act. The power is intended to prevent terrorism. But despite almost 450,000 section 44 stops and searches throughout the United Kingdom between April 2007 and April 2009, no one was successfully prosecuted for a terrorism offense as a result.

The new government pledged on June 10, 2010, to re-evaluate the power as part of an ongoing review of counterterrorism legislation after it acknowledged that prior to 2008, police in London and elsewhere had carried out hundreds - and possibly thousands - of these searches without proper authorization. On June 29, the European Court of Human Rights rejected a final appeal by the UK against a ruling by the court in January 2010 that the use of the power violates the right to privacy.

"The case for scrapping this stop-and-search power is overwhelming" said Benjamin Ward, Europe and Central Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch, "The benefits are dubious but the costs for human rights and community relations are easy to see."

The use of the stop-and-search power has ballooned since 2007. In England, Scotland, and Wales, the number of recorded stops rose almost sevenfold in just two years - from 37,000 in the year ending April 2007 to over 256,000 for the year ending April 2009.

The number of stops has since fallen, in part because of efforts by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) in London and national British Transport Police, which together account for the bulk of section 44 stops, to reduce their use of the power. They have reduced the geographic areas and in the case of the MPS the circumstances in which the power can be used.

But the fact remains that during 2009 - the last year for which complete data is available - more than 170,000 people were stopped, including more than 110,000 by the MPS alone. And there is a risk that in the months before the 2012 Summer Olympics the numbers could rise again.

The section 44 power contains a number of safeguards intended to prevent its misuse - including the need for authorization by the Home Secretary, a duty to assess the impact of its use on community relations, and guidance to the police on proper use. But the report finds that those safeguards have proved to be ineffective.

"The Met Police and British Transport Police deserve recognition for trying to limit their use of this power," Ward said. "But by its very nature, this power is open to abuse."

Human Rights Watch's research indicates that the power is being used improperly - including to stop railway enthusiasts, photographers, and even children on the street. Analysis of the stop-and-search statistics indicates that persons of South Asian origin and black people are more likely to be stopped than white people, suggesting that police may be engaging in ethnic profiling. There is also anecdotal evidence that in some cases white people are being stopped specifically to balance the statistics, masking the extent to which ethnic minorities are being targeted.  

The report concludes that section 44 stops and searches are damaging community relations, and undermining confidence in the police, especially in London where most of these searches occur, and within Muslim communities. It is difficult to assess quantitatively whether Muslims are more likely to be stopped than those of other religions, because religion, unlike ethnicity, is not recorded during stops. But the harm done to the perceptions of the police within Muslim communities is evident, Human Rights Watch said.

The use of section 44 violates the UK's human rights obligations. As the European Court of Human Rights ruled in January, the use of the power violates the right to privacy. The higher rate of stops of ethnic minorities provides evidence that the power violates the principle of non-discrimination. The use of Section 44 can also violate the right to liberty and the right to peaceful protest.

The report recommends the repeal of the section 44 power and calls for police in the UK to instead rely on stop-and-search powers that require reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.