The UK’s official reviewer of terrorism legislation on Tuesday criticized London’s Metropolitan police (the Met) after it emerged that the force had stopped and searched 58 children aged nine or younger using powers designed to fight al-Qaeda.
The children were stopped last year and all were under the UK’s criminal age of responsibility, which is 10. None is believed to have been found to have been involved in terrorism.
Figures from the Metropolitan Police Authority showed that last year the Met used terrorism laws to stop and search 10 girls aged nine or under and 48 boys. A total of 2,331 children aged 15 or under were stopped by Met officers using terrorism powers.
Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 gives police the power to stop and search people in areas deemed by senior officers to be at risk of terrorism. A constable does not need to have reasonable suspicion, and use of the power has been controversial.
Lord Carlile, the independent official reviewer of terrorism legislation, said: “I find these figures uncomfortable. There is absolutely no evidence of children in this country being involved in acts of terrorism.”
He said that the more than 2,000 children aged 15 or under had been stopped under Section 44 as a “very high figure” and added: “It shows some evidence that Section 44 stops may have been used as an instrument of general policing rather than for the special purpose for which they were designed, which is not acceptable.”
Carlile, a barrister by profession, said the only “reasonable justification” an officer could have to search a child under terrorism powers was if it was suspected an accompanying adult had concealed something on the juvenile.
“I have consistently urged the Met to decrease the number of Section 44 stops and searches. I hope we will see a dramatic reduction of Section 44 procedures on adults, juveniles and children,” he said.
Last year the Met carried out 175,000 searches using section 44 and earlier this year the Guardian revealed it would scale back use of the power after conceding that hundreds of thousands of stops had damaged community relations and reversed fundamental principles of civil rights.
Corinna Ferguson, legal officer for the UK human rights organization Liberty, said: “We have always said that the powers given to the police under Section 44 are so broad that they are bound to be misused.”
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