guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 18 August 2009 19.43 BST
(Published in full, without abridgement or amendment)
Metropolitan police used anti-terror laws to stop and search 58 children under 10
• Terrorism Act used on 2,331 children last year
• Police abusing powers, says Muslim group chair
The official reviewer of terrorism legislation today criticised the Metropolitan police after it emerged that the force had stopped and searched 58 children aged nine or younger using terrorism powers designed to fight al-Qaida.
The children were stopped in 2008 and all were under the criminal age of responsibility, which is 10. None are believed to have been found to have been involved in terrorism.
According to figures from the Metropolitan Police Authority, in 2008 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. (my italics)
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 described the fact that more than 2000 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.
He added: "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."
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 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. First it was octogenarian Walter Wolfgang; now children who have not even reached the age of criminal responsibility are being searched.
"It's difficult to see how it could ever be justified to subject a young child to what is inevitably a frightening experience, under the guise of combating terrorism."
Abdurahman Jafar, who chairs the Muslim Safety Forum, which tried to improve police and community relations, said the figures showed that some officers were abusing their powers and that this could damage children.
"Overarching powers are always going to be abused. If I had a child and they were stopped I would be absolutely disgusted.
"It's such a young age and the child is going to fear he or she is being treated as a suspect and that will damage the child."
Scotland Yard said: "Stop and search legislation covers people, not ages, there is no upper age limit and no lower age limit. … There are a number of scenarios in which a child could be searched under section 44, ie if they were with an adult who is also stopped under this power. We recognise the sensitivity surrounding these powers and are constantly looking to improve our use of the tactic.
"The threat to London from terrorism is real and serious and these powers are an important tactic in our counter-terrorism strategy."