A free country
(Filed: 14/02/2003)

Last year, a London businessman travelling through Heathrow witnessed a distressing security incident. Ahead of him in the queue for the X-ray machine stood an elderly man of Mediterranean appearance. He had been apprehended with a potentially lethal device.

There, on the checking table for all to see, sat a quarter pound of Chinese tea. Not a security threat in itself, perhaps, but written on the tin was the heart-stopping word "Gunpowder". The security officials were clearly distressed.

After some minutes, as the queue grew ever longer, they determined that, although the tea was clear to board, the tin was offensive. So an official poured the contents into a plastic bag and discarded the tin.

Some weeks later, an elderly lady from Manchester took a trip to London on National Express. Accompanying her was an overnight bag, which the staff refused to let her carry on board. "It's security," they proclaimed. "Only small bags are allowed in the cabin." She was left pondering the fact that not one single bag had been checked for bombs.

The protection of security has ceased to have any real meaning. A colleague complained to me that, while Ryanair will accept an easily forged international student ID during the boarding procedure, it refused to accept his Armed Forces card - these are only available to serving members of the British military.

As a result of these worrying developments, the human rights watchdog Privacy International this week launched a competition to discover the world's most pointless, intrusive, annoying and self-serving security measures: the "Stupid Security" award. Nominations to are welcome.

  • Simon Davies