Leading article: The steady erosion of our civil liberties

Share

The return of the discredited methods of stop and search to British policing is most disturbing. Home Office figures show that the number of people being stopped and searched has risen twentyfold in six years. Last year some 100 people were being stopped each day. Why has a technique so long associated with heavy-handed policing - and widely blamed for exacerbating racial tension - been allowed to return? For the answer we must look to the Government's creeping authoritarianism and the opportunity afforded to illiberal ministers by the heightened terrorist threat.

Since the end of the old "sus" laws, the police must have a reasonable suspicion that someone has committed an offence before they can stop and search them. But the Terrorism Act, passed in 2000, shifted the ground back again. This grants police the right to stop anyone in an area designated as being under threat of terrorism, regardless of whether there is any reason to suspect that person of a crime. Senior police officers can authorise the use of such powers in specific areas for up to 28 days. More than 1,000 orders to establish such areas have been given the go-ahead in the past six years. Ministers, in fear of terrorist attacks, have even encouraged the police to exercise these new sweeping powers, particularly since the July 7 bombings in London.

The result is that numbers of stop and searches has risen sharply. And unsurprisingly, ethnic minorities are being disproportionately targeted again. One in five of those stopped last year was black or Asian.

If stop and search was succeeding in apprehending terrorists, a defence of the tactic might be mounted. But there is no evidence that this is the case. Only 455 people, out of more than 35,000 stopped and searched, were arrested last year through these powers. A small number of these arrests were for terrorism-related offences. But no terrorists themselves were stopped in this way. And there is certainly no reason to believe that major plots have been foiled by these methods. A large number of the arrests were for motoring offences. The reality is that stop and search has become a way for the police to harass innocent members of the public.

This law has been abused in other ways too. There are disturbing indications that it has been used to suppress legitimate political demonstrations. A stop and search zone was used to disrupt protests at an international arms fair in east London in 2003. And we should not forget the treatment of Walter Wolfgang, the pensioner who was arrested under this law after he heckled Jack Straw at last year's Labour conference.

No one would dispute that the police need some discretionary powers, but they cannot be as broad-brush as this law allows. Even Lord Carlile, the Government's independent adviser on terrorism legislation, believes that the use of stop and search could be halved without reducing public safety. Today the House of Lords will, rightly, try to tighten the legislation to limit the power of police to authorise blanket stop-and-search operations.

In recent years we have also seen the surreptitious creation of a DNA database and an explosion of anti-terrorist legislation, and now we are facing a national ID card scheme. Lord Falconer has let slip that the Government wants such cards to become compulsory. All this, combined with the powers of stop and search, means we could soon find ourselves in a position where we have to justify our existence to the state, rather than the other way round. This cannot be tolerated.

A tension between national security and civil liberties is to be expected. But the Government is taking this country down a road that will not only leave us less free, but less safe as well.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Recruitment Genius: PA

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
 

The digital world is incredible – but it’s human bonds that make us who we are

Joanna Shields
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness