Campaigners have given an enthusiastic welcome to the Home Secretary's decision to scrap the controversial Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. It allowed police to stop and search anyone without even having to demonstrate a “reasonable suspicion” that they were connected to terrorism.
The powers have been used against peaceful protesters and even children. They were used 269,244 times in the year ending in April 2009. Official statistics reveal that only 0.6 per cent of searches led to an arrest and black and Asian people were around seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
In January, the European Court of Human Rights declared Section 44 to be illegal. The former UK government failed in a last-ditch attempt to appeal against the decision.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has now confirmed that the powers will be immediately withdrawn, pending a review of counter-terrorism legislation later this year.
Her decision was applauded by the civil rights organisation Liberty, which has always campaigned against the provision.
"Liberty welcomes the end of the infamous Section 44 stop-and-search power that criminalised and alienated more people than it ever protected,” said the organisation's Director, Shami Chakrabarti, “We argued against it for ten years and spent the last seven challenging it all the way to the Court of Human Rights”.
The court ruling earlier this year followed a case brought by a journalist and a peace activist, who had both been prevented from attending a demonstration outside the London arms fair – known formally as Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi) – in 2003.
During the case, it was revealed that the whole of Greater London had been secretly designated by police as an area for stop-and-search without suspicion on a rolling basis since 2001.
Following May's announcement, Section 44 will now be used only for stopping and searching vehicles, not individuals, and in these cases will require “reasonable suspicion” of a terrorist connection.
Liberty described the provision as a “blanket and secretive power”. Chakrabarti said it “has been used against school kids, journalists, peace protesters and a disproportionate number of young black men”.
She added, “To our knowledge, it has never helped catch a single terrorist. This is a very important day for personal privacy, protest rights and race equality in Britain."