Thanks to the leaflet the Met popped through my door the other day I know exactly what to look out for to prevent terrorism.

I’m reassured that I’m playing my part, looking out for people who have “bought or hired a vehicle in suspicious circumstances.” or who hold “passports or other documents in different names for no obvious reason” (my emphasis), you know, the sort of things you wouldn’t have thought in any way odd before the leaflet (or this blog post) told you.

Cleanliness is next to terroristness

While not quite as bad as the 2009 campaign which wanted you to shop your neighbour if they were doing too much washing up it still seems based on the idea that you should automatically fear something that’s outside your normal range of experience.

My problem with these annual campaigns is two-fold.

First, they are useless. “It’s probably nothing, but…” is more an invitation to report anything, than it is practical advice to a community. It is so vague and generic as to be useless. Should I fear my neighbour, because he has fertiliser and a large vehicle? Or should I see if his gardening business could give my back-yard a quick once over? If the Met were serious, they’d be looking at far more practical advice tailored to the community.

Second, the biggest impact of this leaflet is to spread fear and uncertainty. We can ‘defeat terrorism’, we are told, but it doesn’t really put the problem into a context. Terrorist attacks are gruesome, high-profile and incredibly emotive, but looked at objectively represent a miniscule fraction of human activity. As Dan Gardner pointed out over a year ago, terrorism in Europe has been declining, and most terrorism aims to further specific nationalist issues (mainly Basque separatism).

What is particularly telling is that the decline is not just in terrorist attacks, but in failed and foiled plots as well. In other words, there aren’t just fewer terrorist incidents in Europe, there are fewer attempted terrorist incidents too.

Of course, you might argue that by creating a climate of fear and suspicion terrorists are unable to operate. I’m not sure I want to live in a society where the majority live in constant fear and suspicion of a small (but exaggerated) minority who would kill them.

According to the Global Terrorist Database there were just four terrorism-related fatalities in Western Europe in 2010, three in Greece and one in Sweden. When you compare it to around 700 smoking-related deaths per year in Wandsworth alone you have to wonder why we are so keen to create fear of terrorism.

I’ve touched on police powers to stop and search a couple of times in the past. Once when I was subject to a stop – but not a search – around a year ago (although I posted about it some months later, prompted by section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act coming into force) and again last May when the number s44 searches undertaken featured on the BBC News website.

I’ve been sat on the last statistical release from the Home Office (opens a PDF) for a while, it was covered on the BBC News website nearly three weeks ago but was prompted to dig it out by a recent YouTube video of someone being stopped for filming in London. I’m not going into any of the claims made in the film or the webpage about her treatment (nor comment on the music choice) but like the majority of those stopped under s44 – she’s innocent.

Section 44 allows a police constable in uniform to carry out a stop and search without any suspicion. According to the Home Office figures during 2008/9 there were 256,026 stop and searches and 95% of these were by the Metropolitan or British Transport Police. Essentially London is by far the place you are most likely to be stopped.

The Home Office reports that 1,452 arrests were made after a s44 stop and search – this represents 0.6% of the total. What it remains totally silent on is how many of these arrests were for terrorism related offences. My guess would be that that vast majority, if not all, were for other offences (possession of drugs or a knife, for example) discovered during a search.

The figures for s43 are no better. Section 43 is different to s44 in that it requires suspicion. The act states in s43(1) “A constable may stop and search a person whom he reasonably suspects to be a terrorist to discover whether he has in his possession anything which may constitute evidence that he is a terrorist.”

As you might expect there were fewer stop and searches under s43, just 1,643 by the Metropolitan Police. But despite the requirement that reasonable suspicion is required just 1.5% of these resulted in an arrest. Again, it remains silent on how many, if any, of these were for terrorism related offences.

So these searches represent a huge intrusion into our civil liberties without it seems, without, it seems, producing much in the way of results. It also represents a huge amount of police time which I would contend could be much better used in other ways.

The Home Office’s release makes a lot of the fact that the number of searches are falling, by 37% between 2008/9 and the first quarter of 2009/10, but this still means there will be something like 160,000 people stopped and searched – and with no reason to think the success rate of these will be any better.

With the blanket coverage of MPs’ expenses late last week I almost missed a BBC News story about stops under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000

The article contacts a few facts and figures about how effective section 44 has really been.

  • In London during 2008 there were more than 170,000 searches conducted
  • Of these just 65 (0.035%) led to arrests for terror offences
  • The Home Office, Department of Justice and Met are “unable to say” if anyone had been charged or convicted as a result of a search.

They are staggering figures, essentially around 2,600 searches need to be conducted to get one terror related arrest.  You can argue that those 2,600 searches act as a deterrent, but I think there’s a stronger argument that the police time taken to conduct 2,600 searches would be more effectively spent on intelligent policing.

Assuming five minutes and two officers per search my back of the envelope calculation is that, including holidays, it’s about three months of police time for each arrest – and it would seem that those arrests haven’t led to any charges.  You shouldn’t assess police effectiveness on arrests alone, but I can’t help but think it isn’t an effective use of police time.

And the real question, why has a supposed temporary power been in force for eight years when it’s so ineffective?

lavender-hill-police-stationI have tended to shy away from national politics and issues in this blog, keeping it more focused on local and council issues. However, one subject that increasingly concerns me is the erosion of civil liberties in this country. Yesterday saw another little chunk of our freedoms eroded with section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act coming into force.

Photographers must now be a careful they don’t get the police in their photos for fear of arrest.

I have an interest in this because I have already (late last year, before s76 was in force) been stopped by the police for taking a photo.  I was on Lavender Hill and my sin was to get a police car in a photo taken near Lavender Hill police station.  Four officers questioned me because, apparently, my behaviour was suspicious – something I refused to acknowledge (though I would later admit it was a truly awful photo, bad framing and a bit of camera shake).  I suppose you could argue that Al-Qaeda don’t realise those white cars with orange stripes are the police.  I think it a bit unlikely.

This is already a remarkably common occurence.  Within days of being stopped myself, I heard, through friends, of two other people who had been stopped and searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act for taking photos at Clapham Junction.  It seems that even before section 76 you had to be worried if you were innocently taking a photo.

I would stress I do not blame the police for this.  They have to act according to the laws the government makes, and they have to fulfil their targets.  The people I do blame are the government.  And I’m not alone in this – Stella Rimington, a former head of MI5, today saying that Ministers are using the fear of terror to restrict civil liberties.  One of her comments deserves quoting in full:

It would be better that the government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism – that we live in fear and under a police state

Now you can argue that, of course, they aren’t going to be stopping the innocent tourist or hobbyist photographer.  So what’s the point of the power?  I’m guessing the average terrorist tries to blend in rather than look like a terrrorist, which implies the police are either going to have to question lots of innocent people in the hope of catching a terrorist, or they are going to have to rely on other intelligence.  If the latter is the case, then why do they need powers like those given under the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Counter Terrorism Act 2008?

Many years ago I would have said that a police state could never happen in this country.  Nowadays, it seems the Blair and Brown governments don’t just want to show that it could, they are actually working to make it a reality.