Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Drop you where you stand

Fascinating. The only person to heckle Jack Straw at today’s Labour Party conference was an 82-year-old man, who couldn’t bear Straw’s garbage about Britain only being in Iraq to bring democracy and stability. “Lies!” he shouted. Five security guards promptly pounced. When the delegate next to the heckler told the guards to leave the old guy alone they pounced on him instead. He is apparently the chairman of the Constituency Labour Party whose parliamentary representative is John Austin MP. The delegate complains that he was violently dragged from the hall, thrown up against a wall and suffered bruising. The delegate tried to phone his MP and was told his phone would be seized if he didn’t put it away. Some of the security guards went back for the heckler. The 82 year old was subsequently detained by police. John Austin MP says he was present and couldn’t believe his ears when the cop informed the heckler that he was being “detained under section 44 of the Terrorism Act”.
The heckler, it turns out, was Walter Wolfgang, peacenik of long standing. (I used to know Walter slightly - in the early 1990s he was a Tribune contributor and a reliable presence on the Labour CND scene.) The BBC has more:
[Linda Riordan MP] was sitting just a few rows in front of the ejected man when he began shouting. "He was immediately surrounded by three or four stewards and physically lifted off his feet and bundled out of a side door," she said.
Ms Riordan's predecessor as Halifax MP, the prominent anti-war campaigner Alice Mahon, also witnessed the incident.

She said: "We were listening to Jack talking about Iraq. This gentleman shouted `That's rubbish, that's a lie'. Two or three of the security people dived on him. This other chap a couple of rows in front turned round and said `You must be joking', because this was simple political heckling. He wasn't threatening anybody. He got manhandled out as well. I think they were really over the top."

A Labour Party spokesman said: "Following a disturbance in the visitors' balcony, two people were escorted out, having been asked three times to be quiet."
As for that bit about the Terrorism Act... well, let's not get it out of proportion:
Police later used powers under the Terrorism Act to prevent Mr Wolfgang's re-entry, but he was not arrested.
Outlining the measures taken by its officers, Sussex Police said: "The protocol in this situation is that a police officer is called. The police officer attended and asked the man to wait for a member of the Labour Party. We wish to stress that the delegate was not arrested or searched at any point during his brief interaction with the police officer and that it is a matter for the Labour Party to decide who they allow into their conference."
It's just a case of providing police backup for Labour's hired bouncers, nothing more sinister than that. Why shouldn't they be choosy about who they let in? Just another case of privatisation of public space.

Still... the Terrorism Act? Here's Section 44:
44. - (1) An authorisation under this subsection authorises any constable in uniform to stop a vehicle in an area or at a place specified in the authorisation and to search-

(a) the vehicle;
(b) the driver of the vehicle;
(c) a passenger in the vehicle;
(d) anything in or on the vehicle or carried by the driver or a passenger.

(2) An authorisation under this subsection authorises any constable in uniform to stop a pedestrian in an area or at a place specified in the authorisation and to search-

(a) the pedestrian;
(b) anything carried by him.

(3) An authorisation under subsection (1) or (2) may be given only if the person giving it considers it expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism.
There's an interesting slippage between the first two subsections and the third: the stipulation regarding the prevention of acts of terrorism refers to the authorisation, not to the individual search. Once an authorisation to stop and search has been granted - covering the whole of a specified area, for a specified period - the wording of section 44 does nothing to restrict the actions carried out under that authorisation. Which is to say that it authorises every police officer in the area to stop and search at will.

Hopefully somebody out there is now muttering about section 45 of the Act. Yes, section 45 modifies this picture substantially:
45. - (1) The power conferred by an authorisation under section 44(1) or (2)-

(a) may be exercised only for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism, and
(b) may be exercised whether or not the constable has grounds for suspecting the presence of articles of that kind.
Section 45 gives with one hand but takes away with the other. 45(1)(b) explicitly confirms that s.44 legitimises arbitrary stops and searches; 45(1)(a), however, stipulates that these can only carried out for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism (emphasis added).

Now, this wording is extraordinarily broad, particularly when you consider that the Act's definition of terrorism is pretty broad to begin with:
1. - (1) In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where-

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.
Note that the words 'use or threat' in 1(1) qualify all the types of action listed in 1(2); if I threatened to take down the Home Office Web site on behalf of NO2ID, that threat would in itself amount to terrorism - and the police, if so authorised, could frisk me and confiscate any articles of a kind which could be used in connection with mouthing off about being a L337 H4x0r.

All this is alarming, mind-boggling and frankly rather weird. But it's also a bit beside the point, since it appears that Walter Wolfgang wasn't in fact searched (the delegate was not arrested or searched at any point during his brief interaction with the police officer). Which poses a problem for the Sussex Police. If we assume that the Terrorism Act was invoked (and assuming otherwise would mean calling several people liars) there are really only two possibilities. Either Walter was in fact searched for terrorist impedimenta, and the Sussex Police spokesperson got it wrong; or Sussex Police, in effect, stopped reading the Act before they got to section 45, and came away with the mistaken impression that an authorisation obtained under section 44 allowed police officers to stop anyone for any reason. To put it more bluntly, if they used a section 44 authorisation for purposes other than those laid down by section 45, their action wasn't covered by the Act - and Walter would have a good case for wrongful detention.

Needless to say, I don't hold out much hope for a prosecution. I think it's more likely that the government will tack on a clause to work round s45(1)(a) when they review the 2005 PTA. Making it retroactive would be a stretch, but I wouldn't rule it out; this is, after all, a government which not only wants to give the police a radical extension of summary powers but actually says so.

As for Walter, Ian McCartney MP has promised him an apology on behalf of the Labour Party. Which is nice. He's just not going to get it in Brighton:
"I'm going to personally apologise to him," Mr McCartney said. "I'm going to personally meet him if he takes the opportunity." But Mr McCartney said Mr Wolfgang would not be allowed back into the conference, which ends on Thursday.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a very calm and collected post. Good explanation of the law, thanks, but aren't you just a little outraged by this kind of behaviour? Or has the arbitrary use of over the top authoritarian powers become so commonplace in the UK these days that it is unremarkable?


29/9/05 10:49  
Blogger Backword Dave said...

Damn. That was the post I should have written. Maybe I'll just steal some of it. Mr Wolfgang has been let back into the conference (Hero's return for Labour heckler). A little press is a good thing. Ian McCartney talks tough, but he's more reverse gears that the Italian tank corps.

29/9/05 13:35  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Blair is reported to have said:

"My understanding is that his delegate's credentials showed he had been ejected before and he had to wait while that was checked out."

Would that qualify as a 'search'? Is it even true? Apparently the story that Mr Wolfgang had earlier been asked to stop heckling is false.

29/9/05 17:36  
Blogger Phil said...

What a curious comment, Andrew. What do you want, swearing? The point of going into the legal background is that they've left themselves open - they've passed an incredibly authoritarian and arbitrary law, but then they've gone beyond it. I really think it's important to stress this point, and you can't really stress it without explaining it first.

Charlie - that really is utter bollocks; he's making it up as he goes along. There's a difference between "Would you just wait here while I check your credentials, sir?" and "You are being detained under section 44 of the Terrorism Act"...

Dave - cheers, and feel free; most of it's public-domain anyway.

29/9/05 18:30  

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