Searching questions about a bad law

POLICE powers to counter terrorism on the one hand and the civil liberties of citizens on the other evoke two potent sets of values.

They are not predestined to clash, so long as the powers of the police are used proportionately and are clearly defined. It is where these conditions are not met that problems arise, such as the ridiculous behaviour of British Transport Police in stopping hundreds of ordinary travellers just to meet search quotas. And it is this – rather than problems with anti-terrorism powers per se – that lies behind the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that police who use such powers to search without suspicion are acting illegally.

Some may see this as a setback for the government's counter terrorism strategy, but in reality it is a ruling against bad law and a style of policing which paid insufficient attention to the need for proportionality. It is for this reason that the European Court ruled as it did. "There is a clear risk", it found, "of arbitrariness in the grant of broad discretion to the police officer" with the risk of discriminatory use of the legislation.

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It does not mean an end to stop and search, but it will require sharper legislation and more discretion by police. The point of anti-terrorism powers is not to give the authorities carte blanche but to enable the targeting of those giving cause for concern. Like the pointless body scanners coming to an airport near you, a blanket inconvenience for law-abiding citizens should not be a substitute for proper policing.