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The proper balance between freedom and security

Sun, 29 May 2011 11:00:01 GMT

The now-famous ECtHR judgment in Gillan and Quinton v UK prompted the removal of section 44 stop-and-search powers. The subsequent review of Security and Counter-Terrorism legislation provided a welcome comprehensive re-examination of the statutory framework within which the police and security organisations are intended to operate, resulting in significant changes.

In response to my observation (last year) that the actions of some police forces had led to accusations being made [ranging from them being 'out-of-control' to 'unaccountable'], the Home Secretary called on ACPO to show "strong leadership in promoting and supporting the greater use of professional judgement by police officers and staff". The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill was cited as the means of introducing greater accountability to policing in England and Wales.

Since then things have moved on.

A combination of new and revised legislation has, arguably, corrected the proper balance between freedom and security in this context. From the perspective of the statute book.

However, the ECtHR judgement highlighted concerns about the arbitrary outcome of broad discretionary powers in certain quarters. Last year's step-function drop in photographers being stopped on dubious grounds directly responds to the removal of some powers and the tightening of the thresholds associated with others. However welcome the result, the question still needs to be asked as to what was the intent behind photographers being stopped prior to the changes? Were we simply 'easy targets', or had we done something to justify the unwarranted interest? Only the police and security organisations can answer that question.

At a recent meeting with Home Office OSCT members we touched on the subject of Project Griffin. The project team may be surprised to hear that I support the objectives of this initiative, which coordinates the police, emergency services, local authorities, business and the private sector security industry in the fight against terrorism. My principal objection is the linkage that appears to be accepted that photographers have an increased likelihood of being terrorists, or have other über-objectionable aims. A very high proportion of the public own cameras, ranging from high-end DSLRs to the ubiquitous camera-phone. Does this mean that we should all have to have a 'reasonable excuse' to go about our daily lives? Of course not. It is time that those in authority recognise that fact, and that training programmes and well intentioned initiatives such as Griffin are adjusted to reflect the widespread adoption of new technology.

[And did you notice how we have been segued from innocent until proven guilty to having to provide a reasonable excuse?]

The balance between freedom and security is not measured simply within statute, but by the way we are able to live our lives. The challenge is there to those charged with enforcing the law, to whatever extent, to act with this in mind.