Sus laws are back

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One of the hallmarks of the last 11 years of Labour government rule has been its assault on civil liberties. Alongside the introduction of the Human Rights Act – meant to protect human rights more substantially than ever before, and about which government ministers have never ceased to complain – every area of life has been subject to a vast array of new laws and regulations. The British are the most monitored and regulated population in Europe and the introduction of ID cards will only intensify this.

The favourite argument of the middle classes is that such monitoring and regulation will not affect the innocent. By innocent, they mean themselves. The guilty and the suspect, as always, are the working class, and in particular black and minority ethnic people, im­migrants, asylum seekers, social housing tenants and young working class people in general. So when, in Jan­uary, the government announced its intention to review police powers to stop and search, a gamut of arguments were rehearsed to show that this would be for the ‘public’ good and would especially benefit black and Asian communities.

In fact the Tories and the Labour government agree that police powers should be widened to allow them to stop and search without giving a reason, and that the form-filling attached to stop and search powers should be abolished. Police activities will be subject to less regulation, while the working class will be subject to more.

The real irony is that the regulations that govern stop and search were intro­duced as a quid pro quo for extending police powers in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). Before this the police had used a selection of common law and statute from the 19th century, including the Vagrancy Act 1824, loosely called ‘sus’ laws, to stop and search anyone they wanted. The ‘sus’ laws were a particular favourite of the Metro­politan Police who are still responsible for a quarter of all stops and searches in the country. These laws were used routinely to stop and search black youth, and came under scrutiny in 1981 after a racist police operation, ‘Operation Swamp’ led to the Brixton riots. With PACE, the police became empowered to stop and search anyone on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, but not simply because of appearance or race.

Police already have powers to stop and search without ‘reasonable grounds’ under s60 of the Criminal Justice Public Order Act 1994 and s44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. In 2002/03, 83,920 people were stopped in London using these powers: a tenfold increase over three years. Nation­ally, black people are eight times and Asian people five times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people (Home Office 2004). In Lon­don between 2000 and 2002, stop and search rates increased by 30% for black people, by 41% for Asian people, and 8% for white people. The consequent arrest rates are pitiful. Under most categories of ‘grounds for stop and search’ the arrest rate is less than 10%. In the year up to April 2007 police carried out 25,374 stops under s44 alone; between April and August 2007 there were 32,395. Over a fifth of those stopped were Asian, despite Asian people making up only a tenth of London’s population.

Even before police powers are in­creased and regulation reduced, police use of stop and search powers is clearly discriminatory. Unlike Tory leader David Cameron who claimed in the Sun that ‘the police are no longer racist’, those of us who live on planet earth are sure that the ‘sus’ laws are back.

Carol Brickley

FRFI 202 April / May 2008

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