New Clause 9 — Incidents involving serious violence: powers to stop and search

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 22nd October 2007.

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Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 6:45 pm, 22nd October 2007

I echo the sentiments of every previous speaker about the shock and public concern that rightly and inevitably arises from the terrible incidents that have had a high profile in the media in recent months, particularly those involving gun crime. May I suggest how the Government should proceed on this topic? There is a danger that we discuss stop and search narrowly. It is sometimes a vital power in the armoury of the police, but it is not the only power available to them. Another power is the so-called "mandatory sentence" that goes with being caught with a gun. People in my constituency and elsewhere do understand why it is not used more widely. They are led to believe that the mandatory term of five years automatically flows, save in exceptional circumstances, from someone being caught with a firearm, but it is applied in only a minority of cases. That stretches the word "mandatory" beyond most people's understanding of its definition.

The second area on which the Government need to concentrate to a greater degree is the smuggling of firearms. The third area, which has rightly been discussed by all political parties, is how we can culturally change attitudes to guns, particularly in some communities where they often appear to be regarded as a fashion accessory rather than the lethal weapon that we know them to be.

Gun crime attracts far more media attention than some other crimes, often because the consequences are particularly devastating, despite its rarity. Annually, more people are killed by knives than by guns, and it is worth recalling that when we have this type of discussion. It is also wise not to exaggerate the scope of the problem. That is not to say that it is not a problem in every community—it could be, at any given moment, a problem that could affect anybody in this country—but more than half of the firearms incidents recorded in the most recent year, 55 per cent. to be precise, happened in just three police force areas, those of the Metropolitan police, in whose area we are having this debate, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. All three of those force areas have their own specialist units to tackle gang-led drugs and gun crime: Trident, X-Calibre and Engage, in that order. Special provisions are being put in place where gun crime and other types of violent crime are particularly prevalent. Stop and search has a part to play in that, but it is not the be all and end all.

I say that because we must strike a careful balance between protecting the individual's physical safety and protecting the liberties of the individual citizen. It is a quite a draconian measure for the state to be able to stop people who have committed no criminal offence, or appear not to have done so, and search them. The power should be used with discretion and intelligence. I welcome the measures in the Government's new clause 9, specifically the four changes that I have identified that take the debate forward from the suggestions made in another place earlier in the passage of this Bill.

First, the Government are widening the scope of stop and search to non-firearms, including knives. I have mentioned just how important that consideration is for many people. Secondly, I support the oral authorisation being allowed in the exceptional circumstances that the Minister outlined. It is important that when such instances arise, the police can be fleet of foot and are not held up in a way that most people would think perverse. Thirdly, and this is where I differ from the proposals being put forward by the Conservative party, there is a need for a senior officer to authorise these decisions. If that power is to be wielded at the expense of an individual citizen going about his or her ordinary business, people will be reassured if the decisions are made by a senior officer. Finally, I am encouraged that the Government have removed some of the grey areas that were mentioned in the other place, especially the expression "by any means necessary", which is too wide a definition of how powers of stop and search can be used.

I am also confused by the Conservatives' position and perhaps a Front Bencher could assist me. The Conservative party's proposals, which were published on 28 August and which have the racy title, "It's Time to Fight Back", which is what one gets if one employs the former editor of the News of the World to decide one's policies, contain a description by the party leader. He says:

"This document sets out what the Conservative party would do in Government to tackle Britain's crime crisis."

The first proposal is:

"Abolish the stop form...A Conservative Government will scrap the stop form and allow officers to stop and question an individual without making a written record."

However, new clause 8, tabled by the Conservatives, states:

"Any authorisation under this section given in writing signed by the officer giving it."

Further on, it states:

"Where a vehicle is stopped by a constable under this section, the driver shall be entitled to obtain a written statement that the vehicle was stopped under the powers conferred by this section...A person who is searched by a constable under this section shall be entitled to obtain a written statement...Where a constable has carried out a search in the exercise of the power under subsection (4) he shall make a record of it in writing"— and so on.

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