Section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 is a relatively new law. It gives powers to a police officer of any rank to require any person that they believe is or is likely to participate in the proximate future in alcohol-related disorder, to leave a locality by a route that the officer can specify for a period not exceeding 48 hours. I’m sure you’ll agree that we have a problem as a society with disorder, alcohol-related crime and violence, so it would appear that Section 27 is a useful implement in the toolbox of modern policing. If only that were the case.
On the 15 November last year, 80 supporters of Stoke City were peaceably gathered in a pub in Earlham prior to their club’s game against Manchester United. If you know your football, you’ll know that this was the first time in 30 years that Stoke had played at Old Trafford against Manchester United and hence a very special day for those supporters. The day turned out, unfortunately, to be special for all the wrong reasons.
For reasons still unclear, the police surrounded the pub and refused to allow any of the Stoke supporters to leave. All of them were issued with notices under Section 27. One supporter refused to sign a copy of the notice because he believed that the statements being made about him being involved in disorder were factually incorrect. He was told that if he refused to sign he would be arrested.
The police organised buses outside the pub and eventually all 80 fans were processed on to the buses. Because the fans had been in the pub, some of them needed to use the toilet. The police refused to allow those fans who had already been put onto the buses to go back into the pub to use the toilet; they were told to urinate in empty containers. A written statement from the publican records that all the fans were peaceable and none of them were drunk or even singing. In the end, 80 fans didn’t get to see the match, tickets costing over £30 were wasted and a large number of supporters felt aggrieved and badly treated.
Tens of thousands of football fans travel across the country to watch their teams play every weekend. But in December 2008, nine Plymouth Argyle fans arrived in Doncaster to watch their team tackle Doncaster Rovers and headed for a pub to look for some lunch. When they realised that the pub didn’t serve food, they attempted to leave, as they were hungry – and this is where it all went wrong. The pub had been surrounded by police officers and the Plymouth fans were refused permission to go elsewhere. One of them, when he pointed out to a police officer that they wanted to go and get something to eat, was told: ‘You’re not leaving the pub – go back inside and have a drink.’ Let’s remind ourselves here that Section 27 is specifically designed to deal with alcohol-related disorder.
Then it gets more serious. The nine football fans, including an eleven-year-old boy, were marched back to their minivan and taken down the motorway surrounded by police cars, with a helicopter above them. At the Derbyshire border they were met by officers of the Derbyshire constabulary. When some of them needed to relieve themselves, officers initially refused permission, before reluctantly agreeing to take each of them to use service station facilities – under escort, with baying police dogs, which were terrifying both the occupants of the van and the bystanders. Was that a proportional and sensible use of police powers? Couldn’t those officers in those cars and that helicopter have been better employed?
Of course, the single biggest group that is affected by football-related disorder and violence is football supporters themselves: we’ve got no interest in promoting violence. In these and other cases, the police have massively overstepped the mark.
Simon Bolivar, in his famous letter from Jamaica in 1815, said: ‘A state too extensive in itself … is transformed into a tyranny; it disregards the principles which it should preserve, and finally degenerates into despotism.’ Bolivar’s lesson is one that sometimes appears to have been forgotten in the cradle of democracy.