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On the proposed “Stop and Question” powers

Britain’s (soon to be ex-)Home Secretary, John Reid has apparently proposed that the police should be given powers to stop and question people (see also the Telegraph’s and BBC’s coverage), possibly without needing to have “reasonable suspicion” of those they stop. Those stopped will have to identify themselves and answer questions about their movements, on pain of imprisonment and/or a £5,000 fine. Ironically this would involve establishing powers in mainland Britain that are due to be phased out in Northern Ireland.

Putting the assault on liberty (in particular the assault against the right to silence) this represents to one side, an interesting question here is whether such powers will be effective in combatting terrorism, the ostensible “raison d’etre” behind the proposal.

Now bear in mind that the police can already ask anyone anything they like, but no one is required to answer any of the questions. They can also arrest those that suspect of involvement in terrorism and place people under surveillance and also have stop and search powers. The government can also place control orders on people suspected of involvement in terrorism. For the proposed powers to make a difference they’d somehow have to catch those they aren’t already investigating/catching using existing methods.

There’s a simple reason for thinking it won’t make much difference — an actual terrorist questioned under these laws will simply give a cover story. Unless the police are prepared to surveil those they question, then they are unlikely to uncover the lies told to them by any criminals or terrorists they stop. Yet if they are prepared to surveil them, they don’t need to stop and question them under these proposed powers.

The impact therefore would seem to me to be that the police will get fairly reliable information about what law abiding people are doing, plus unreliable information from others whom they’d use existing powers to investigate anyway. And of course some law abiding people may not wish tell the authorities what they are doing, despite it being perfectly legal, since it may involve betraying confidences, advertising that one is a member of an unpopular group, or revealing an affair. I.e. it may involve revealing sensitive information that could be used against them by unscrupulous police officers.

It’s also worth considering the words of Cardinal Richelieu in this context:

If you give me six lines written by the most honest man, I will find something in them to hang him.

The point being of course that if you get enough information about an individual then a determined mind can cherry pick and/or reinterpret bits of it to paint that individual in a suspicious light, and power such as this, give the authorities the means to obtain such information for the purposes of harassing/silencing individuals who might challenge their power.

Finally, UK Liberty, Iain Dale, Tim Worstall and Samizdata have all given good commentary on this issue.

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