Illegal stop and searches could mean compensation for thousands
Home Office says 14 different forces have unlawfully used anti-terror powers

Guardian | June 10, 2010
By Alan Travis

Thousands of people who were unlawfully stopped and searched under controversial counter-terrorism powers could be eligible for compensation.

Senior police officers are fighting hard to retain the use of section 44 stop and search powers after the Home Office admitted 14 forces had unlawfully used them in 40 operations dating back to 2001.

The home secretary, Theresa May, was angered when she discovered that a series of blunders meant the operations under the Terrorism Act 2000 had not been legally authorised, either because they exceeded the maximum legal 28-day limit in duration or had not been properly signed off by ministers within 48 hours.

She said that the scale of abuse under the Labour government fuelled her determination to review all counter-terrorism legislation.

The 14 forces are trying to contact tens of thousands who were unlawfully searched on the streets in operations going back to 2001, when the powers were introduced. Home Office figures show that searches under these powers were carried out 148,798 times last year.

The blunder was discovered when an official investigation of a freedom of information request about the details of a 2004 Metropolitan police operation found that a Home Office minister had not confirmed the authorisation within the 48-hour time limit. The Met is trying to contact the 840 people searched during the operation.

This discovery triggered a review last month of all section 44 operations since their introduction in February 2001. It uncovered 14 different forces acting unlawfully in 40 operations.

The majority involved authorisations for longer periods than the legal limit of 28 days and one other case in which the minister failed to sign it off in time.

The Met and the City of London police mounted 10 of the 40 operations with Thames Valley, Sussex and Greater Manchester police also involved.

The police minister, Nick Herbert, said all the cases appeared to have been a result of administrative errors.

The blanket application of section 44 was ruled illegal in January by the European court of human rights. Two peace protesters outside a London arms fair were awarded £30,000 compensation.

Corinna Ferguson, Liberty's lawyer who acted in the challenge, said: "These blunders ... highlight the ongoing dangers of secret stop and search authorisations."

The Association of Chief Police Officers said there had been no errors since the process was tightened in 2008.