Copyright: Zaineb Latif/The Muslim News
By Hamed Chapman
The Government has acceded to scale back draconian anti terror Schedule 7 stop-and-search powers at ports and airports but changes to be legislated in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill are expected to have little effect.
Cage Prisoners, which raises human rights concern about the plight of those impacted by anti-terror law, described the changes are only “cosmetic” and warned that reform of the emergency powers that grossly discriminate against Black and Asian people remained a matter of urgency.
“Though we are pleased with the changes to stop and search, we do not think they go far enough. What stop and search has been for black communities, Schedule 7 has been for Muslim communities. We call on the Government to reform Schedule 7 immediately to safeguard community relations and prevent further erosion of this country’s civil liberties standing,” said Asif Bhayat of CagePrisoners.
“The Government have offered only cosmetic changes to Schedule 7 and have failed to address underlying concerns felt by members of the Muslim and other minority ethnic communities. With Schedule 7’s draconian core still very much intact, we envisage little or no positive changes on the ground,” he said.
Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced amendments to Schedule 7 in Parliament on July 2 after holding consultations, saying that the Government “have to be frank about widespread public concern regarding its use.”
“The Government are concerned about the use of stop and search for two reasons. First, it must be applied fairly and in a way that builds community confidence in the police rather than undermining it. Secondly, given the scale of recording requirements placed on the police, when stop and search is misapplied, it is a waste of police time,” she told MPs.
Data shows that last year police conducted 1.2 million stop and searches but fewer than 9% of these led to an arrest and in some areas the figure was as low as 3%. May estimated that over 312,000 man hours were lost on stops and search, taking an average of 16 minutes per search.
The Home Office insisted that the powers to stop people without suspicion remained “an essential part of the UK’s border security arrangements, helping to protect the public from those travelling across borders to plan, finance, train for and commit terrorism.”
“We want to ensure these powers are used proportionately, and are both necessary and effective. That is why we have, following extensive consultation with the public and law enforcement, brought forward these changes,” a spokesperson said.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission welcomed the Government plans to analyse and consult on the police use of stop and search to ensure that all police forces use it fairly.
“Stop and search is a necessary and useful power. If it is used proportionally and intelligently the police can protect the public, reduce crime and disorder and improve relations with black and ethnic minority groups. There is no evidence to suggest that disproportionately targeting black and Asian people reduces crime,” said Chief Executive Mark Hammond.
Schedule 7 is a highly intrusive stop power which operates outside of the regulatory framework that covers other police powers of stop and search. Individuals stopped under the power are not under arrest but may be examined for up to 9 hours wherein they may be questioned, searched (as well as their belongings), strip-searched and have samples of their biometric data including DNA & fingerprints taken from them regardless of the outcome of the encounter and in the absence of a lawyer.
Changes proposed include cutting the maximum period of detention to six hours which will affect only a tiny fraction of those stopped. The power to take DNA and fingerprint samples regardless of the outcome remain unchanged, although taking intimate biometric data (blood, semen, etc) is to be repealed.
Strip searches are being restricted to those detained and where they are reasonably suspected of concealing an item. The right to consult a solicitor, currently denied until taken to police station, is being extended to those stop, although can be delayed until the person has already been questioned and searched. For the first time, the Home Secretary is required to set out guidance for training.
Stop-Watch, a coalition of legal experts, academics, and civil liberties campaigners, described Schedule 7 as the “widest ranging” of all stop powers. It welcomed the reforms but said they can go further towards ensuring that the power is used proportionately, fairly and with greater transparency.
These include reducing the maximum period of detention to one hour and scrapping non-intimate biometric data, including DNA and fingerprints. It also suggested advice and assistance should be provided to people who miss their flights or other transportation as a result of an examination or detention.
In a brief to MPs, Stop-Watch also called for “a minimum threshold of suspicion” upon which individuals can be stopped, suggesting it should be based upon objective facts, information, and/or intelligence, so as to minimize the risk of arbitrary or discriminatory application of stop and search powers.
The PACE Codes, which governs other stop powers, should be extended to cover stop and searches conducted under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This would require that Schedule 7 stops to be monitored under the same recording framework as all other stop and search powers and that data be shared with community and monitoring groups, it said.