David Miranda’s detention – what do the public think?

by Stephen Tall on August 22, 2013

Polling firm YouGov has surveyed the British public on their attitudes to this week’s big news story: the detention of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who’s worked with Edward Snowden, the former US intelligence officer on whistleblowing / leaking details of the the surveillance activities of the US and British intelligence agencies.

‘Public divided’ is how YouGov’s summarised it, pretty fairly. This in itself is surprising: generally the public favours ‘national security’ over ‘individual liberty’ when push comes to shove. This suggests the police’s actions, possibly in themselves unlawful, have worried more than just the usual civil liberties groups (in which I include most Lib Dems). It may also have something to do with the Guardian’s original framing of the story, which implied Mr Miranda had been targeted simply because of his relationship with Mr Greenwald, rather than because of the material he may have been carrying.

Overall, the British public supports the current Schedule 7 arrangements (which are in the process of being amended by the Government) by a 3-to-1 margin: 66% support the police having powers to detain individuals for up to nine hours without the need for either evidence or ‘reasonable’ suspicion, while 22% oppose this.

I was interested to see the party breakdowns. (NB: we need to be cautious about these, especially with the Lib Dem and Ukip figures, as these sub-group sample sizes are much smaller and the possible margin of error therefore much larger.) As you might imagine, Lib Dems are least supportive, though a majority (54%) do still support Schedule 7. Conservative and Ukip voters are most enthusiastic, with 4-in-5 of their voters backing the Schedule 7 powers.

Under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 police are allowed to stop, examine and search passengers at ports, airports and international rail terminals. They may do so to determine whether a passenger is involved in terrorism. (They do NOT need evidence or ‘reasonable’ suspicion to do this). A passenger can also be held for up to nine hours for questioning about
whether they have been involved with acts of terrorism. In principle, to what extent do you support or oppose police having this power?
Total Con Lab Lib Dem Ukip
Strongly support 30 37 26 13 43
Tend to support 36 43 33 41 35
TOTAL SUPPORT 66 80 59 54 78
Tend to oppose 14 9 19 25 11
Strongly oppose 8 3 11 12 6
TOTAL OPPOSE 22 12 30 37 17
Neither oppose nor support 9 7 9 10 3
Don’t know 3 1 3 1 1

YouGov Survey Results (20th – 21st August 2013)

But what about reforming Schedule 7 in the light of the David Miranda detention case? Though two-thirds of the public support the current Schedule 7, a plurality of voters (42%) also favour reforming it so that the police may only use detention powers where there is reasonable suspicion. However, one-third of voters (33%) support its retention as is. Lib Dem voters are most likely to back reform, by 56% to 36%.

Taking these events [David Miranda’s detention] into account, do think the law should or should not be
changed?
Total Con Lab Lib Dem Ukip
Should be changed – the law should be tightened so that that the power may be
used only where is a ‘reasonable suspicion’ of involvement in terrorism
42 32 53 56 35
Should not be changed – the police should keep the rights they have been given
under Schedule 7 of the 2000 Act to detain people entering or leaving Britain
33 44 26 36 37
The law should be extended – the police should have the right to detain anyone in
Britain (and not just those entering or leaving the country) and seize their computer
and mobile phone, without needing ‘reasonable suspicion’ of a crime being
planned or committed.
12 18 10 1 20
Don’t know 12 6 10 7 7

A couple of interesting reveals from these figures.

First, the similarity of views between current Lib Dem and Labour voters. Scan down the figures for all the questions asked in the survey and they’re very closely aligned. Whether Labour voters would have taken the same view if there were a Labour government is a moot point, of course: voters tend to give a more sympathetic hearing to their own side, treat with greater suspicion what the ‘other lot’ says.

And secondly, the similarity of views between current Conservative and Ukip voters. This is most clearly shown in the response to the question of if/how Schedule 7 should be reformed. Astonishingly, one-in-five Conservative and Ukip voters back the police being given unlimited powers of detention – ie, the police having the right to detain anyone in Britain (and not just those entering or leaving the country) and seize their computer and mobile phone, without needing ‘reasonable suspicion’ of a crime being planned or committed – which are tantamount to a police state.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and edited the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.