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Stop and Search (Metropolitan Police)

Volume 548: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2012

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate about the use of stop-and-search by the Metropolitan police. I should like to declare an interest, although it is not the normal type of interest that Members of Parliament declare in the House. I am a white 37-year-old woman. I have never been stopped by the police. My contact with them has only ever been polite, professional and reassuring. On the whole, I think they do a difficult job very well. Although I suspect those sentiments are shared by the majority of my constituents, I know they are not shared by all of them. That is why I called for this debate.

When I became an MP two years ago, I had limited knowledge of stop-and-search as a policing tool. I knew that the police had the power to stop people whom they suspected of wrongdoing and to search them for weapons and drugs. I knew that on occasions the police could issue a blanket provision in an area for a specified period, which would enable officers to stop individuals, even without reasonable suspicion, if serious violence was anticipated or had just happened. I also knew that under terrorism legislation the police could stop and search individuals who were suspected of involvement in terrorist acts.

What I did not know when I became an MP, but do know now, is how often stop-and-search is used by the police in certain parts of London and how young black and Asian men in particular are disproportionately affected. I had not appreciated the damage that can be done to individuals, families and communities when that policing tool is used inappropriately and to excess. I also know now that only one in 10 stop-and-searches in London results in an arrest.

In my two years as an MP, I have had my eyes opened. Mums have attended my surgeries in tears about the way in which their sons have been treated by the police. I have met young men and boys who tell me that they have been stopped by the police and been treated roughly and rudely and that they have felt embarrassed, humiliated and targeted. To be fair, I have met others who have also been stopped and searched who tell me that, although it was not a nice experience, they thought that the police did a reasonable job and that they did not have any complaints.

The Government and the Metropolitan police need to go further and faster to improve the way that stop-and-search is used. As it is used at the moment, it can be counter-productive and can create tension and mistrust between the police and the communities that they serve and protect. I want to be assured that, at the highest level, the Government and the police understand the resentment that has built up over a number of years among some individuals in certain sections of the population who feel that they are being disproportionately targeted. Although the power to stop and search is important and must remain, the number of occasions on which stop-and-search is used in London should be reduced. Section 60 notices—the blanket provisions that I have mentioned—must be used less frequently and cover smaller areas.

Of all stop-and-searches carried out under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, 89% are in the Metropolitan police area. Between 2006 and 2009, the number of those searches nationally went from 44,659 to 118,112. Within that figure, the number of black people stopped increased by 303%, from about 9,000 to nearly 39,000, and the number of Asian people stopped increased by 399%. Although that type of stop-and-search is now thankfully on the decline, with a 49% drop in the past year, it lies behind the resentment and anger that have grown in some communities in London. It is the backdrop to a situation that was reflected in the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission last month, which showed that if you are black you are 37 times more likely to be stopped under a section 60 notice than if you are white.

Getting a grip on section 60 notices and limiting the instances in which they are used is one action point identified by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in his plan to improve the effectiveness of stop-and-search. I welcome that move and urge him, and the Government, to monitor closely boroughs in London with the highest authorisations historically, especially where those authorisations cover whole boroughs, as opposed to specific localities.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. A hallmark of a free society is that all citizens are able to walk freely around without undue expectation of being stopped. She correctly observes that the statistics between boroughs are variable. Is she puzzled, as I am, about why, out of all the stop-and-searches under the Terrorism Act 2000, none resulted in arrests for terrorism offences and fewer than 1% for other offences? It is not just disproportionality between boroughs and in the total amount that ought to be a consideration for the Minister; he should also consider the effectiveness of stop-and-search in stopping crime.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s puzzlement about those facts. Although I do not plan to speak a lot about the effectiveness of stop-and-search as a policing tool in the short time available today, the Metropolitan police and the Government need to consider that in terms of the number of arrests. It could be argued—the hon. Gentleman has made this point in previous debates—that police time is being wasted in some respects and would be better spent focusing on other areas.

It is critical that people understand that there is a clear reason for the stop, and the manner in which the stop-and-search is carried out is also important. The problem with the section 60 stops is that they seem to be underpinned by a generic rationale and expectation that there will be or has been trouble. That serves to label certain individuals and groups, even if it is not the intention.

An excessive use of section 60 notices has exacerbated police-community tensions in London. Other issues must also be addressed. Young people in particular need to better understand their rights and, to put it bluntly, more complaints need to be made when stop-and-search is carried out badly. When complaints are justified and found to be fair, they must lead to changes in police practice.

I often ask young men who express their concern to me about stop-and-search whether they have ever made a complaint. The answer is a universal no, even when they feel that they have been treated disrespectfully. There is often a lack of trust in the system and a fear that, if they complain, it will just make matters worse. That is true for the families of the individuals being stopped as much as for the individuals themselves. In fact, during my advice surgery in Catford this Saturday, that point was made to me by a mum of a young man who had been repeatedly stopped. Some parents—particularly without English as their first language—lack the basic understanding of what is acceptable and not acceptable and how to make a complaint. A way around that has to be found. If complaints are not made and individual officers are not disciplined because bad practice is not identified and dealt with, how will progress ever be made?

I mentioned the mum I spoke to on Saturday, and I will tell the Chamber a bit more about her family’s experiences. As I said, her 16-year-old son has been stopped repeatedly by the police. I asked her how many times and she said that she had lost count. Her son has severe special needs and earlier this year he was charged with resisting arrest following a stop-and-search. On Friday last week, the courts found him not guilty of the charge, but the judge in summing up referred to the excessive police force used against him.

The effect of perpetual but arguably unwarranted police attention on that young man cannot be overstated. His mum believes that the reason he is now being treated by Lewisham’s child and adolescent mental health services is that his self-esteem has been damaged so badly by the police approach towards him. In a follow-up e-mail to me on Sunday, she said:

“I feel that the police should have a greater understanding of our young people with SEN needs. My son has had an educational statement since he was 8 years old. This means that since this age it has been acknowledged he has complex needs, yet when I told Lewisham police station that he was under CAMHS they had no idea what I was talking about. The police are taking statements from young men without any idea of their mental or educational disabilities.”

That is not the only case of that sort that has been brought to my attention in the past year. Other mums have talked to me about how their sons have felt targeted by the police, how their sons’ attitude towards the police has changed and, in some cases, how their sons’ behaviour has also changed. I appreciate that in some cases the practice of poor police stop-and-search may not be the only factor contributing to their sons’ behaviour change, but I have heard it from enough parents to believe that we must address the issue.

Better training of police officers in the practice of stop-and-search is vital if people’s experience of it is to improve. In Lewisham, we are lucky to have Second Wave, a local community group based in the borough, which has done excellent work to help the local police and the territorial support groups to understand the perspectives of the young people who are on the other end of that policing tool. Second Wave also goes into schools to enable young people to understand the perspective of the police. That sort of approach should be universal throughout the Metropolitan police area. We are also fortunate in Lewisham to have, as part of our police community consultative group, an active stop-and-search group, which is concerned by suggestions that such groups might be abolished and is adamant that the police must be more and not less transparent and accountable in how they use stop-and-search. I agree.

I am conscious that the Government and the Metropolitan police realise that stop-and-search is an issue. Indeed, the report earlier this year from the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel noted that police stop-and-search practices were one of the factors behind last year’s riots. The Government have their review of best practice, and the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner has set out a number of areas in which he would like to see improvement, but looking at best practice is one thing, and being honest about bad practice is another—both must happen if everyone is to have faith in the system.

We also need a means by which to measure progress against the laudable aims set out by the police commissioner in London. Perhaps the Minister can say what he sees success and failure looking like in London. What specific changes would he like to see in the practice of stop-and-search in our capital city, and over what time frame?

Stop-and-search is an important police power. If we are to tackle the serious problems of gun and knife crime, there will be occasions on which the police have to be able to perform a stop-and-search. At the moment, however, young people in my constituency feel “over-policed and under-protected”, as the Home Affairs Committee said a few years ago. That has to change, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments today on how he plans to achieve that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing the debate. The subject is of great interest to many people and communities, in London and elsewhere, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss it.

Stop-and-search is an important area of operational policing policy and I recognise that, despite many improvements in how stop-and-search is carried out and recorded, its use continues to be a source of tension and concern in some communities and, in particular, among those of black and minority ethnic origin. The Government and the Metropolitan Police Service are clear that stop-and-search is a vital part of a police officer’s toolkit in deterring and combating crime and antisocial behaviour, especially knife crime, which is of particular public concern. It is, however, unacceptable that individuals might be targeted because of their race.

Stop-and-search is an important tool for the police but, in order to maintain the British model of policing by consent, which is so important, it is essential that the powers are used fairly and with the support of communities to protect the public. The uninformed use of stop-and-search, without the proper use of intelligence and the briefing of front-line officers, is likely to be unproductive in terms of identifying those carrying weapons and counter-productive in terms of community confidence. I agreed with what the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) said about the importance of ensuring that any disposals such as this that are used by the police are used in a way that ultimately succeeds in reducing crime—in reducing crime, it is important that public confidence in the actions of the police is maintained. The benefits of stop-and-search need to be carefully weighed against any negative impact on the confidence in the police service by the community and, in particular, by those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

In general, stop-and-search powers are used in a proportionate and appropriate way in most cases, but their use needs to be improved by some forces. That is why in December last year the Home Secretary asked the Association of Chief Police Officers to look at best practice on stop-and-search. ACPO has submitted its report to the Home Secretary, which I am keen to see published so that forces may take advantage of the learning in it. The report is an important reminder that there are excellent examples of effective practice in the use of stop-and-search. ACPO is considering arrangements for publication.

The Metropolitan Police Service is the largest user of stop-and-search, and the new Commissioner and the Deputy Commissioner are aware of the impact on community trust and confidence of stop-and-search, which is why this January they announced a radical programme, “Stop It”, to improve the effectiveness of stop-and-search. The programme has led to a significant change in the way that the Metropolitan police use stop-and-search powers. I noted that the hon. Lady herself referred to the action that the leadership of the Metropolitan police is taking and it is welcome.

The “Stop It” programme focuses on three main areas in relation to the use of the powers: trust and confidence; effectiveness; and the protection of communities from violent crime. The aim is to renew the focus on reducing violence and for the power to be used in a more intelligence-led and targeted way, reducing the numbers of searches, leading to more arrests and more weapons seized and improving the standard of the encounter between the police and the public.

I want to come back to the “Stop It” initiative shortly, but I first want to address the issues that have been raised, including previously by the hon. Lady, about the blanket use of stop-and-search powers under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which is sometimes referred to as a “no suspicion” power. There are appropriate safeguards in the authorisation process for a section 60 order and the authorisation is rightly limited in its scope. I am pleased to learn that in the Roberts case the High Court has just found that the powers under section 60 are lawful. The Court stated that, while nothing in the legislation is racially discriminatory, the question of whether the legislation is being used in a racially discriminatory way is important.

Section 60 enables a police officer of at least inspector rank to authorise officers to stop individuals to search them for knives and other offensive weapons. The officers making the stops do not need to have individual suspicion that the person they are stopping is carrying a weapon. The authorisation, once granted for a period of up to 24 hours, can be extended only for a further 24 hours if authorised by an officer of at least superintendent rank.

The hon. Lady will be interested to note that the Met, under its “Stop It” programme, is aiming to reduce the overall number of authorisations under section 60 and to increase the intelligence threshold required to authorise pre-planned section 60 orders. The latest statistics on police powers and procedures demonstrate considerable progress, showing that the use of section 60 stop-and-search by the Met fell by 41% between 2009-10 and 2010-11. As “Stop It” rolls out, we expect the use of stop-and-search to drop further still.

That general approach of the more targeted use of stop-and-search by the Met will also continue during the Olympics, and I can confirm that there are no plans for blanket section 60 orders to be in place in particular areas. It remains an important policing tactic and a deterrent to crime, and will be used when appropriate, but based on the crime and intelligence picture at the time.

The hon. Lady’s borough of Lewisham has been at the forefront of stop-and-search work for some time, particularly in relation to the level of community engagement. She may know that in November 2010, a National Policing Improvement Agency-led initiative, “Next Steps”, was piloted in Lewisham. The purpose of that work was to improve community confidence in the use of stop-and-search. Evaluation of the work found that community satisfaction rates had improved, and that community groups were effective in their monitoring of stop-and-search.

One element of “Next Steps” was the briefing process, based on situation, background, assessment and recommendations, given to task officers to carry out stop-and-search based directly on intelligence. That element has now been adopted within the “Stop It” initiative. When the initiative commenced this year, some key performance indicators were set by the Met. They included improving the positive outcome rate to 20%, reducing the volume of negative drugs searches by 50%, increasing the proportion of weapon searches to 20%, and a 50% reduction in pre-planned section 60 authorities. The Met is aiming to achieve those targets by the end of March 2013.

The hon. Lady asked what specific steps I would like to be taken to ensure demonstrable progress. I have described the general reduction in the number of stop-and-search occurrences, and I hope that it is helpful for her to know that the Met has set itself indicators that it aims to achieve.

The progress made in relation to the “Stop It” initiative is reported to the Police Public Encounters Board, which is chaired by the ACPO lead for the stop-and-search initiative, and the Deputy Commissioner of the Met, Craig Mackey. Current performance shows that the positive outcome rate, which consists of arrests and cannabis warnings or penalty notices for disorder, is 17.3% for June 2012. That is a significant improvement on the rate in January 2011, which was 10.6%. The total number of pre-planned section 60 authorities for the Met for June 2012 was just six, a significant reduction on June last year where there were 103 authorities.

The Met is committed to ensuring “Stop It” will continue beyond this period as a routine part of policing to achieve the highest levels of trust and confidence in the use of Stop-and-search as a tactic for keeping our streets safe. Effective community monitoring remains at the heart of that work, and provides an opportunity to have an accountable process for delivering on confidence and satisfaction. Local monitoring will take place through the community monitoring groups, which are provided with the most up-to-date performance data for their respective areas and a process to hold senior officers to account.

I am grateful for the information about the reduction in stop-and-search that the Met has achieved. I do not want to drag the Minister too far away from the specifics of the metropolitan area, but will he comment on the impact that elected police and crime commissioners may have in enhancing accountability to local communities in their sensitivities to stop-and-search?

I know of my hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in this policy area. Elected police and crime commissioners will be responsible for holding the police to account in their force area, and in turn will be accountable to the public. Their responsibility is to secure efficient and effective policing, but they will need to be aware that to do that and to drive down crime—I have no doubt every candidate seeking election on 15 November will aim to do that—they must maintain the confidence of communities in their local police service. They will need to be alive to the importance of effective programmes to build community confidence in the way that the police service is policing the streets, and the use of stop-and-search powers and so on, but also in terms of the ambition that we should collectively have to ensure that the police service is reflective in its make-up of society today and that we continue to make progress. That has been important but not sufficient in relation to the proportion of officers from black, minority and ethnic communities, both in the nature of policing and how it is conducted, and in the make-up of the police service as a whole, and the wider interactions that the police service has with the community. Police and crime commissioners will want to be alive to all those issues, because they all relate directly to the force’s ability to reduce crime. They are not nice-to-do things or add-on things; they are important in themselves.

Before taking that intervention, the Minister was talking about the “Stop It” action plan, and the progress that he and the Commissioner want to see by March 2013. Six months have already passed since the action plan was launched in January this year, and I wonder what progress report he has received on the specific indicators, other than section 60 stops. Can he update us on the progress that has been made so far?

I provided the hon. Lady with some of the updated information to last month about the number of stop-and-searches. First and foremost, the Met is held to account locally by the Mayor, and that is important. It is the Mayor’s responsibility to ensure that there is sufficient and effective policing. Of course we take an overall interest in policing, but it is for the Mayor to exercise that scrutiny, and to account to Londoners for that.

Notifying people that they are in an area where searches may take place is also being taken forward in the Met. That provides a number of benefits, including providing reassurance, acting as a preventive measure, and sending a clear message to those intent on carrying weapons that the police will seek them out and arrest them. The Met is currently using and expanding its use of a number of methods of communication, including leaflets, signs, text messaging, e-mail, Twitter, and other social networks.

In conclusion, I reiterate the Government’s commitment to supporting the police to improve the use of stop-and-search. However, individual police forces know their own communities better than Whitehall does. Increasingly, they will be answerable to their local communities in the use of police tactics such as stop-and-search. In London, that will be through the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford noted, in the rest of England and Wales, through elected police and crime commissioners from November 2012. Furthermore, we announced in December our intention to introduce a new professional policing body that will develop skills and leadership, and improve policing standards. I expect that body to take the closest interest in this policy area. Yesterday, we updated the House on the very good progress on the formation of that body by the end of the year. It will be known as the College of Policing, and I am pleased that ACPO, the Police Superintendents’ Association and others are supporting it. It will be a service-led body to ensure that we are promoting high standards in policing.

I hope that that gives the hon. Lady some assurance that both the Government and the senior leadership of the Metropolitan police takes this issue very seriously, and are committed to reducing any undue disproportionality, improving the efficiency and effectiveness in the use of stop-and-search powers, and enhancing public confidence in their use.

Sitting suspended.