Stop and Search: a guide

Stop and search - a guide

From January 1 this year police have swapped a stop and search form described as “a foot long,” for a simple receipt, and while some welcome the cut in red tape, critics point to Home Office figures that seem to support fears the powers will be overused.

The police’s right to stop and search without arrest is controversial, and has often been the faultline for friction between officers and the communities they police. In the run up to the inner city riots of 1981, police in Brixton stopped more than 1,000 people in just six days on grounds of only ‘suspicion’, causing a surge in tensions.

After a critical public enquiry, the hated ‘sus’ laws were dropped and replaced with clearly defined and limited powers to stop and search. But fast-forward 20 years and section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 has reintroduced those powers to stop without “reasonable suspicion.” An example of how broadly the police interpret these powers include bundling 82-year-old Labour supporter Walter Wolfgang out of the Labour Party conference after he heckled Jack Straw in 2005, to public outcry.

Figures for 2006-07, the most recent year available, show that the police carried out a total of 2,907,539 stops or searches – 4.8 per cent of the population, or nearly one in 20 of us. Only around 12 per cent of those resulted in an arrest, and this does not necessarily mean that charges were brought and someone found guilty of an offence.

More zealous stopping and searching has thrust unlikely groups of people into the path of police, among them photographers and trainspotters.

Public photography is perfectly legal, except in situations where a subject might have “a reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as a bathroom. But hobbyist and professional photographers have experienced harassment from staff, security guards and police in the name of security.

British Transport Police figures that record 62,584 section 44 stops at railway stations last year, and another 87,000 stops or searches under other laws, demonstrate the extent to which trainspotters have come under fire.

In October, 15-year-old schoolboy Fabian Sabbara was stopped and threatened with arrest under the Terrorism Act for taking pictures of Wimbledon station on his mobile phone, despite explaining it was for his GCSE course work.

Chris Milner, deputy editor at Railway Magazine, said that though train operators and police broadly agreed that rail enthusiasts posed no problem, frontline staff and managers were ignorant of – or ignored – the guidelines.

He said: “A lot of us remember [former Met Police chief] Iain Blair saying after the 2005 bombs: who’s got pictures, evidence that might help us? When there’s an incident they want our help, yet every day staff tell us not to take photos.”

Milner said he had travelled extensively around Europe and never been approached for taking pictures, but in the UK staff always had a reason to hand to stop photographers.

“It’s a shame,” he added. “Photography has never been more popular, and yet so restricted.”

Freelance photographer Carmen Valino was stopped in Canary Wharf by police who radioed to base every detail, from her name, address and description to the make and model of her camera and lenses. “They stopped me again later and asked me why I was still here, as if I had no right to be,” she recalled. And last month two press photographers were prevented by police from covering protests outside the Greek Embassy.

Yet guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers’ guidelines are clear: “Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and we have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record. It is a matter for their editors to control what is published or broadcast, not the police.”

With the latest Metropolitan police figures recording more than triple the number of stop and searches, 157,000 for the year to September 2008, it is clear that having to explain ourselves and empty our pockets to the police will become more common for us all.

The Law

Powers to stop and search begin with the Vagrancy Act 1824, allowing constables to stop “a suspected person or reputed thief” on grounds of suspicion alone. Lord Scarman’s report into the inner city riots led to an end to this ‘sus’ law, culminating in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). This gives police the power to stop and search if they have reasonable suspicion that an offence has been or is about to be committed, including looking for drugs, firearms or weapons, tools for damaging property or theft, (eg. spray paint, jemmy) or stolen goods.

The Criminal Evidence and Public Order Act 1994, section 60, was aimed at seizing weapons from football hooligans. It allows officers to search for weapons, but only in situations where a senior officer believes it necessary to prevent “serious violence,” and those stopped do not have to give name, address or other details.

The Terrorism Act 2000, section 43 and 44, allows police to stop and search if they believe someone to be a terrorist, if “expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism,” or if looking for “articles that could be used for terrorism whether or not there are grounds for suspecting that such articles are present” – essentially, regardless of whether officers believe a crime has been or may be committed.

Your rights, as described by Liberty

Police conducting a search must: identify themselves and their police station; explain why you are being searched, under which powers and what they are searching for; take a written record of the search, unless impractical to do so; record your name and address if known; ethnic origin; date, time and place of the search; any objects found or damaged during the search, and any injury resulting from the search. But police have no powers to search you in order to find something that would provide grounds to justify the search.

You are entitled to a record of the search on the spot, or can obtain a copy for 12 months if this is not practical. You are not required to give your name, address or date of birth. You should be searched by an officer of the same gender. You cannot be compelled to give DNA or fingerprints or be photographed during the search.

Under a section 44 search, though police need not have “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has or may be committed, to use the powers lawfully he must reasonably believe you to be involved in terrorist activity. Under these powers, you may be arrested and subsequently compelled to give DNA and fingerprints.

Ministry of Justice stop and search statistics

2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04 2004/05 2005/06 2006/07
Search 686,114 713,683 869,164 738,016 839,977 878,153 955,113
Stop 1,400,745 1,868,570
s.60 11,203 18,639 50,562 40,193 41,301 36,248 44,659
s.44 21,577 29,407 32,062 44,543 37,197
Stop – chance of being stopped by ethnic origin
Black x2.9 x2.4
Asian x1.3 x1.1
Search – chance of being stopped by ethnic origin
Black x6 x8 x5.8 x6.4 x6 x6.8 x7.1
Asian x1.7 x1.9 x1.8 x2.1 x2.2
Arrest % 14% 13% 13% 13% 11% 12% 12%


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, February 2009]


Who independently polices the IPCC?

When Peter Mahon was unlawfully removed from his house by police, he did not expect to spend four years chasing his case through the complaints process and courts.

Asleep on his sofa in November 2004, he was woken at 1.30am by two uniformed police officers who told him to leave or be arrested. The officers intervened in a civil dispute between Mahon and his ex-partner following the end of their relationship over rights to the house they had bought together in Hemel Hempstead.

Mahon, an actor, musician and filmmaker in his 50s, said: “The first thing [the police] asked me was, “Is this your house? Is your name on the deeds? They said they’d arrest me if I didn’t leave. They didn’t give any explanation.”

The solicitors Mahon sought advice from were astonished. “They didn’t believe me,” Mahon recalled. “They told me the police couldn’t do that. I said, I know – but they just have.”

Mahon lodged complaints first with Hertfordshire Constabulary and then the IPCC – the Independent Police Complaints Commission, an independent body established in 2004 seen as offering greater police accountability than its predecessors.

His complaint was that officers PC Hughes and PC Thornton had no right to remove him, but threatened him with arrest if he didn’t leave in order to prevent a breach of the peace – even though Mahon had been asleep when they entered and was, as Thornton later acknowledged, not threatening and calm throughout. Hughes’ notes made no mention of Mahon being abusive or threatening.

After four years of chasing the case through the system, Mahon was told the upshot would be that a senior officer would “have a word” with PC Thornton. PC Hughes, had resigned when the investigation began, without being interviewed.

The police receive around 30,000 complaints a year for anything from verbal abuse or malicious arrest to physical assault or death in custody. Though Peter Mahon’s case is far from the most serious it demonstrates how difficult it can be for complainants to receive an apology or sense of redress.

Few complaints brought against the police are upheld – according to the IPCC, 89 per cent of the 14,558 investigations last year found the claims unsubstantiated. Of 3,592 appeals, 72 per cent were rejected. Fewer still lead to serious disciplinary action; across the 43 divisions of England and Wales a total of 257 officers were disciplined as a result of a complaint: six were sacked, nine asked to resign, one demoted, 24 fined, 10 reprimanded, 97 given a written warning and for 106 no further action was taken. It is incredibly rare for an officer to face criminal prosecution.

The outcomes of high-profile cases, such as the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in July 2005, and less serious complaints such as Mahon’s have led critics to conclude that after five years the IPCC is failing to deliver.

Mahon’s complaint was not investigated by Hertfordshire Constabulary’s professional standards department until November 2005, which rejected Mahon’s complaint in April 2006. The IPCC, to whom Mahon appealed, also rejected it in June that year.

Both investigations relied heavily on the officers’ testimony and did not include taking any further evidence from Mahon or anyone else. Caseworkers at the IPCC deal with appeals on paperwork alone, without conducting further investigations.

Frustrated after 18 months, Mahon took the unusual step of seeking judicial review of the IPCC’s ruling from the Court of Appeal in September 2007. Granting judicial review, Lord Justice Auld said he felt “considerable unease about the circumstances of the case,” adding: “Given the information available beforehand to the police officers concerned, their conduct in awakening and removing Mr Mahon from his home in the middle of the night in the claimed belief of an apprehended breach of the peace, the matter deserved in my view a more vigorous and thorough investigation by Hertfordshire Constabulary.”

The IPCC agreed to review the case, and in October 2008 concluded: “The evidence indicates that the officers did not have sufficient grounds to arrest Mr Mahon for breach of the peace. The fact that Mr Mahon was asleep does not indicate that harm was sufficiently imminent for a breach of the peace to be threatened.”

But when Hertfordshire Constabulary were asked to review the case again, it informed Mahon in December only that it would have “words of advice” with the remaining officer.

Nick Hardwick, chairman of the IPCC’s commissioners, told The Big Issue that he was awaiting the full report required from Hertfordshire Constabulary, but admitted it had taken far too long.

“Stripping away the bureaucracy behind this, if the force had said to Mr Mahon in Christmas 2004, yes, actually officers have made a mistake and got the law wrong on this. We’re really sorry about this, please accept our apologies. If it had said that, this would never have come so far. Four years later, Mr Mahon must be beside himself with rage, which is terrible. The system itself is worse that what happened to him in the first place.”

A change of culture was required in dealing with complaints resolved locally by the force, rather than by the IPCC’s investigators, Hardwick said: “It’s about PC Bloggs being able to say, sorry, it was late, I’d had a long day, I got it wrong and I’ll refresh myself on breach of the peace law, for example. If that is done well, complainants like Mr Mahon would be happy.

“Almost half the complaints against the police are for incivility or other neglect of duty. Relatively minor if taken alone, but the scale of them is huge. Dealing with these better is crucial to the police’s relationship with the public.”

The Police Action Lawyers Group, representing those complaining against the police, are not surprised that a comparatively minor case could have taken years to achieve, effectively, nothing. The PALG spokesmen resigned from their IPCC advisory board role last year expressing their “dismay and disillusionment” with “consistently poor quality of decision-making at all levels.”

But Hardwick replied: “It has improved. Have we still got a long way to go? Absolutely.”

Mahon, a father of two who has recorded several albums under the moniker Pete Bite and acted in EastEnders and The Bill, intends to sue. He said: “I stopped acting, stopped working on films, stopped regular work at all. This has taken over my life, and years of my time. This could have been sorted out the next day – they get slapped on the wrist, I get my keys back and go home. But with every lie they told about me I just got angrier and more determined.

“I’m trying to prove that you can take on the police and win. The problem is that the bad coppers lie and the good coppers stay silent.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, February 2009]


Operation Poncho

Thomas Penrose is fiercely critical of Operation Poncho. Photo credit - Michael Parker
Thomas Penrose is fiercely critical of Operation Poncho. Photo credit - Michael Parker

For the homeless rough sleeper, life has enough complications without being woken at 3am on a cold night, quizzed by police and having your sleeping pitch hosed down with water.

Known as Operation Poncho, this approach has been taking place in the City of London since May last year. For a year, rough sleepers were shaken from their sleep and moved on while their shelter for the night was soaked, forcing them on to find another place to rest. At the same time staff from homeless charity St Mungo’s or more recently Broadway were present to steer rough sleepers towards hostels.

While the government has ploughed £538m in council homelessness projects and £106m into improving hostels since 1997, rough sleeping and homelessness is still a problem as it was 10 years ago.

The use of enforcement measures against street sleepers including Asbos or tactics such as Poncho suggest a tougher approach by the authorities toward those they define as “refusing to engage” with services. But why would someone prefer to remain outside?

The St Martin’s-in-the-Fields church on Trafalgar Square and the Connections service have a long history of working with homeless. Its day centre behind the church now assist around 5,000 people a year after a £4million refurb, offering showers, food, healthcare, training, advice and safety in addition to outreach teams on the streets at night.

Outreach manager Annie O’Brien said: “On any night we may have 10 new faces on the street, but most others we know. We have 82-year-olds living on the street who don’t want to go indoors. Being on their own outdoors is what they know, they don’t want to change.”

And the alternative is not always attractive. “Hostels used to be diabolical, but they are improving,” she added. “They have learned to diversify – they can’t be a melting pot.”

Director Colin Glover said that only an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of street homeless used services available to them. “The issue of carrot and stick has been around forever,” he added. “Turn the clock back 15 years and there was huge sympathy with the homeless as it was seen as a failure of government. Now there is a hardening towards unemployed homeless people, and we are caught in the swing of attitudes that almost make things like Operation Poncho seem acceptable.”

The benefit of a roof over one’s head is not always sufficient to tempt rough sleepers indoors, and the one-size-fits-all policy of hostels has thrown together a potentially explosive mix of residents with complex problems.

Thomas Penrose, 59, has been homeless for seven years following a divorce. The soft-spoken Cornishman has never used a hostel, and has always slept rough.

“I wouldn’t go near hostels. I haven’t in seven years and have no intention to,” he told The Big Issue. “I know people that have gone into hostels and come back out again many times over. You’re bound to get clashes between characters there, especially with the mental health or drug problems that you get. But often it’s the aggressive superiority of the staff – the attitudes make it feel more like a correctional facility than a hostel.”

Penrose has experienced early morning calls from City of London officers during Operation Poncho while sleeping on Fleet Street, and believes it is just the latest part of the “factory line” approach to drive people through what he calls the “homelessness industry.”

“For every homeless guy there’s four or five people working for him, from outreach workers to administrators to managers. The system moves so slowly, and so much money is spent on administration. It’s an industry that supports itself.”

Penrose recalls a friend who was offered a flat, but on the day that various staff from housing association, outreach charity, and others met at the arranged time to hand over the keys, he didn’t turn up.

“No one had bothered to tell him,” Penrose recalled. “With attitudes like that, it becomes easier just to say: to hell with it, I’ll stay on the street where it’s easy.”

Even if someone is removed from the street to a flat of their own, he says, it doesn’t necessarily mean the problem is solved: “You might just end up with a man sleeping on the floor of his bare flat, with bills to pay, and no friends. The homelessness industry counts that as a success. But it’s not – it’s just not their problem any more.”

One large hostel in central London, housing around 100 men, is shabby, drab and very reminiscent of a correctional facility.

Around 80 per cent of residents have drug or alcohol dependencies. One is Colin Barclay, who has lived there almost two years, after spending 28 of his 42 years homeless.

He talks animatedly: “I’ve been in 20 or 30 hostels and night shelters in London. With some you’d rather be out on the street,” he said. “There’s solidarity among those outside, keeping and eye out for one another. I’d sooner stay with people I know on the street than come inside where there are strangers. And if you’re a stranger coming in here, it can be very intimidating – there is an undercurrent of violence in most hostels.”

Tattooed ex-punk Eugene, 48, agreed. “I was rough sleeping so long it was comfortable. There’s nothing romantic about it – I just couldn’t deal with any kind of structure at all. Even the three meetings you have to attend to get into the hostel,” he said.

Eugene, also a methadone user, was given an Asbo banning him from south Camden – where most of the services he uses are based. “I’ve breached it eight times,” he explained, “It’s pointless because stopping someone from getting help just means they’re more likely to commit crime.”

Although hostels are moving towards a smaller, more specialised model, the problems of institutionalising the homeless and treating them with a broad brush remain. As Penrose puts it: “Behind the term ‘the homeless’ are as broad a cross-section of society as you’d find anywhere else.”

Poncho is the first example of its kind in Britain, with nothing similar occurring in Birmingham, Leeds or Brighton. Sarah Johnsen from York University’s Centre for Housing Policy published a report last year that found the effects of enforcement on rough sleepers was unpredictable and a “high risk strategy.”

Some targeted homeless were driven to more dangerous activities or social groups, or criminalised through the breaching of Asbos, while for others it was the trigger needed to take positive steps. The report concluded that it should always be used carefully with support available immediately and suitable to each individual.

Johnsen added: “Poncho is founded on the assumption that services are there, but even if the beds spaces were available unless they are immediately accessible then the claims are misleading at best.”

(some names have been changed)


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]


Family court changes comes at glacial pace

Dad's army

“If your partner is reasonable, stay as far away as possible from the court system. They are rife with litigation instead of mitigation. Find a support group and don’t give up, your children need you.”

– John Baker, former chairman of Families need Fathers, speaking on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

After five years of the sight of spandex-clad men dressed as comic-book superheroes on motorway bridges, government buildings, even Wimbledon’s Centre Court, campaigners hope that new laws will stem the rising tide of parents denied access to their children.

Activist group Fathers 4 Justice has used humour, pithy punchlines and high-profile stunts to focus the media’s attention on the parlous state of the Family Court, and the unreasonable manner in which one parent, all too often the father, can be denied access to their children.

With family court proceedings taking place in private behind closed doors, the group argued that there is little accountability for the decisions of the courts, a tendency to grant residence to the mother, and insufficient rigour paid to examining claims of abuse, violence or fear.

This week, Fathers 4 Justice’s founder, flamboyant father-of-three Matt O’Connor, announced that after six years he was closing not just the support group but winding up the campaign in order to spend more time with his three sons.

Speaking to The Big Issue, Matt said: “We don’t have the resources or the training to help people who are clinging to the cliff face. We never started it for that, but it evolved from awareness-raising to self-help,” Matt said.

“The final straw for me was Brian Philcox, who killed his children. The headlines spoke about a ‘Fathers 4 Justice link’, as if we were responsible for what he did.”

However, the high-profile posturing of the caped campaigners has led the government at last to turn its attention to some of the more intractable problems of the Family Court.

Some 200,000 parents separate every year leading to around 25,000 to 30,000 single residency court orders, where the child lives at one parent’s home.

In the majority of cases, courts award custody of the child to the mother, and once a routine has been set it is harder for the father to get access.

A common “standard issue” arrangement handed out by the courts is alternate weekends and half the summer holidays, but this falls far short of the time required to build relationships.

Policy officer Becky Sabine from Families Need Fathers, set up over 30 years ago, said: “It is difficult to make up time apart, court cases can take six months or more and that’s a long time in a child’s life. It is important to have quality time, based on mundane things like picking kids up from school, shared mealtimes, parents’ evenings, bedtime stories – not just a few days out.”

Sabine is hopeful that courts will use the new powers under Children and Adoption Act 2006, which comes into force in November, to compel parents to cooperate and create a culture of genuinely shared residency. Officers from CAFCASS, the government agency which prepares reports for judges on the parents and children involved, have also been given an expanded role of mediating and befriending the parents to help in hostile relationships.

Family Law practitioner Miranda Fisher from legal firm Charles Russell said some progress had been made over the last five years.

“The changes that have happened are largely due to Fathers 4 Justice because their efforts have brought it into the spotlight,” she said.

“There has been a shift in the attitudes of the court towards shared residence orders, but though courts have always been sympathetic towards strong and meaningful relationships with both parents, the problem lies in enforcement.”

The lack of effective measures against resident parents that continually block the visiting parent’s access to their children has led to furious criticism of the Family Courts and CAFCAS.

In May, Lord Justice Alan Ward gave the system an unprecedented savaging when ruling that a father have no contact with the daughter he has been fighting to see for 12 years.

Laying blame squarely on the mother, Lord Justice Ward said her “drip, drip drip of venom” had led her daughter to believe false claims that she had been abused by her father – claims rejected in court 10 years ago. As seeing her father only upset her, he could not allow contact.

He said: “The father complains bitterly, passionately and with every justification that the law is sterile, impotent and utterly useless. But the question is: what can this court do? The answer is nothing.

“This is a truly distressing case. It may be typical of many, but in some ways it borders on the scandalous. It is certainly tragic.”

Such cases are termed “intractable hostility” by the courts, also known as Parental Alienation Syndrome. While many thousands of parents whose relationships break down settle their differences themselves, difficult court disputes for the most part arise when parents are blinded to doing the best by their children by their animosity toward each other.

Such hostility can often lead a young child or teenager to become alienated from the non-resident parent after constant exposure to the feelings of the resident parent, for example the delusional beliefs of the mother in the case above.

In part, the courts are to blame as the system encourages an adversarial approach, and judges have been reluctant to punish, arguing that a heavy fine or prison stretch for the mother or father would hardly be in the child’s interest.

Miranda Fisher said: “When people divorce they lose sight of what’s good for the child. We need to help parents to help their children through a divorce, and remind parents of the effects on their children of seeing two people they love ripping each other to pieces in front of them.”

Others have gone so far to say that, with the weight of evidence demonstrating the negative effects of having only one parent in a child’ life, deliberately denying the child access to both its parents is tantamount to child abuse.

A Canadian Judge, John Gomery said: “Hatred is not an emotion that comes naturally to a child. It has to be taught. A parent who would teach a child to hate the other parent represents a grave and persistent danger to the mental and emotional health of that child.”

Mothers Apart from Their Children, MATCH, supports those mothers separated from their children, as both mothers and fathers can use the child to alienate the other. One member, Linda, found her ex-husband blackening her name in the court to keep her away from her children. She said: “He told me that my children would grow up with only bad memories of me and he would make sure that they would hate me so much they would wish me dead. Parental Alienation is real, it is emotional abuse and should be recognised by the law.”

The Ministry of Justice said the new measures would “give the court new ways to help find solutions where there is a serious conflict between parties.”

Sabine from Fathers Need Families said that it “cultural change” is required: “It must become unacceptable for one parent to deny another the right to see their children, in the same way drink driving or domestic violence has become unacceptable.

“A child has two parents and needs them both.”

John Fyfe, 37, came home one day to find his house empty and ransacked, and no sight of his wife and children. Neither the police, nor social services would tell him where they were, but Families Need Fathers helped him to get a court order to bring his wife to court. Over six months, he pieced together the story that his wife had run off with another man by whom she was pregnant, changed her name having run up thousands of pounds of debt and taken their five children with them.

John had asked 42 solicitors firms for help, but as the cheapest was £140 an hour he represented himself, including cross-examining his own wife at the final hearing.

In all, he went to court nine times and saw a different judge on each occasion.

Although he was granted a shared residence order in February, his house was burnt down in an arson attack, leaving him able to see them only every Saturday.

Though he maintains a good relationship with his younger children, aged six, nine, 11 and 15, he has not spoken to his eldest son since.

He said: “She used the children to shield her from the law, from work, and from me. It didn’t matter what I said, or how she acted, the courts would never give me custody.

I completely trusted and loved her, I had no reasons to be suspicious of anything. I’ve completely lost my trust and confidence in women now.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, September 2008]


Making rape an electoral issue

Jill Saward

You might imagine that anyone suffering the trauma of a sexual attack would seek to remain unknown and heal their wounds, rather than reveal themselves, go on the offensive and campaign for change.

But that is exactly what Jill Saward did when, in 1986 aged just 21, she was raped at her home after her father, a priest, and her boyfriend were beaten nearly to death during what the press called the Ealing Vicarage Rape.

Forfeiting her right to anonymity Saward became the first victim of a sex attack to ‘go public’ when she wrote her story in 1990, and has since supported victims of sexual violence and campaigned for changes to the way the law treats rape victims.

In July, she stood against David Davis in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election in East Yorkshire, flying in the face of the MP’s fears of a ‘big brother’ state by calling for a compulsory national DNA database of all British citizens.

Saward is a resilient woman. The judge at the trial of her three attackers, Justice Leonard, gave harsher sentences to the man who organised the burglary than the two rapists, and said her suffering was “not so very great,” evidently on the performance of the strong-willed young woman giving evidence to the court.

Her Christian faith saw her through hard times including thoughts of suicide, but with characteristic kindness, she didn’t throw herself in front of train for fear of traumatising the driver. And ten years later, she met and forgave Robert Horscroft, the burglar that led the raid but didn’t rape her, when he was released from prison.

Speaking to The Big Issue, Saward, now 43, married with three children, recalled that forfeiting her anonymity was not so big a step to take: “I had little anonymity from the word go. Apart from the name ‘Jill’ – I have an identical twin – everything else they already knew,” she said.

“The policewoman supporting me said I should write a book, and she said it so often in the end I did. In some ways it was cathartic, but in other ways it meant I had to live through things all over again. But that other people were helped by it, I’m glad.”

Her work since then has included direct support to victims, training police officers and media work but it was, she said, the silence from David Davis on the subject of rape during his four years as shadow Home Secretary that made her want to stand.

With a tiny budget and few supporters to help Saward found the campaign trail lonely, with some voters accusing her of being a “Labour stooge.” But she found it worthwhile, with many commentators in the press adding their voices to hers, and voters openly supportive of her highlighting the issue as she did – whether or not they voted for her.

Saward said: “David Davis made no attempt to take me on, didn’t try and address the issues I was talking about. He blanked me. Since the election I’ve written to ask why the Tories couldn’t support the Rape Crisis Centre in Hull, which received no money from the Tory council whatsoever. They just haven’t addressed the issue. I wrote to David Cameron. No response.”

It is such inactivity from politicians that spurs Saward on, but her principle policy of expanding the police national DNA database into a compulsory record of every British citizens’ DNA has far-reaching consequences and few facts to support it.

In a report on the retention policy used by police in England, whose powers to take samples without consent and store them indefinitely are wider than in any other country, a Nuffield Council on Bioethics report stated: “There is very limited evidence indeed that the retention regime of England and Wales is effective in significantly improving detection rates.”

It found the stricter regulations in Scotland, where records are deleted if charges are dropped or the accused is acquitted, have not led to fewer matches between profiles on the database and DNA found at crime scenes – in fact higher in Scotland at 68 per cent than England and Wales with 52 per cent.

Furthermore, a DNA profile of everyone in the country would still not guarantee raising rape conviction rates, for the same reason that rape has historically been a difficult crime to prosecute: it is generally consent, rather than the identity of the attacker, that is the issue – violent stranger rapes as in Saward’s case represent only around 10 per cent of the 11,648 reported rapes last year, with the majority of attackers known to the victim.

Saward recognises this but says: “Even so, that’s 10 per cent of cases – potentially thousands of women – where it could help find an attacker,” she said. “And it’s not just rape, it’s murder and other crimes as well.”

It is a statistical truth that a small minority of the population commit the vast majority of crime. By including everybody on the database, law-abiding or not, the possibility of false matches and miscarriages of justice increases dramatically.

But Saward dismisses this, and other civil liberty objections, saying: “We have miscarriages of justice already. Why would you want to get rid of technologies that could help?”

She suggests other technologies targeted by Davis such as CCTV could be better used in rape investigations, especially where alcohol is involved or there are concerns drinks have been spiked.

“If a girl says, I had two glasses of wine and two glasses doesn’t usually affect me like this, then police have more to go on, not least if it can be seen on CCTV that the drinks have been spiked,” Saward adds.

“I think there’s a lot of spiking going on in pubs and clubs, but police don’t take blood tests from the girls to see if what’s in their bloodstream corresponds to what they’ve thought they’d drunk.”

Despite much recent public hand-wringing, government support for the victims of sexual abuse is sparse. There are only 38 centres of the locally-run Rape Crisis network in England, and only 20 of the new government-run Sexual Assault Referral Centres, each set up on a shoe-string budget. Funding comes from many different sources, each with different, usually onerous statistical or reporting requirements that pull staff away from the work of supporting victims.

“The picture is dismal and getting worse,” Saward said. “There are groups closing – eight Rape Crisis centres in the last five years – and funding is geared towards domestic violence rather than sexual violence.”

In truth, there are no easy answers. The nature of the crime makes the requirements of the police investigation difficult for the victim, with up to a quarter dropping out early on. But with more female officers and specialist training this is improving.

Saward says: “I think we have to look more to educating juries, and their attitudes towards sexual violence. Cases judged by judges alone might be better – but only if they understand the complexities and consequences of rape.”

She points out that jurors generally don’t realise that, for the case to have come to trial at all, the CPS must already have been convinced of the possibility of a conviction on the strength of the evidence.

And she has a point. It is worth noting an Amnesty International survey from 2005 that showed 25 per cent of Britons believed that how a woman dressed or her number of previous sexual partners made her partially or even totally responsible for being raped, and nearly a third blamed the woman if she was drunk, because it is this British public that as jurors convict or acquit rapists.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, August 2008]


Holding out against “transformational government”

Transformational government - be afraid

Six official reviews in as many weeks have been heavily critical of government policies and procedures that led to millions of citizens’ personal details being exposed, published to the internet, or lost.

In response to dozens of incidents in which private information including health records and bank details went missing, the reports’ authors agree on an urgent need for a complete overhaul of how such data is collected, stored and shared in the public sector.

In November the largest ever information loss occurred when two CDs, containing the private details of 25 million mothers and children and seven million bank account details, were sent by post from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. They never arrived.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation into the HMRC loss stated that the agency’s data protection was “woefully inadequate,” and that there was a “complete lack of any meaningful systems, a lack of understanding of the importance of data handling and a ‘muddle-through ethos.’”

A forensic analysis of the events by chairman of auditors Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Kieron Poynter, described it as “entirely avoidable, and the fact that it could happen points to serious institutional deficiencies at HMRC.”

In the months after this blunder, barely a week went by without revelations of further losses: 571 laptops lost by the Ministry of Defence in a decade, including one holding current British troop positions; 20 years of payroll details lost by a Kent NHS trust; 20,000 patient details lost by a London Hospital; confidential police computers dumped at a council tip; millions of driver details lost by the DVLA.

A total of 30 losses from Whitehall alone were reported between November and June this year to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees and upholds privacy legislation.

Calls for change and criticism come from offices including the Home Affairs Committee, the Cabinet Office and the Independent Police Complaints Commission among them.

Justice Minster Michael Wills said last week that: “There is a clear need for radical change in government in how we handle data. We don’t handle data in the same way as we handle money, and I think we should.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see gigantic databases where anyone can go and search. I think the security implications of that are horrendous.”

A report from MPs on the Home Affairs Committee was specific in its demands that: “The Government should give an explicit undertaking to adhere to a principle of data minimisation and should resist a tendency to collect more personal information and establish larger databases.

“Any decision to create a major new database, to share information on databases, or to implement proposals for increased surveillance should be based on a proven need.”

While a Home Office spokesman said that a response to the Home Affairs Committee was due for release later this week, despite the criticism the government and civil service ‘Transformational Government’ project continues, with the express purpose of knowing and storing as much as possible about you.

The Transformational Government Vision Statement released in October states “there are enormous benefits to sharing information” and that the Data Protection Act “must not be used to justify unnecessary barriers to sharing information.”

“Codes of practice,” it continues, “will be to facilitate information sharing, not to add a burden to the data sharing process.”

A re-structured government would see personal details of citizens and businesses routinely shared between government departments. Key parts of this infrastructure are the large government databases that exist or are being prepared in the wings, such as the National Identity Scheme, a database of every citizen in the country, ContactPoint, a database of every child, and the National DNA Database.

James Hall, Head of the Identity and Passport Service which will operate the identity card scheme wrote last year that “increased inter-departmental co-operation will, by its nature, involve sharing more data about an individual between public sector organisations. The National Identity Scheme is being designed to meet that public expectation of improved services and joined-up government.”

Privacy campaigners hold that the government’s demonstrated failure to be able to keep hold of sensitive data is ample proof that Whitehall is incapable of safeguarding the details of our private lives. Such a ‘transformational government’ would be doomed to failure, they say.

As if to back this point, an independent review of the ContactPoint children’s database by auditors Deloitte in Touche in February reported that the system could never be made safe.

It said: “Risk can only be managed, not eliminated, and therefore there will always be a risk data security incidents occurring,” adding that this would arise mostly from the procedures of local authorities and agencies that accessed the database, and for whose child support services it has been created.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services suggested that “an abuser could be able to access ContactPoint for illegitimate purposes with limited fear of any repercussions.”

With the government’s admission that celebrities and politicians can have their children’s details removed, Terri Dowty, from Action on Rights for Children, Arch, said that this amounted to an admission that it was insecure.

“The Government acknowledges the risks by instituting these protocols on celebrity and vulnerable children,” she said. “But all children are potentially vulnerable.”

Phil Booth, national coordinator of the NO2ID campaign against the ‘database state’ explained: “What the bureaucrats don’t understand is that information security is not the same as data protection, in the sense recognised by our Data Protection Act, which in turn is not the same as privacy.

“The government and Whitehall are determined to see objections to their hoarding of our personal details as only a problem of information security—a technical problem at which they can throw computer hardware and software.

“But the desire for privacy is much deeper than that: it is an emotional, psychological response to the feeling of having your life laid open for others to see. It has nothing to do with efficient public services, and it has not been addressed by the government–in fact it’s been wilfully ignored.”

The most recent report, the government Data Sharing Review written by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas and Dr Mark Walport, director of medical research charity the Wellcome Trust, was released last week.

It recommended that the government’s privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, should be given new powers of spot checks, more stringent penalties and better resources. It also suggested better access to anonymised personal records for medical research purposes.

But speaking only in general terms, it avoided any comment on the National Identity Scheme or ContactPoint, which together represent the largest repository of government-held personal information. Most extraordinarily, while the authors stated that data sharing is “intrinsically neither good nor bad” they suggested that ministers should have powers to remove “legislative barriers to data sharing,” where appropriate.

The Ministry of Justice said that it welcomed the recommendations in the report and had begun assessing what could be implemented, while a Home Office spokesman said that a response to the Home Affairs Committee was due for release later this week.

July saw David Davis MP re-elected in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election with an increased majority of 15,000 after standing on a civil liberties platform. But while Mr Davis is associated most with opposition to the government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill to incarcerate suspects for up to 42 days without charge, the more abstract—but very real—threat to liberty represented by a growing culture of data surveillance still lacks both a prominent poster boy and wider public understanding.

It is hard to quantify the harm that Whitehall’s lax approach to keeping our personal details safe is having.

Certainly some, like Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, thought the dangers were overblown and published his bank details in his column to prove it.

But after a £500 charity donation was made from his account, he changed his tune. The 25 million families affected by the HMRC scandal may not have had the opportunity to be so blasé.

But tales of misuse of information are all too common: last week, Humberside anti-corruption police investigated reports that officers had searched confidential police records to check out their daughters’ boyfriends. A further seven officers are under investigation after fears that they may be leaking information to known criminals.

In another case, Geoffrey Peck was captured on CCTV in 1995 when, while suffering from depression, he attempted to commit suicide in Brentwood High Street. When the council and newspapers passed published recognisable footage of incident, he argued in the court that his privacy had been breached. The European Court of Human Rights found in his favour in 2003.

And just this week, an investigation by the National Aids Trust found that children as young as four were being discriminated against at school after their HIV status was disclosed.

In one case, a girl who was not even aware of her condition discovered it from a teacher.

What will a ‘transformational’ government look like?

The architects of Transformational Government foresee a future civil service that uses modern technology to store and share records on every citizen, from name and address information to financial, tax, benefits and health records.

As the public sector delivers its services through separate departments, we find ourselves contacting several departments to notify them of the same changes. By enabling data-sharing across Whitehall, the policy’s designers say it will make our lives easier by informing all relevant departments of changes, help cut down on administrative wastage and the potential for fraud.

But while an efficient civil service is a noble aim, public services can be improved without the need to know more about the public, and the proven failure of the government and its contractors like Capita and EDS to deliver massive IT projects that actually work point to the enormous risks dangers of putting all the eggs in a single basket.

For example, the National Identity Register database at the core of the Identity Scheme will contain 50 categories of facts about us, from name and address, biometric fingerprints and photo, to passport, driving licence and NI numbers. It will also contain an ‘audit trail,’ recording each occasion an identity check is made against the register. As the Identity Cards Act requires this for access to public services such as local and central government departments or the NHS at least, this would leave a detailed record of our dealings.

Bringing such wide-ranging information and official identifiers together will prove a magnet for thieves and fraudsters, and with the register at the heart of an information-centric administration that touches millions of public sector workers in central and local government, the NHS and police, the likelihood of loss, misuse, or mishap is huge.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, July 2008]