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Stop and Search

Volume 565: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2013

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the powers of the police to stop and search members of the public.

Police officers have been given the right to stop and search people by several Acts of Parliament, although most searches are conducted through the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. These Acts say that officers must have “reasonable grounds to suspect” that the subject is guilty of some form of criminal behaviour before they are allowed to conduct a search. Owing to the sensitivity of stop and search, officers are required by law to record various pieces of information about each search they undertake.

I would like to start by making it clear that the Government support the ability of police officers to stop and search suspects. It is an important power in their daily fight against crime, and it is especially important in relation to combating gangs, knife crime and drug offences. For example, in the last 12 months, stop and search in London has resulted in 45,000 criminals being arrested, including 3,212 criminals carrying weapons and guns, 7,287 criminals in possession of suspected stolen goods and 1,484 criminals in possession of tools used to steal or cause damage.

As long as I am Home Secretary, the police will maintain their right to stop and search. But as important as stop and search undoubtedly is, we have to be frank about widespread public concern regarding its use. Official statistics show that more than 1 million stop-and-search incidents are recorded every year. But on average only about 9% of those incidents result in an arrest, and that figure prompts me to question whether stop and search is always used appropriately. In fact, the search-to-arrest ratio varies considerably across forces: in Cumbria, the figure is 3%; in Kent, it is 19%. In London, where most stop-and-search incidents take place, it is 8%; in Greater Manchester, it is 8%; and in the West Midlands, it is 7%. Now, of course, we should not expect all stop-and-search incidents to lead to arrest, but those percentages are far too low for comfort.

The Government are concerned about the use of stop and search for two reasons. First, it must be applied fairly and in a way that builds community confidence in the police rather than undermining it. Secondly, given the scale of recording requirements placed on the police, when stop and search is misapplied, it is a waste of police time.

I want to deal first with fairness and community confidence. The official statistics show that, if someone is from a black or minority ethnic background, they are up to seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than if they are white. Now we should not rush to conclusions about those statistics, but everybody involved in policing has a duty to make sure that nobody is ever stopped just on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity. The law is clear that in normal circumstances, stop and search should only ever be used where there is a reasonable suspicion of criminality—and that is how it should be. I am sure we have all been told stories by constituents and members of the public about what it is like to be a young, law-abiding black man who has been stopped and searched by the police on more than one occasion. If anybody thinks it is sustainable to allow that to continue, with all its consequences for public confidence in the police, they need to think again.

The second reason that I am concerned about stop and search is that if it is being used too much or with the wrong people, that is a dreadful waste of police time. It is estimated that a police officer spends 16 minutes conducting a stop and search and then completing details of the incident in compliance with the law. Given that there are just under 1.2 million stop-and-search incidents every year, we are talking about a total of 312,000 hours per year—the equivalent of 145 full-time police officers.

Since the election, I have made it a priority to cut red tape and free up police time, and the changes that we have made, including changes to stop-and-search recording, should save up to 4.5 million police hours a year—the equivalent of an extra 2,100 officers on the streets. There is no point in making all those changes if police officers then spend their time conducting pointless stops and searches, with all the bureaucracy that goes with them.

In London, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, has changed the Met’s guidance, improved training and set a target that at least 20% of stop and searches in London should result in an arrest or drugs warning; and since then, they have made good progress. The latest figures suggest that in the last year 18.3% of stop-and-search incidents in London led to an arrest or drugs warning. In Hackney, it was as high as 26.3%, and the overall use of stop and search in London has fallen, too, from 500,000 to 350,000 in the past year.

That shows that it is possible to make changes to stop and search without jeopardising public safety. So, too, do the changes I made in March 2011 to the operation of stop-and-search powers under the Terrorism Act 2000. Then, I introduced a much more limited power that enables the police to stop and search people and vehicles without reasonable suspicion, but only in exceptional circumstances where there is a real threat of terrorist attack. This power has not been used outside Northern Ireland since it was introduced in March 2011, and there has been no effect on public safety.

Last year, I commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to conduct a comprehensive inspection into the use of stop-and-search powers. Its report is due to be published next Tuesday. I have not seen it yet, but the report should provide us for the first time with a comprehensive evidence base of how stop and search is used and recorded across the country.

However, on an issue as important as stop and search, it would be wrong to consult HMIC and work with the police without also consulting the public. So I can tell the House that today I am launching a consultation, lasting six weeks, that will give members of the public the chance to have their say about the future use of stop and search. Copies of the consultation document will be made available in the Library.

By the end of the year, the Government will respond formally to both the HMIC report and the public consultation. That response will then inform our work with HMIC, the College of Policing and police forces up and down the country to make sure that stop and search works fairly and in everybody’s interests. I want to see stop and search used only when it is needed; I want to see higher search-to-arrest ratios; I want to see better community engagement; and I want to see more efficient recording practices across the country.

At its best, stop and search is a vital power in the fight against crime; at its worst, it is a waste of police time and serves to undermine public confidence in the police. It is time to get stop and search right, so I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. She has not given me a copy of the consultation, so I have not seen its proposals, but I do welcome the principles behind it. I agree with the Home Secretary that the stop-and-search powers are important and can help the police tackle serious problems. However, the way in which they have been used has raised serious concerns about, for example, the scale of use, the lack of intelligence-led approaches and the disproportionate use against ethnic minorities and the potential waste of money.

Stop-and-search powers are useful for the police—for example, enabling them to search for weapons or stolen goods without needing to arrest someone. The Home Secretary knows about Operation Blunt, run by the Met in 2009, which delivered a 13% reduction in knife crime and a 23% reduction in youth killings and seized over 1,000 knives and which did use intelligence-led stop and search as part of that strategy. People have been arrested for possession of guns, knives and other offensive weapons as a result of stop and search, too. But where stop and search is used inappropriately or too widely, it can cause a very wide range of serious problems.

Given the relatively low proportion of searches that lead to arrest, I welcome the work that has been done to reduce the number of stop and searches, which has fallen since 2008. I welcome the work by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), the former Home Secretary, to restrict inappropriate use, which helped deliver an initial 10% reduction in stop and searches. I also welcome the decision by the Home Secretary to restrict and change section 44 stops and searches. I welcome the decision of the Met commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, to restrict section 60 stops and searches and some of the work that he has done since then.

However, I think that it is right to go further, especially in the light of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on stop and search three years ago. The Home Secretary knows that that report found that

“some forces are using their powers disproportionately suggesting they are stopping and searching individuals in a way that is discriminatory, inefficient, and a waste of public money.”

It also found:

“The evidence points to racial discrimination being a significant reason why black and Asian people are more likely to be stopped and searched”.

It concluded:

“A reduction in disproportionality does not have to result in a rise in crime—on the contrary in the case of both Staffordshire and Cleveland”

where the EHRC worked with those forces,

“it has gone hand in hand with reduced crime rates and increased levels of public confidence in the police.”

Will the Home Secretary set out what has been done since the EHRC reported in 2010 to address the concerns that it raised?

The Home Secretary announced after the 2011 riots that she had asked the Association of Chief Police Officers to review stop and search. Has that review happened and will she publish the results?

Does the Home Secretary share my concern that that proportion of stops and searches that lead to an arrest has fallen, not risen, in the past five years? Previously, 12% of searches led to an arrest; now, a proportion of 9% is more likely. The right hon. Lady did not set out any specific proposals in her statement. What proposals in her consultation might make a difference to those figures and tackle the problem of searches being disproportionately targeted at ethnic minorities? Some of the figures that she quoted are seriously worrying. She will know that the EHRC examined evidence to see whether there are any explanations for those figures and found none sufficient to justify the disproportionate number of searches. The EHRC made specific recommendations for individual forces and for policing as a whole. Three years on, have those recommendations been implemented and what results have been delivered? Can she assure the House that her proposals will not jeopardise the recording of whether ethnic minorities are being targeted disproportionately? Clearly, we need to have that information.

I welcome the intention behind today’s statement and the consultation. The Home Secretary is right to support the principle of stop and search and right also to say that practice needs to be reformed to make sure that there is no discrimination and that it does not waste money or cause more problems in communities. However, it would help if she were more specific about her consultation proposals and how she plans to address the concerns.

I welcome the shadow Home Secretary’s support for the consultation on stop and search going ahead. As she says, there has been a number of reports on the operation of stop and search. The EHRC, whose report was published a matter of weeks ago, looked again at the issue in five forces, including the Met and Thames Valley police. It identified that it had been possible for those forces to reduce the number of stop and searches, perhaps by targeting them better on an intelligence-led basis, and that doing so had also had an impact on the search-to-arrest ratio, but no discernible effect on public safety. The EHRC reinforced the view that we can get stop and search right; that if we get it right, it can be the valuable tool we want it to be; but that we can reduce the number of stops and searches without having an impact on public safety.

I did indeed ask ACPO to look at stop and search and best practice across the country, and it has done so. I also asked HMIC to do a piece of work across forces on how stop and search is used and recorded. I think that that report, which comes out next week, will, by providing information on the practices used on the ground, give the best evidence base on which to look ahead.

The right hon. Lady asked about recording. At a very early stage, we made changes to the amount of information that needs to be recorded on stop-and-search forms, but we retained, for example, ethnicity as one of the matters that should be recorded. We were able to reduce bureaucracy somewhat, but it remains the case that if a stop and search is undertaken when it is not necessary—when there is not reasonable suspicion—it can be a waste of police time.

The right hon. Lady’s main accusation seemed to be that, in my statement, I had not set out any firm proposals on stop and search, but the whole point of the public consultation is to go out and ask members of the public what has been their experience of stop and search, how they feel it should be used and what changes, if any, they think should be made. The consultation will include questions such as whether local communities should be more involved in working out how stop and search should be used in their area. There are some good examples, including in the London borough of Brent, of work being done with the local community. The point of the consultation is to ask people what they think; then, we will look the results alongside the evidence base in the HMIC report and come to the House in due course with firm proposals that I believe will enable us to get stop and search right.

My right hon. Friend said that the percentage of stops and searches that led to arrest were far too low for comfort. What figure would make her comfortable?

My hon. and learned Friend will know that I am not naturally inclined to set targets in these matters, and I do not think it would be appropriate at this stage if I were to state a figure. The Met Commissioner has done so, having set a 20% target, and, as I said, recent figures have been far closer to that 20%. But let us look at the evidence base and hear what the public have to say about how stop and search should operate.

This is an excellent statement, which I warmly welcome. The Home Secretary gave us a figure of 7%; in fact, under section 60, a black or Asian person is 25 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person. It cannot be right that, in Britain, anyone should be targeted because of the colour of their skin.

It is also important to look at the diversity of the police force, and I urge the right hon. Lady to read the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, to be published on Monday. If the public are to have confidence in the police, the police need to reflect the public as a whole.

Finally, I hope that the consultation will not be merely a paper exercise, but that the Home Secretary and Ministers will go our major cities themselves. I am happy to invite her to Leicester, where we could sit on the same side of the table, rather than on opposite sides, as we do during Select Committee meetings. Rather than have just an online consultation, it is important that Ministers hear what communities have to say about this practice.

The right hon. Gentleman is right about the number of times members of black or minority ethnic communities are stopped and searched under section 60; the number is significantly higher than for white people. The Met police have already looked at their planned section 60 authorisations and significantly reduced the number—from 103 in June 2011, to just six in June last year, for example.

The right hon. Gentleman tempts me with an invitation to come to Leicester and to stand on the same side as him and listen to the community. Nearly two years ago, I visited a charity involved with the Met that works on getting young people more involved with the police and improving their interaction. I remember that stop and search was raised by two members of the group of young people I met on that occasion. As the right hon. Gentleman says, it makes an impact when one hears people who have been subject to stop and search talk about their concerns and their feelings about the police as a result of how it was conducted.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and her recognition of how corrosive it can be to the spirit of young people when they are stopped and searched for no better reason than the colour of their skin. I echo the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee in encouraging my right hon. Friend to have an extensive consultation. Can she provide some examples of how she will engage communities in the consultation? It is a fantastic initiative, but it must have teeth if it is to bring real hope to people who have suffered from prejudice for far too long.

There will be a place for responses to the consultation on the website, but we intend also to hold a number of consultation meetings with people who are involved in the issue. Obviously, we want to speak with those who administer stop and search, as well as groups who have commented on it in the past, but I am sure that there will be opportunities to hear directly from people who have been subject to stop and search, as well as from communities about how they feel stop and search should be used in their community.

The Home Secretary will be aware that no single police activity causes more unhappiness and antagonism between the police and young black people than stop and search. That goes all the way back to the 1980s and the Brixton riots. Even after the 2011 riots, when I spoke to young people in Hackney about what triggered the riots, they said, “Stop and search.”

Will the Home Secretary join me in welcoming the work of Chief Superintendent Matthew Horne at Stoke Newington police station, who is responsible for the improved figures on the efficacy of stop and search in Hackney? Does she appreciate that it is not just that respectable young black men who get stopped on a weekly basis do not like it? What they object to is not the simple fact of being stopped and searched, but the way the police talk to them. There is a lot to be done in training. Stop and search is an important weapon for the police, but proper training should stop its being used in a way that is detrimental to community relations.

The hon. Lady rightly speaks from experience of an issue that I know she has spoken about on a number of occasions in the House, and I am happy to commend the work of the chief superintendent at Stoke Newington who has been working to ensure a different approach and those different figures in Hackney. She is also right—when I talk to police officers, they will often say it is how they do it as much as what they are doing that can be the issue for those who are being stopped and searched. That is why there is some very good practice across the country, and also good practice with communities, explaining why stop and search is being undertaken in a particular community at a particular time so that people understand it, rather than feeling that it is something that is just being done to them within the community.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does she agree that what the public are seeking is consistency in the conduct of the police across the country? In my constituency, Erewash, the police work hard to get the right balance between keeping residents safe and respecting citizens going about their business. A review of the guidelines can only help to achieve that consistent practice that the public expect.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. She is right. People expect such powers to be used fairly and consistently. There are many good examples where the police are working hard in the application of the powers but, sadly, the figures show us that we need to look at the guidance that is being offered and at the training of police officers—I did not respond on training to the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)—to ensure that stop and search is always used fairly and properly.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. I am glad to see that the police will retain the power of stop and search. Of course there needs to be fairness. It should not be the case that someone is stopped because of the colour of their skin. But does the right hon. Lady agree that at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland stop-and-search powers saved many lives from terrorists?

Yes, I absolutely agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. As I said in my statement and as he acknowledged, stop and search, properly used, at its best, is a vital tool for the police, and long may that continue.

Stop and search has far too often been misused, weakening trust in the police, particularly among those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, so I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, although it is a slightly novel approach to launch a consultation the week before the evidence base comes out. I assume that there are reasons for that. Does she agree that when the police do ask people for information, such as name and address, they should make it clear whether compliance with the request is a requirement or purely voluntary?

My hon. Friend talked about the launch of the public consultation this week. This is a different thing from the report that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary will be producing, which will provide an evidence base. We have figures already that I think make it right for us to question whether stop and search is always used appropriately. It is therefore right to say to the public, “We think this is a matter on which we want to hear the public’s views.” On the matter of what information needs to be recorded and what information will need to available under any changes that are made to the guidance and so forth, I can assure my hon. Friend that we will, of course, make it clear where information is required and where it is voluntary.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. I think all Members of the House will welcome the consultation, which I hope will put an end to the experience of many young people of repeated stop and search. But as we are approaching the summer break, can she explain the timing of the consultation and why she thinks six weeks might be long enough, bearing in mind that people may be going on leave? It gives very little time for extending the consultation out into our communities.

I encourage the hon. Lady to do just that, and I hope she will be able to ensure that in her constituency people are aware of the consultation and are able to respond. I think six weeks is an appropriate length of time for us to be able to undertake the consultation. We will then be able to come back to the House in the autumn on the basis of both the consultation and the HMIC report, and make firmer proposals to the House on stop and search going forward.

I am obliged to declare my interest as a special constable of the British Transport police and, in that role, as someone who has conducted stops and searches. May I urge the Home Secretary to use this opportunity to clear up the law with regard to face coverings? If there were a riot in Parliament square and, under section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, an inspector or above banned the covering of people’s faces with a balaclava, the British Transport police in Westminster tube station would not, as I understand it, be able to stop and search people for having a balaclava on their person, and if they did discover such balaclavas, they would not be able to remove them. That is an anomaly which could be addressed by the consultation.

I commend my hon. Friend for the work that he does as a special constable, and the limited number of Members of this House who are special constables both with the Met and other police forces and with the BTP. I am happy to look at the issue that he raised. We are looking at a number of matters in relation to the various powers of the police more generally and of the British Transport police, looking to iron out any anomalies, so I will certainly take that on board and have a look at it.

I do not have the figures to hand for the ratios for the Welsh police forces. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman in relation to that matter.

I welcome today’s statement and the public consultation. Owing to the sensitivity of stop and search, it is important that we balance genuine public concerns about the effect that that has on public confidence in the police’s legitimate need for stop-and-search powers. In my area, Lancashire police formed a group within the community to act as an advisory group to help monitor police actions and provide them with community feedback, which I warmly welcome. May I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that, in addition to community meetings, details of the consultation are sent to all mosques and faith-based groups across the country so that we can ensure that all parts of the community are able to respond in good time?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. We will make sure that knowledge of the consultation is as widespread as possible to enable all those who may have a great interest in responding to do so. The example that he referred to in Lancashire, of the work being done with the local community, is a good example—and there are others across the country—where police have actively tried to work with the community to explain the purpose of stop and search so that communities become more responsive to it and more willing to accept it when it takes place.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for her statement. Every time I come to Westminster the news records yet another vicious knife attack, and often a fatal attack. Many people feel that stop and search is a necessity and must continue. The Secretary of State mentioned that 3,212 criminals were stopped and found with weapons, and many people in the community feel that that should continue. Will she give an assurance to those who wish to see stop and search continue that that will happen?

Yes, I am absolutely clear that stop and search, when used properly, is a vital tool for the police and it is right that it should continue. As I said in my statement, as long as I am Home Secretary it will continue. But when we see half a million stops and searches in the Metropolitan police area and an arrest-to-search ratio of 9%, with 45,000 criminals being arrested as a result—the numbers for the Metropolitan police in terms of arrests have been increasing and the number of stops and searches reducing—it is right that we ask whether it is always used as appropriately as it should be. However, it should stay as a tool.

In the past my party has not taken seriously enough the concerns of London’s black and minority ethnic communities about the way in which they are policed. It reflects huge credit on the Home Secretary that she is addressing this ongoing concern. Given that policing in this country is based on the principle of consent, does she agree that stop and search is a technique that can protect young people, but that it must be done with respect, it has to be based on intelligence and it has to enjoy the support of those who are being policed?

My hon. Friend has neatly put his finger on the issue. Stop and search is a valuable tool, but it must have the confidence and support of the community. It can be a vital tool in the protection of young people, as he says, but it has to be dealt with on a basis of respect and intelligence, and with the support of the community.