So what new police powers that restrict people’s freedom of movement can we expect during the Olympics this summer? The answer lies in the ironically titled “Protection of Freedoms Bill”, which was introduced in February 2011 to ‘restore freedoms and civil liberties through the abolition of identity cards and unnecessary laws’. The Bill includes a revision of anti-terrorism stop and search powers that had been abused so routinely that the European Court of Human Rights ruled they were illegal in January 2010. What is strange is the government plans to hang onto a hastily cobbled-together interim power that, according to statistics, is never used.
The contentious anti-terrorism stop and search powers were under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allowed police officers to stop and search pedestrians and vehicles without needing any suspicion. As a result of the European Court’s ruling, the Home Secretary issued a remedial order in May 2011 under the Human Rights Act, which repealed immediately sections 44 to 47 of the 2000 Act and introduced a new section 47A, which was supposed to be more more targeted, proportionate and relate only to a specific area or place.
The only difference, however, was that authorisation to use section 47A powers required a senior officer to “reasonably suspect that an act of terrorism will take place” and considers that “(i) the authorisation is necessary to prevent such an act; (ii) the specified area or place is no greater than is necessary to prevent such an act; and (iii) the duration of the authorisation is no longer than is necessary to prevent such an act.” After that, there was very little real change: section 47A still did not require an police officer to have reasonable suspicion that a person was a likely terrorist. The remedial order still said that powers “may be exercised whether or not the constable reasonably suspects that there is such evidence”.
Stop and search in the Protection of Freedoms Bill is covered under sections 58 to 63 of the draft legislation, which is currently working its way through Parliament. Subject to any amendments, its wording is currently identical to the existing section 47A powers. In this sense it is not ‘new’, but what is interesting is that last month, a Home Office Statistical Bulletin [PDF] revealed that police have ceased using anti-terrorism stop and search powers completely. From April to September 2011, a period that included a royal wedding and a host of different street protests, there was not a single section 47A search. This seems to back up the argument made by many of us that separate anti-terrorism stop and search powers are completely unnecessary. So why hang on to section 47A in the name of ‘protecting freedom’?
One answer is likely to be intense lobbying from senior levels of the police to keep these powers and reintroduce them at a time when the stain of their misuse can be wiped away. As we have seen over the last six months, the Olympics has provided an ideal opportunity for demanding ever greater security provisions that are likely to turn east London into a semi-militarised zone. There seems little doubt that places like Stratford will be designated as specific areas where there is ‘reasonable suspicion’ – the whole Olympics security industry has been telling us an attempted attack on the Games is almost inevitable. The Protection of Freedoms Bill will become law just before the start of the Olympics and it is therefore highly likely that anti-terrorism stop and search ‘necessary to prevent’ a potential outrage will return with a vengeance over the summer. In an area like Newham, it is obvious who the most likely candidates for such stops and searches are likely to be, I think it is telling that the local police, when pressed by Newham Monitoring Project recently to explain the likely impact of the Olympics on the disproportionate use of all the different stop and search powers on black and Asian residents, were so reluctant to respond.
This is one of those Olympics legacies. Powers that the police were briefly forced to stop using because of the controversy around their misuse – powers that the last 12 months suggest weren’t that important in the first place – start to make a reappearance under the guise of unique circumstances. What these powers replace is essentially little different from what preceded them, but they emerge refreshed and reinvigorated from the cleansing influence of a ‘successful Olympic security operation’. In a couple of years, civil rights campaigners are back complaining that powers supposedly targeting ‘terrorists’ are being used excessively against ordinary citizens.
And all this happens, with typical British hypocrisy, under the guise of ‘Protection of Freedoms’. No wonder efforts to restrain the growth of more and more unnecessary police powers often feels like a war of attrition.