I wish to inform the House of a recent error in processing an application for section 44 Stop and Search powers under the Terrorism Act 2000.
The application by Sussex police, dated 3 September 2007, did not follow the recognised procedure. Forces submit applications to the National Joint Unit (NJU) at the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) which are then sent to the Home Office for ministerial authorisation. This must occur within 48 hours of the request being signed by an officer of assistant chief constable or above (Commander in the MPS) in the relevant force. In this case, due primarily to a process failure, the application was not passed to the Home Office for ministerial authorisation but the force continued to use the powers for the period up to 25 September when the next authorisation was submitted to the NJU. Sussex police has confirmed that 259 stops and searches were carried out at Gatwick airport during the unauthorised period. This relates to the period between the previous authorisation expiring and the next one being signed by the force.
This error was identified on 25 September 2007, when an application for section 44 powers was received by the Home Office making reference to the previous authorisation for Sussex police. I met officials at the Home Office on 27 September to discuss the matter. Officials were in contact with both the then chief constable of Sussex police and the NJU to establish where and how the failure took place, and to put in place more robust systems to ensure that there was no repeat of this error. On 25 October I subsequently wrote to the new chief constable of Sussex police outlining my concern that this error had occurred. I also wrote to Lord Carlile in his role as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. Lord Carlile replied on 9 November to indicate that he would be recording this incident in his annual review, which I expect to be published in Spring 2008. A note from ACPO (TAM) (Association of Chief Police Officers, Terrorism and Allied Matters) was disseminated to all forces on 14 November outlining the more robust section 44 process.
No arrests occurred as a result of these stop-and-searches; however, Sussex police will shortly be writing to all of the individuals concerned to apologise. Since this error came to light, it has been brought to my attention that this is not the first time that Sussex police have used these powers without proper authorisation. Regrettably, a similar incident occurred in June 2003. All steps have now been taken to ensure, with the NJU, that such regrettable and serious omissions do not occur again.
In light of this, Home Office officials are reviewing previous section 44 authorisations to identify any other occasions where the power has been used in error. Officials will keep Lord Carlile and me informed and I will report back to the House as appropriate.