Monday, January 19, 2009

British police abuse Section 27 powers to target football fans

Police in Manchester have been forced to issue an apology to 80 football fans after wrongfully preventing them from attending a football match. The 80 were all fans of Stoke City and were in a Manchester pub prior to a game against Manchester United on 15 November last year when they were all bundled into buses and made to return to Stoke. Despite the fact there was no evidence of any disturbance, Police issued a Section 27 notification in accordance with the Violent Crime Reduction Act which enabled them to take the extraordinary action of making them leave town. The fans received no apology for missing a match against the English champions and no refund for their expensive tickets.

According to Greater Manchester Police (GMP), they had received intelligence that around 80 fans were intent on causing trouble. They claimed it was their “duty to keep public order” that drove their action to detain the fans for four hours and send them back to Stoke. The GMP admitted it was now reviewing its use of the act to ensure it was only used when necessary. However they also said that only “a small proportion” of the 80 were not trouble makers, with a clear implication that the majority were. The GMP offered no rationale for their belief that peaceful fans were troublemakers nor have they revealed the "intelligence" that caused them to invoke Section 27 in the first place.

On the day of the incident, the Stoke fans had met at the Railway Inn in Irlam near Manchester for a few pre-match beers. The pub was a natural stop-off point to the stadium for those arriving via the M6 motorway or the local railway station. The atmosphere was quiet in the pub and the landlord made no complaint to the police. According to one fan at the pub, “there were no football chants being sung at the Railway Inn and no evidence of disorder whatsoever. If there had of been we would have left the pub and made our way elsewhere.” Nevertheless the premises were surrounded by police and the 80 supporters were all required to sign Section 27 forms or else face arrest. Police refused requests from some fans to state on the form that they were not intoxicated.

Section 27 (pdf) of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 introduced a little known new police power to give directions to leave to individuals to leave a locality. The section can be invoked when an individual’s presence is deemed likely to cause or contribute to an “alcohol-related crime or disorder in a locality”. The Home Office circular related to the new powers directs chief police officers to use them “proportionately, reasonably and with discretion in circumstances where it is considered necessary to prevent the likelihood of alcohol-related crime or disorder.” Not only did the GMP fail to apply this test of the law, they were also guilty of a severe lack of proportionality.

According to Henry Portman in The Guardian, the police behaviour was both “oppressive and arbitrary”. Portman linked to a press release issued by the civil liberties and human rights group Liberty which gave further details of the inhumane way they treated the fans. Liberty said the 80 on the coach were deprived of toilet facilities and instructed to urinate into cups, which spilled over the floor of the bus. They had to sit with urine sloshing around their feet for the 65km journey back to Stoke.

Malcolm Clarke, the head of the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF), has taken up the cause of the wronged fans. He has appealed on the Stoke City fansite The Oatcake for anyone served with a Section 27 order to lodge a formal complaint. Clarke told Woolly Days that while Manchester Police have apologised to a subset of the 80 fans, they have not admitted illegality or agreed to pay damages. Clarke also noted there have been examples of other fans served with Section 27 orders. In December, South Yorkshire police prevented several Plymouth Argyle fans from attending a game at Doncaster Rovers and escorted them back to the south coast.

Clarke believes the hardline anti-fan attitude of individual police authorities is undermining the good work of the UK Football Policing Unit established in 2005. Football-related arrests have been dropping in recent years despite the highest league attendances in 35 years. “The Football Policing Unit has a very sensible strategy,” said Clarke. “But we don't have a national police force in the UK and they have no direct control over individual police forces.” The FSF will need to remain vigilant to ensure other police forces are not tempted to invoke the easy collective punishment aspect of Section 27.

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