Plans to give police draconian ‘wartime’ powers to stop and question anybody they choose about their identity and movements were in disarray last night.
The Prime Minister and his supporters want to introduce the power, backed by a fine of up to £5,000 for anyone refusing to co-operate, as part of a crackdown on terrorism.
But its future is already in doubt after Cabinet splits on the issue, a cool reaction from aides to Gordon Brown and backtracking by the Home Office.
Initial leaks of the policy said police would not need to suspect that a crime had taken place, and could use the power to gain information about any ‘matters relevant’ to terror investigations.
But Home Office officials said they did not believe this would be the case. In an apparent watering down of the policy, they said police would need a ‘reasonable suspicion’ in order to stop and question somebody.
Critics said it appeared the proposals were little more than Tony Blair, and his outgoing Home Secretary John Reid, casting around for a ‘political legacy’.
Candidates for the Labour deputy leadership also became embroiled in a row about the idea. Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, rated an outsider in the race, expressed grave doubts, saying it could alienate British Muslims.
He said: “We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t create the domestic equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, which was an international abuse of human rights, acted as a recruiting sergeant for dissidents and alienated Muslims and many other people across the world.”
But one of his rivals, Hazel Blears, said it was Mr Hain’s own department which
had first suggested the move.
Police in Northern Ireland already have the sweeping ‘stop and question’ power, as a result of emergency legislation passed during the Troubles, but want to keep it.
Mr Hain’s officials have, therefore, suggested extending it across the UK. The Home Office, under Mr Reid, has subsequently picked up the baton, she said.
Opponents said the confusion was symptomatic of a Government lacking direction as it waits for Mr Blair to hand power to Mr Brown. In the meantime, anti-terror powers and civil liberties are being used as a ‘political football’ for internal party politics, they said.
Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: “The driving imperative of these draconian announcements appears to be more of a wish to project the reputation of John Reid and Tony Blair in their last weeks in office, than a need to protect the British public.”
Police have long- standing powers to stop and search anyone suspected of involvement in a crime under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
Officers can also stop people or vehicles in an area seen as being at risk from terrorism, even if they are not suspected of any breach of the law, under the Terrorism Act 2000.
But this can take place only in designated areas, and does not apply across the majority of the country.
The leaked Government papers suggested a new right for officers to stop anybody they wished across all parts of the UK – regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime.
A person refusing to give their name or business would be fined up to £5,000.
Tony McNulty, the Home Office Minister in charge of counter-terrorism, wrote in the leaked papers that the powers would be ‘very useful UK-wide’.
But yesterday it became apparent there would need to be grounds for reasonable suspicion.
What would remain new, however, is the right to ask a person’s name and movements. Under current laws, a person can simply refuse with no threat of punishment.
Muslim and civil liberties groups reacted with horror.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: “This looks like political machismo, a legacy moment. Stopping and questioning anyone you like will backfire because people will be being criminalised.”
Ahmed Versi, editor of Muslim News, said extending police powers would be ‘counterproductive’ to improving relations with Muslims and could drive some towards extremism.
Supporters of Gordon Brown were also cautious, which indicates it could be killed off when he enters Downing Street.
Ed Miliband, a member of the Chancellor’s inner circle, said: “We need to know from the police and people concerned with anti-terrorism whether it’s a necessary power.”
Even Mr McNulty conceded it was not a ‘fait accompli’. The idea will be put out for months of consultation, he said.
Reports had suggested Mr Reid and Mr Blair wanted to force it through before they go next month.
The confusion follows growing concern at the Government’s continued extension of the many powers of the state.
Civil liberties groups warned that plans being studied by Ministers would see the DNA of those convicted of even the most minor, non-imprisonable offences – such as dropping litter – entered on the national DNA database.
It also emerged that the Government has established a national anti-terrorist unit to protect VIPs, with the power to detain suspects indefinitely using mental health laws.
The Fixated Threat Assessment Centre was quietly set up last year to identify those posing a direct threat to VIPs including the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the royals.
________________________________________________________________________ Police powers to stop and search the public, which date from the 1824 Vagrancy Act, have caused controversy and even riots.
The Sus law (from ‘suspected’) made it “illegal for a suspected person or reputed thief to frequent or loiter in a public place with intent to commit an arrestable offence”.
In effect, officers could stop and search, even arrest, anyone purely on the basis of a suspicion that they might commit a crime.
In later years ethnic minorities were to claim they were being unfairly targeted. Riots took place in Bristol in 1980 and a year later in Liverpool and Brixton.
As a result the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act said officers needed ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an offence had been committed. But race groups said the law remained open to abuse.
The 1999 Macpherson report said there were disparities in its use, such as unrecorded stops of cars driven by black or Asian people.
The effect of Macpherson was a sharp decline in the use of stop and search. But after September 11 its use began to increase.
The Terrorism Act 2000 allows officers to question people in designated areas even when there are no grounds to suspect they are plotting an atrocity.