If the home secretary’s latest pronouncements at the 2021 Conservative Party Conference aren’t proof of an ever-expanding police state, then I don’t know what is.
Police are expected to be given wider stop and search powers allowing officers to inspect activists for ‘lock on’ equipment used to prevent them from being moved from demonstrations. They will also ‘enable police to stop and search any individual within a tightly-defined area – in which a protest is taking place – for items that could be used to cause serious disruption’. The maximum penalties will be set at an unlimited fine, 6 months’ imprisonment, or both.
The latter proposal is beyond even the mission creep I had envisaged in a previous article, the details reading suspiciously like section 47A of the Terrorism Act 2000, itself the redux of the repealed section 44 provision.
Section 47A allows any uniformed constable to stop and search any driver / passenger / contents of a vehicle, or a pedestrian, for the purpose of discovering whether there is anything which may constitute evidence of terrorism. The government’s latest proposal for searching individuals sounds identical, save for the purpose of discovering anything which may constitute evidence of causing ‘serious disruption’.
It seems as though the environmentalists who brought the question of expanded search powers into sharp focus by their motorway protests are the newest target of the home secretary’s ire, and that unofficially, at least, groups such as Insulate Britain are still seen as domestic terrorists in the eyes of the police.
Why else would they seek more powers for dealing with protests, when they already have the ability to: disperse groups of people at will under section 35 of Part 3 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014; confiscate illegal goods under section 51 of Part 2 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001; and even legal goods if they can convincingly infer they would be used for criminal ends under the Serious Crime Act 2007?
Netpol suggest the reason is that, ‘just as it has with knife crime and “gangs”, identifying targets who might break the law is an invitation to rapidly expand police intelligence gathering, in this case on a range of social and political movements.’
Liberty describe their suspicions in even plainer terms:
We must remember that beyond treating climate change protestors blocking traffic on the M25 as the new persona non grata, the policy will likely be used in the capital by officers in Territorial Support Group units roaming around estates targeting young Black and Asian males, who were stopped four times more often at the height of section 44’s infamy. It is a stop and search power, after all.
Knowing the trouble a previous government got into with the use of section 44 (here’s looking at Gillan and Quinton), the government’s nod to the European Convention of Human Rights is telling. Should this add-on to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill pass, they know exactly how carefully it will have to be used to avoid legal action, either on the grounds of determining what articles could cause ‘serious disruption’, knowing not to intimidate journalists for filming events, or avoiding the risks of the discriminatory use of the powers against persons from ethnic minority backgrounds.
But this law-and-orders government has form for pretending stop and search is more useful than it actually is. So let’s see this proposal for what it is, the government’s latest salvo in a running war on people it simply does not like. It must be resisted for the sake of their liberty, and by extension, everyone’s.
By Eugene K