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Terrorism: Stop and Search

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their plans for adhering to the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights on the police’s power to stop and search under the Terrorism Act 2000.

My Lords, the decision of the European Court of Human Rights is not final. The United Kingdom courts have found the exercise of the powers pursuant to Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to be ECHR-compatible. That is a view with which the Government concur. The Home Secretary is giving careful consideration to the judgment and will request a referral to the Grand Chamber.

I thank my noble and learned friend for her very interesting reply, but I am sure that she is aware that the removal from the statute book of the outdated Vagrancy Act was the result of the adverse effect that it had on young black males, some as young as seven. It caused a great problem to this country. In reintroducing the measure under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, the Government gave some interesting reasons. Perhaps my noble and learned friend can tell the House whether any of those reasons have been satisfied. Could she say how many acts of terrorism and criminal activity have been thwarted in the past 12 months by the Act and whether it has reassured the public?

My Lords, I do not have the precise figures for the number of acts of terrorism or criminal activity. Noble Lords will know that part of the reason why stop and search was used was to act as a deterrent. It has been an effective tool and it has been honed. I say to my noble friend that the criticisms made by the community about Section 44 and the way in which it was operated have been taken very seriously. As a result of the work done with the community and the Metropolitan Police, which has responded to the community’s concern, from mid-2009 we have seen a drop in its use in the capital of about 40 per cent.

My Lords, the Metropolitan Police has already reviewed the use of Section 44 powers and now is deploying them only at pre-identified significant locations when specific operations have been agreed for specific areas. If that is the case, rather than appealing, why do the Government not amend the Terrorism Act immediately to reflect that change in the use of the powers?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right about the more targeted use to which the power has been put. I am sure that she will have seen the erudite judgment made by the House of Lords about the structure of Section 44 and the way in which it can be used proportionately. What she has described is the proportionate and appropriate use of the law as it currently stands. As I said, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is looking at the judgment carefully and considering whether to refer this matter to the Grand Chamber. We shall have to await the outcome.

My Lords, Section 44 of the Terrorism Act was intended to deal with exceptional situations. Does the decision of the European Court of Human Rights not underline the ever present danger of allowing the exceptional to become normal and a matter of everyday practice?

My Lords, I understand what the noble and learned Lord says, but the tragedy for our country is that, at the moment, we live in exceptional times. To be under severe threat from terror is the exception and I hope that we in this country never get to the stage when we accept it as the norm. To respond to those exceptional circumstances, we have to make exceptional effort to defeat the terrorists, which is what we are doing.

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that most members of the British public, provided that they are dealt with reasonably, courteously and fairly, are quite prepared to give up a little bit of liberty in the interests of fighting the scourge of terrorism?

My Lords, I can certainly assure my noble friend that I have found that the normal, good people in this country understand absolutely the threat with which they are faced. They are responding with remarkable British phlegm and courage and helping to make sure that we stay as safe as we possibly can.

My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest as a normal, good person who has been stopped and searched; the Security Minister, too, is a normal, good person who has been stopped and searched. The Secretary of State has a role in confirming authorisations. Can the noble and learned Baroness tell us, of course without disclosing any operational or secure information, what criteria the Secretary of State uses?

My Lords, the police will do an assessment, identifying the risks that are posed and setting out the reasons why they believe that a particular site needs to be subject to protection. A detailed report will be made and then there will be a decision about whether there should be an affirmation of the order.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness for her exposition of the true position in this country under the decisions of the Strasbourg court. We retain in our Supreme Court the right to make our own decisions, a matter that was not referred to in yesterday’s debate.

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The Supreme Court retains the right and the duty to express itself on our law. It has done so cogently and well. Of course it is similarly the right of the European Court of Human Rights to express what it thinks the position is and the Grand Chamber usually has the final say.

My Lords, will the noble and learned Baroness confirm that what concerned the European Court of Human Rights were the absence of any guidance as to when an authorisation could be issued and the absence of any guidance to individual police officers as to when they should consider exercising these powers? Would it not be better for the Government, rather than appealing to the Grand Chamber, to concentrate on bringing forward proposals to remedy these undoubted defects in our law?

My Lords, there is an issue as to whether the European Court of Human Rights understood the impact of the guidance that is provided under PACE and otherwise. The noble Lord will know that the Supreme Court identified the guidance and the support that enabled it to come to the conclusion that the powers were compatible. The European Court took a different view. That is quite an interesting difference.

My Lords, in declaring an interest that my son is a freelance photographer, may I ask the Attorney-General whether she is satisfied that the behaviour of the police in relation to both professional photographers and tourists who are taking photographs, particularly around London, is in accordance with the stop and search powers that they have at their disposal?

My Lords, guidance has been provided that, if used correctly, makes sure that those powers are proportionately and appropriately used. There is always a question, of course, as to whether good guidance is followed on every occasion.