The Home Secretary Theresa May has announced that the police’s controversial use of counterterrorism stop and search powers against individuals is to be scrapped with immediate effect.

Under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, officers could stop and search anyone in a designated area even if there was no suggestion they were acting suspiciously. It was used on more than 148,798 occasions last year alone, and was seen as a key element in the campaign against terrorism.

However, the unnecessary application of section 44 to stop and search artists and photographers had received heavy criticism. A report by Pauline Hadaway, director of Belfast Exposed gallery, revealed the alarming restrictions being imposed on photography in public spaces. She cited the case of Steve Carroll, a 53-year-old financial director who was taking photographs in Hull city centre. Police officers issued him with a formal stop and search on the grounds of ‘obtaining photos of sensitive material.’ They seized two rolls of film, which they developed and subsequently returned.

More recently an amateur photographer of no fixed abode was held under anti-terror laws outside the Wimbledon tennis championships after security guards suspected him of being a terrorist. Michael Ryan was visiting Wimbledon for the day to photograph activity surrounding the tournament from Church Road, a public highway outside the club.

He told Amateur Photographer magazine: “There was nothing any other photographer or news group must have already and there were cameras there all the time. All I can say is that it must have been a case of victimisation.”

Police claimed that Ryan refused to supply his address details when he was stopped under section 44 of the Terrorism Act. However, the reason for this is that Ryan is currently classed as homeless because he doesn’t have a fixed address.

The very same day another amateur photographer was also stopped outside Buckingham Palace, this time for displaying ‘suspicious’ behaviour in front of Prince Charles. Jules Mattsson, 16, was pounced on by an armed undercover police officer while photographing a cadet unit on the Mall.

The Home Secretary’s decision to scrap section 44’s use against individuals will hopefully put an end to these ridiculous incidents. May said: “”I am changing the test for authorisation for the use of section 44 powers from requiring a search to be ‘expedient’ for the prevention of terrorism, to the stricter test of it being ‘necessary’ for that purpose. And, most importantly, I am introducing a new suspicion threshold.”

It follows a ruling by the European court of human rights in January that the powers were unlawful because they were too broadly drawn and lacked sufficient safeguards to protect civil liberties. May said: “Officers will no longer be able to search individuals using section 44 powers. Instead they will have to rely on section 43 powers, which require officers to reasonably suspect the person to be a terrorist.” This is undoubtedly a vital victory for those photographers and artists whose work is engaged with the public realm, as well as the wider public’s right to privacy.

Read the MET Police’s full statement in Amateur Photographer following Jules Mattsson’s search here

Read Pauline Hadaway’s full report here

Jack Hutchinson

Jack Hutchinson July 2010