Police to have new stop and search powers: Civil liberty groups fear move threatens human rights. Jason Bennetto reports


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The police are to be given sweeping new powers to stop and search people and vehicles for weapons, the Government announced yesterday.

An offence of persistent harassment will also be created to tackle racist abuse. The new law, which will provide for a maximum penalty of a six-month jail term or a pounds 5,000 fine, will also protect women from constant pestering.

Under the forthcoming legislation, officers will be able to search anyone where they believe violence is likely to break out - this is expected to include areas around football grounds, pubs, and public demonstrations. The move was immediately attacked by civil liberty groups who believe it may contravene human rights laws and will lead to black people being victimised. Labour called for strict monitoring of the scheme and warned it was 'open to abuse'.

The new stop and search powers have been introduced as an attempt to stem the sharp rise in gun and knife attacks. Police will need authorisation from a superintendent or inspector and will operate in a limited area. They are expected to target demonstrations by neo- Nazi groups, football hooligans, and places where drugs are sold.

The powers will last for up to 24 hours but can be extended by six hours if violence breaks out. Records will be kept of the ethnic origin of the people stopped.

At present police can stop and search a person or a vehicle only if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a prohibited article will be found. The changes will be made as an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, which will be debated when the Commons returns on Tuesday. A second amendment will mean police can arrest people who whip up racial hatred by distributing racist literature. Officers will be able to search homes and property and carry out fingerprinting.

The offence of persistent harassment will be introduced as an amendment to the Bill when it reaches the House of Lords. This measure is considered an attempt to pre-empt amendments already made by the all-party Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that surprised the Government with calls for more radical proposals, including a new crime of racially-motivated violence, which would carry an extra jail sentence of up to five years.

Sir Ivan Lawrence, Conservative chairman of the committee, yesterday said he would continue to press for more far-reaching legislation.

David Maclean, a Home Office minister, said: 'People must be protected from thugs who carry guns, knives and other offensive weapons. These new powers will give the police the powers they need to prevent violence, not just react to it.'

The Police Federation yesterday gave its support to the increased stop and search powers. Others believe the powers hark back to the discredited 'sus' laws of the 1970s and early 1980s, which enabled police to stop people merely on the suspicion that they were committing an offence.

Andrew Puddephatt, general secretary of Liberty, said: 'The 'sus' laws - which can be compared to these new stop and search powers - did nothing to improve community relations, they only exacerbated the situation.'