Politicians, civil liberties groups and police bodies yesterday added their voices to fears that police officers are abusing anti-terror legislation to stop and question photographers taking pictures of famous landmarks.
Yesterday, The Independent highlighted the concern that police forces across the country are misusing the Section 44 legislation granted to them under the Terrorism Act, which allows them to stop anyone they want in a pre-designated area, without the need for suspicions of an offence having been committed.
But photographers have complained that they are regularly stopped while taking pictures and are treated like terrorists on reconnaissance missions. This is despite the act giving officers no power to seize cameras or demand the deletion of photographs.
The Metropolitan Police use Section 44 legislation far more than any other police force in England and Wales. In the first quarter of this financial year the Met, along with British Transport Police, were responsible for 96 per cent of the Section 44 stop-and-searches in the country.
Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, Scotland Yard's governing body, said police officers stopping innocent people, as Section 44 allows them to do, was "unacceptable" and "illegal".
"This is an area where the Met is going to have to change its tactics," she said. "It is unacceptable to use a law like this illegally, which is what I think they are doing. It is something that the MPA's civil liberties panel is going to look at. It is a law that seems to hamper photographers, journalists, tourists and trainspotters. Anyone who carries a camera, basically."
Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, said the force would cut back on its use of Section 44, except around sites which are obvious terror targets, such as the Houses of Parliament.
But Ms Jones said the force needs to train its officers more thoroughly in the application of the law. "Some officers think they have the right to seize cameras. It is unbelievable and amounts to an abuse of power," she said.
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of civil liberties group, Liberty, called on the Government to reassess the law. "Section 44 stops are not based on reasonable suspicion and we know less than 1 per cent result in arrest.
"Hassling photographers and preventing them from carrying out perfectly ordinary assignments helps nobody, but blame must rest squarely with Parliament. It is time for this blunt and overly broad power to be tightened," she said.
Baroness Neville-Jones, the Conservatives' shadow security minister, said: "Inappropriate and ever wider use of these powers is one of the surest ways to lose public support in the fight against terrorism. Their use is declining, but not fast enough. These statistics also show that normal criminal legislation is much more effective."
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: "Terrorism powers are clearly being abused when they are routinely applied to photographers, tourists and trainspotters. Police officers need more information and training to stop these inappropriate and excessive Section 44 searches."
Photographers continue to criticise the use of the power. In today's Independent, Stuart Franklin, a celebrated British photographer, reveals that he was stopped and searched by police officers in north London while on an assignment earlier this year.
Jeff Moore, chairman of the British Press Photographers' Association (BPPA), said: "The main problem we face is that Section 44 is an extremely poor piece of legislation that creates an enormous amount of confusion, both among the public and among the police officers that use it."
Mr Moore said police have ignored the BPPA's requests over the past four years to have photographers talk to newly qualified police constables during their media training. He said: "We're not trying to fight the police, we're trying to work with them."
Section 44: Special powers for the police
* The Terrorism Act 2000 came in to force on 19 February 2001, "in response to the changing threat from international terrorism". It replaced temporary legislation that had been brought in to address the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
* Section 44 grants police officers wide-ranging powers to stop and search and is one of the Act's more controversial provisions. Under it, police are entitled to stop and search any pedestrian or vehicle in a certain area, as well as anything carried by them or their passengers, provided prior authorisation has been given. Officers can do this without having any suspicion that an offence is being committed.
* Such an authorisation is given only if the person giving it "considers it expedient" for the prevention of terrorism – a rather open-ended clause.
* Authorisations are granted for "areas", for up to 28 days. Once one has been given for an area, any police officer can conduct their searches there for as long as it lasts.
Stopped and searched: Readers' views
* Section 44 allows for searches of people without probable cause. If they are searching people because they are taking photographs and this is deemed to be acting suspiciously, it can't be a search under section 44.
* If I were a terrorist wanting to take photographs, I would probably start with a Google search on 'body-worn covert cameras'.
* Having lived for 30 years outside Europe and the last 20 years using photography as part of my work, this is the kind of thing that I've come to expect in Africa, the Middle East and the more paranoid Asian countries.
* The solution is to make photography so ubiquitous that misplaced or ignorant authority can do nothing to control it.
* If somebody really wants to take surreptitious photos of something, they won't be doing it in plain view with a whacking great big camera!
* The police, Home Office and local authorities are all quasi-independent state organs who are using the licence they have been given under the many pieces of 'emergency legislation' to harass and repress law abiding citizens. Osama [bin Laden] must be rubbing his hands with glee.
* I've even been stopped and questioned for just carrying a camera, with [police] wanting to know why I had it. Since when have you needed a reason to justify owning something that can be bought in most high streets in the land?
* Ironically, the BBC has been running a trailer recently about a woman who was questioned on the streets of Zimbabwe for taking a picture because she did not have a permit to do so. Who would imagine that the same issue would arise in Great Britain?
* The irony is that if you go to Google Street View outside St Paul's Cathedral, London, you can look east, and there is a police car with a number plate which is easily readable.
* I was stopped and searched for taking pictures of cyclists near Oxford Circus in June/July. Police made me delete pictures and threatened me with arrest. They kept me for almost 30 minutes and were unresponsive to any questions I had. Not fun.
* 'Those who would give up essential liberties for a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security' – Benjamin Franklin. As true then as it is now!
* This is utterly ridiculous. I have been taking photos of London for years. I have folders full of them. What is being achieved here? Al-Qa'ida rule by proxy?