The news that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that police stops and searches under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act are illegal and contravene the rights of those stopped has prompted an interesting post on Left Foot Forward by Andy Hull who worked with me on the MPA report, “Counter Terrorism: The London Debate“.
I agree with most of what Andy Hull has written, but I don’t however accept that Section 44 stops are futile. They play an important part in target-hardening. If potential terrorists know that they run a substantial risk of being stopped by the police and searched near a particular target, then that target is a less attractive one and the risks are reduced.
However, in the past, Section 44 powers have been used much too widely with very large areas being designated by the police and approved by successive Home Secretaries. Following the MPA report and subsequent debate, the Metropolitan Police have radically revised the way in which they use the power with a much more rigorous approach being taken as to which areas are designated for the use of Section 44 stops. A lot of effort has also gone into the guidance given to officers on the use of the power and the manner in which stops are conducted.
Although the grounds of the ECHR ruling are much broader I do wonder whether the position taken by the Court would have been quite so clear had the new approach applied when the incident that led to the case took place.
The Government are now considering an appeal and in the meantime the existing regime of Section 44 stops remains in force.
My experience is that most members of the public find it a reassurance that the power exists and is used and that this is true even if they are the subject of the stop, provided that the context is explained and the stop is conducted with a degree of respect.
Of course, demonstrating that attacks have been deterred is necessarily difficult to do. However, my own guess is that most people would feel that the interference in their rights by there being a possibility of being stopped and searched in areas near to potential terrorist targets is a small price to pay if it prevents them being blown up. The right to life works both ways after all.