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PACE (Stop and Search)

Volume 519: debated on Wednesday 1 December 2010

I appreciate the opportunity to have this debate. The shorthand definition of the code of practice that I wish to consider is “stop and search”, but it also includes “stop and account”. The draft guidelines recently issued by the Government state:

“The primary purpose of stop and search powers is to enable officers to allay or confirm suspicions about individuals without exercising their power of arrest.”

We would all recognise that that is an important part of policing powers, but some issues arise from it and I have some questions to which I should appreciate a response from the Minister. My interest arises partly from my membership of the all-party parliamentary group on race and community and from conversations that I have had with the Runnymede Trust and the StopWatch coalition, both of which have alerted me to issues of the context in which the proposed changes and guidelines are being made. The most significant issue is disproportionality between people of different ethnic origins.

A black person is at least six times as likely as a white person to be stopped and searched by the police. It is twice as likely to happen to an Asian. That is grossly disproportionate and those ratios have remained stubbornly constant in the past five years. The report “Stop and think”, which was produced earlier this year by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, included research findings that

“black and ethnic minority youths were over-represented in the criminal justice system. This over-representation started at the point of entry into the system, and largely continued as young suspects and defendants passed through it.”

If the very first part of a person’s interaction with the criminal justice system is disproportionate, there may be consequential effects at other stages in that system.

The black population of England and Wales is approximately 2.6%, but black people represent 14.8% of incidents of stop and search, 7.6% of arrests and 14.4% of the prison population. I think that anyone would find those statistics chilling. It is a rare thing for me to say I agree with Bernie Grant, the former Member of Parliament for Tottenham, but in 1997 he said:

“Nothing has been more damaging to the relationship between the police and the black community than the ill judged use of stop and search powers. For young black men in particular, the humiliating experience of being repeatedly stopped and searched is a fact of life”.

Of course society has moved on in 13 years, but, as the statistics have shown, disproportionality is still significant.

Stop and search is not a power that is used occasionally. Last year, there were more than 2 million instances of stop and account by police and more than 1 million of stop and search. That amounts to more than 10,000 a day, which is not only disproportionate, but shows widespread and pervasive use in our society.

I accept—and this is probably much of the intent behind Government moves—that the recording of information accounts for considerable police time. It is estimated by the Daily Mail that the proposed changes will save 450,000 hours of police time by eliminating the stop-and-account element and 350,000 hours of police time by reducing stop-and-search forms. Those are welcome savings in police time, to enable our police to spend more time in their jobs on the beat, and in helping citizens by combating crime.

However, against a backdrop of considerable community concerns, and severely disproportionate impacts, perhaps the Minister could assist with the answer to some questions. The first is about the removal of the requirement to record stop and account. As I have said, that represents 2 million actions by the police each year, so it is certainly clear that removing the requirement to record stop and account will save considerable police time. However, as we have not yet ended disproportionality, is the Minister concerned that we would lose an important source of information on fairness?

I understand that it would be possible for chief constables to re-institute stop-and-account searches if local concerns were expressed. That is a very welcome part of the proposals, but how will the local pressure be voiced? What would constitute a valid local concern and how would it be differentiated from concerns thought to be invalid?

I would also appreciate the Minister’s views on the decision by Suffolk police to de-fund the stop-and-search reference group. What message does that send to people who have concerns about disproportionality and the reliance on the raising of concerns by local voices? On the same point, what role does the Minister see for the Equality and Human Rights Commission? Are steps such as the enforcement action warning that it issued this week to Thames Valley police and other forces seen as part of the community response to disproportionality in stop and account and stop and search?

The Government have—and I welcome this—removed parts of the justification for section 60 stop and search on the grounds of race. The National Black Police Association said the original draft proposal

“opens the door to racial targeting that could be based on gossip, malice and outright racial prejudice.”

Perhaps I might use this opportunity to thank the Minister for, and congratulate him on, the changes, and for his statement:

“Previous guidance did not place any restrictions on use but now it will make clear than an individual characteristic such as ethnicity should never be the sole basis for any search.”

That shows the direction of travel of the Government. They will look at areas where there is disproportionality and seek to eliminate that. They will look at areas where ethnicity is misused in policing, and ensure that that no longer happens. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on the background to the draft guidelines and the change.

Section 60 stop and search is a very significant power that we provide to the police. It enables the police to stop and search an individual where there are no grounds for suspicion of the particular individual, in a designated area, for a period of 24 hours. Nationally the black population of the country, as I said earlier, is about 2.6%, but they represent 32% of stops and searches under section 60. Therefore, under the police power to stop and search with no grounds for suspicion of the individual concerned, a black person is 26 times more likely than a white person to be stopped. That is a shocking statistic and everyone, including members of the police force, will want that ratio to be changed.

The usage of this blanket power, which does not rely on individual assessment or suspicion, has grown over the past few years. In 2004-05, there were 45,600 incidences of section 60 stop and search being used. Just three years later, in 2008-09, the figure had more than trebled to 149,955. This is a specialised, exceptional power akin to those available under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Does the Minister believe that there should be specialist oversight of the authorisations that chief constables are using to invoke this power? I am not aware of any areas where there is currently national oversight over particular actions by chief constables, but given that the use of these authorisations is growing and disproportionate, and given that these very powerful measures are targeted on an area, not an individual, I would greatly appreciate it if the Minister could tell us what oversight, if any, there could be over them.

Other issues are related to the information collected on the stop-and-search form. Again, I think that the proposals are being introduced with the good intention of reducing the amount of police time that is spent on form filling. The Minister may, in an offhanded way, have called it box ticking, but I am sure that he accepts that some of this information is valuable. I want to alert him, therefore, to some reasons why some of the information that will be lost from these forms might be valuable, and he might want to consider how such concerns could be addressed.

The first piece of information that will be lost from the stop-and-search form is the name of the person who has been stopped and searched. How will it be possible to identify and measure repeat stops and searches that might amount to harassment? If an individual is stopped and searched routinely by the police, that will be evident from the current form because the individual’s name will have been collected, but it will not be evident under the proposed change. How might we deal with concerns about harassment if that information is lost?

Secondly, as a result of the targeting of individuals in a community, there might be community concerns. How will the community have the information that it needs to identify and measure whether particular individuals are being targeted? There is, therefore, not only the individual concern; there will also be a community concern if four or five individuals are routinely stopped and searched and people feel that their community is being unfairly targeted.

The second piece of information that will be lost is whether injury or damage was caused as a result of the search. If that information is not collected, my concern is that we might leave the police open to allegations that some injury or damage was caused. How will it be possible to identify and account for incidents of the misuse of force? The corollary of that is the issue of how the police will be guaranteed protection against allegations that an injury did occur.

The third piece of information that will be lost relates to whether anything was found as a consequence of the search. One of the concerns about the use of stop and search relates to how effective it is in tackling crime. With so few stops and searches resulting in an arrest, how will we know how effective stop and search is likely to be if we have no information about whether anything is found as a consequence of a search? Overall, stops and searches have resulted in an arrest rate of about 10% to 13%, which means that nine out of 10 stops and searches—3 million in total—do not result in an arrest. Three million is a widespread trawl through our communities, and that can have counter-productive effects by separating the police from the communities that they serve.

Over the past few years, since the quote from Mr Grant, progress has been made. Our police have done an enormously good job of reaching out to communities. We need to do more of that, but stop and search is not necessarily one of the main ways to do it. We need look only at the effectiveness of one of the important powers in section 60 in tackling knife crime. A review of statistics from 11 London boroughs with a high incidence of knife crime showed a broad correlation between the incidence of knife crime and the number of stops and searches—when there are a large number of knife crimes, the police carry out more stops and searches. However, there is no correlation between the number of stops and searches and a reduction in knife crime.

Let me give an example. In 2008-09, Tower Hamlets and Islington both experienced approximately 305 knife crimes. The police in Tower Hamlets responded with a stop-and–search rate that was two and a half times that of Islington. Although knife crime fell by 11% in Tower Hamlets, it fell by nearly 25% in Islington where such a large number of stops and searches were not carried out.

People in those communities want knife crime dealt with. However, stop and search does not appear to be a tool that helps and we must look at alternatives. In his response, perhaps the Minister will talk about initiatives other than stop and search that can be used to reduce the disproportionality of the statistics on ethnicity in our criminal justice system.

For example, the practice-oriented package initiative that was introduced in Stoke-on-Trent reduced the disproportionality ratio from six times the national average to just 1.5 times that average. In Cleveland, the number of stop and searches was reduced by 80%. That reduced the disproportionality in stop and search and also reduced the crime rate. Will the Minister also endorse police innovations in tackling drugs without the use of stop and search, which has been done to good intent?

I understand, appreciate and support the Government’s efforts to reduce the waste of police time spent collecting information that is not helpful in tackling crime. I believe and understand that the Minister shares my concerns about disproportionality and wishes to ensure that police powers are used correctly. I welcome the change to the draft guidelines that have stopped ethnic profiling from being written into our legislation. That move is welcome, but considerations and concerns remain about the continuation of stop and account without the recording of information, and about the reduction of information in the stop-and-search forms. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing the debate and on raising the issues in such a forceful way? Such matters continue to generate a significant amount of public interest and highlight some of the concerns about front-line policing that we are keen to address.

We are keen to ensure that officers strike the right balance between necessary bureaucracy for the sake of accountability—which is important—and irrelevant form filling that wastes the time of the police and the public, and impacts unduly on citizens going about their business by asking unnecessary questions.

It is important to understand how policing, and the bureaucracy that surrounds it, impacts on community relations. Procedures such as stop and account and stop and search are most effective when local communities understand them and support their use. There is a difference between stop and account and stop and search, and we must be mindful of ensuring that the processes associated with them are not confused. Stop and account is where an individual is asked to account for their presence, actions and so on, but they are not searched. It can be one step on from the general conversations that officers have with members of the public every day. Stop and search clearly goes further than that. It is an intrusive procedure and therefore a cause of more concern among local communities.

Many of the proposed changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of practice A are necessary to reverse the increase in paperwork generated by the last Government. In our judgment, that paperwork hampers police operations and leads to encounters with the public that are ineffective, bureaucratised and poorly understood. We need officers on the street to record only information that is of value, and it may differ from situation to situation and from force to force. I do not want to see in place measures that discourage proper interaction between police officers and members of the public.

Let me explain the rationale behind our stop-and-account proposals. The abolition of the national recording requirement for stop and account will potentially free up around 450,000 hours of police time, allowing officers to increase the quality—and shorten the duration—of these brief encounters, and enabling forces to be more responsive to the communities that they serve.

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the level of disproportionality in the use of police powers. However, when the statistics for stop and account are examined more closely, it appears that it is not used in a disproportionate manner across England and Wales. It is also fair to say that there is less concern about the operation of stop and account than there is about stop and search. That is why we are removing fully the national requirement for recording stops and accounts, leaving local recording to a local decision where a local need is identified.

Individual police forces know their own communities better than Whitehall does. Increasingly, they will be answerable to their local communities, as we have set out today with the introduction of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. Those forces should know the extent to which the operation of stop and account is a matter of particular local concern. They are best placed to analyse their own statistics and understand how they use the tactic and how it impacts on ethnic minority groups locally, and they should be held to account by their elected police and crime commissioners, with the scrutiny of new police and crime panels to ensure the proper use of such procedures.

The Government understand that stop and search is a very different tool and is far more intrusive. It is right that its monitoring and use should continue, both nationally and at a local level. We are reducing the number of pieces of data to be completed on a stop-and-search record from 12 to seven, saving more than 300,000 hours of officers’ time every year as well as reducing the duration of these encounters for those stopped and searched.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about some of the pieces of data that will be removed. However, key information about each encounter will still be recorded, including the self-defined ethnicity of the person stopped, which is obviously the critical information, and we have made minor amendments to code A to encourage the further use of mobile technology to reduce even further the time taken to record each stop and search. The 12 recording requirements used during a stop-and-search encounter will be reduced to seven: ethnicity, the object of the search, the grounds for the search, the identity of the officer carrying out the stop and search, the date, the time and the place. Such requirements do not prevent police officers from recording information that they feel would be useful intelligence, but it is not necessary as a Government requirement for such information to be held in a stop-and-search record.

Our amendments to the guidance on the use of section 44 stop-and-search powers follow the Home Secretary’s announcement on 8 July, which curtailed the use of this power in the light of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Gillan and Quinton v. United Kingdom. My hon. Friend also raised issues around section 60 stop-and-search powers, both in terms of the guidance supporting officers’ use of this power, and the disproportionality figures that have been reported in the press recently.

Let me assure my hon. Friend and all hon. Members that there was never any intention on the part of the Government to encourage the use of ethnic profiling or unlawful discrimination in the use of this power—far from it. The original draft of the guidance contained wording that had been introduced in code A by the previous Government in 2003 in relation to the police’s use of section 44 powers. The original draft explained that all authorisations had to be supported by clear intelligence and that, on occasion, intelligence could suggest a possible suspect description that included characteristics such as race, age, sex and so on. However, it also stipulated that race should never be the sole reason for stopping someone under section 60.

The guidance was evidently not clear enough and was misconstrued. We therefore considered the responses to the statutory consultation and have redrafted the relevant paragraphs to include all protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. We have stated clearly that unlawful discrimination will not be tolerated.

I must, however, warn against judging the use of a key tool such as section 60 purely on a national statistic. The figures cited in the press about black people being 26 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched under section 60 are potentially misleading if they are not examined a little more closely. In 2008-09, 76% of all section 60 stops and searches were conducted by the Metropolitan Police Service in London. Therefore, to assess the use of that power against the national population’s ethnicity breakdown is deceptive. We need to compare that 76% with the ethnicity of the population of London and the remaining 24% with the rest of the country. When we do that, we find that the use is not so disproportionate.

The power is used to tackle specific issues relating to serious violence and, in particular, knife crime. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is responsible for crime prevention, recently responded to a debate in this Chamber on youth violence and was very clear about how we need to protect our communities against violent crimes.

The use of section 60 as one of the many tools that the Metropolitan police use as part of their continuing action against knife crime receives significant support from communities in London. The Metropolitan police have gone to great lengths since the start of Operation Blunt 2—their programme of action against knife crime—to increase community engagement. An example of that is the young Londoners engagement programme, which explains why the powers are so important and the dangers of carrying knives. The Metropolitan police are in the process of reviewing their operational use of the power, and all boroughs have been reminded that they must be proportionate in their use of section 60.

Neighbourhood policing—such a rare thing at the time of the Macpherson inquiry in the late 1990s—is now embedded throughout the country in such a way as to give the public far greater confidence in the way in which their police service operates. The Government are determined to do everything that they can to ensure that neighbourhood policing is protected, despite the budgetary challenges that confront forces. We are also determined that the British tradition of policing by consent should flourish, and that can happen only if the public understand why the police do what they do and, just as importantly, if the police understand how their actions are perceived by the public.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford referred to the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The commission has praised the “Next Steps” process developed by the National Policing Improvement Agency, which is being used by the police in, for example, Merseyside and Dorset, as well as Lewisham in London. It helps the police to understand the way in which they use stop and search and how the population of an area and the apparent levels of disproportionality might in some circumstances not present a true picture. The early feedback on “Next Steps” is positive, and we hope to be able to expand it to other areas shortly.

I have been impressed by the way in which my hon. Friend has raised these issues. Since the general election, there has not been a great deal of debate in the House about these issues or the changes that we propose to make. There may be debate in relation to the orders that we have laid to change the PACE codes, but I would welcome the opportunity for further discussion with my hon. Friend and other hon. Members. I would be happy to convene a meeting with key representatives of the police, including the deputy commissioner of the police in London if he would be willing, in order to talk about their use of stop and search, why they believe that it is such an important tool in their fight against knife crime, why they believe that it has public consent and how they are alive to the important issues of disproportionality that can be raised.

In summary, stop and search is a vital tool. The challenge for the Government and the police is to ensure that the powers are used fairly and with the support of the community, and it is a challenge that I am confident we will meet.

Sitting suspended.