Public Order Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:40 pm on 22nd March 2023.
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendments 6B to 6F.
The Bill is about giving the police the tools they need to tackle the highly disruptive protest tactics that we have seen in recent months, which have blocked ambulances, delayed passengers making important journeys, stopped children getting to school and prevented patients from receiving critical medical care. We have seen our capital city, London, being held to ransom. It cannot be right that a selfish minority committed to causing as much disruption as possible continue to get away with it. These actions are not only impacting the public, but diverting the police away from the communities they serve; in October and November last year, something like 10,000 hours of Metropolitan police time were taken up. That is why the Bill is so important.
We have had some back and forth with the other place, but there is now only one remaining issue to resolve between us. It concerns the power to stop and search without suspicion, which has been extended through the Bill to enable the police to search for and seize articles related to protest activities. It is worth saying that, before that power can be exercised, it requires a police officer of the rank of inspector or above to have a “reasonable” belief that a number of offences may be committed in the area concerned. It further requires that officer to believe that the conditions being imposed, and the authority to carry out these searches, are necessary to prevent the commission of offences. Moreover, the power lasts for only 24 hours and is capable of extension for another 24 hours at the most. Therefore, the power is to be used only where it is reasonably suspected an offence may be committed, only where it is believed to be necessary, and only for a time-limited period. Those are important restrictions on the way the power can be used.
Stop and search is a vital tool used to crack down on crime and protect communities. We see it as appropriate, in the face of large, fast-paced environments where it can be difficult for the police to reach the level of suspicion required for a suspicion-led stop and search, for them to have this power available as well.
I am old enough to remember when a policeman used his initiative and intuition to suspect that a crime was probable, or could be caused or had been caused. Does the Minister feel that the Bill ensures that a policeman can still use his initiative to ensure that those who are carrying out crimes can be detained with the suspicion of cause, rather than without evidence?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Police will often suspect that crimes may be committed, but in a particular case an individual may not reach the suspicion level and, in those circumstances, these rules will apply. I completely agree with his point.
Can the Minister confirm, as an illustration, that, if a demonstration is about to take place by a group who use a particular tactic—gluing themselves to the road, for example—the police may use this power to intercept individuals with glue in their pockets, before they carry out an activity such as gluing themselves that occupies enormous amounts of police time, often puts them and police officers in danger, and causes enormous inconvenience? In those circumstances, will the police be able to use this power to get ahead of the problem?
The way my right hon. Friend puts it is good. It is in exactly those circumstances, where the police are concerned that one of the specified crimes may be committed, that they can use this power. Those crimes are specified in clause 11(1), and include offences under section 137 of the Highways Act 1980—that is wilfully obstructing the highway—offences under section 78 of the relatively new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which involve
“intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”, and various offences under the Bill, which include causing serious disruption by
“tunnelling…being present in a tunnel… obstruction etc of major transport works”, interfering with critical national infrastructure, as well as “locking on”, which I think is the point made by my right hon. Friend.
This was raised the last time we had this debate, but the Minister mentioned the crime of nuisance. The threshold for that is incredibly low. An inspector could be concerned that there was a chance that someone would commit this offence by being seriously annoying or inconveniencing somebody, and then we let loose suspicionless stop and search of hundreds, potentially thousands, of people, for no further reason than that. Is that not a ludicrously low threshold for triggering these search powers?
I am not sure I entirely agree. The offence of intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance is set out in section 78 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and I do not accept the characterisation of that offence as simply a minor one. Causing huge inconvenience to other members of the public is not something that this House should treat lightly, particularly as we have seen examples in recent protests of ambulances not getting through, and of people unable to get their children to school or to attend medical appointments. I am not sure I accept that characterisation.
A number of changes have been proposed in Lords amendments 6B to 6F. They first propose a higher level of authorisation for suspicionless searches. By the way, the other place is not disputing the principle; it is simply seeking to change some of the thresholds, one of which would involve changing the authority level in a way that would be inconsistent with the use of searches under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 in other contexts.
Another change relates to the time periods. As Lord Hogan-Howe, a former commissioner of the Metropolitan police, pointed out, the use of the power has to be practical and reducing the time threshold to just 12 hours would limit the ability of police forces to use these powers in a meaningful way. We should take seriously the opinion of the noble Lord who used to be the Met commissioner.
The changes proposed in the other place would also require a chief superintendent to provide authorisation for this matter, when an inspector is acceptable under the existing section 60. I think that overlooks the urgency and speed with which these protests can unfold, and the speed at which decisions need to be made. It also has potential to cause confusion if there is a different level of seniority here, compared with the well-established section 60.
Finally, the amendments proposed in the other place would set out in statute a requirement for the forces to communicate the geographical extent of an order. The Government recognise that communication of any power is important for understanding and transparency. I am aware that most forces already communicate their section 60 authorisations—I have seen that happen frequently in Croydon and it is gratefully received when it happens. But, for consistency, it is important to keep these new powers as close as we can to existing legislation, although the Government encourage forces to communicate any use of this power, in the way they already do for a section 60 order, where it is operationally beneficial to do so. There is a lot to be said for consistency, which is why I respectfully encourage Members of this House to gently and politely disagree with the other place in their amendments 6B to 6F.
Stop and search is a crucial tool, as we all agree. Its normal usage is based on intelligence around a crime or a potential crime, based on proper suspicion, and applied for the right reasons. In our country, we use stop and search with suspicion to look for weapons, drugs and stolen property. Under particular circumstances, we use suspicionless stop and search—a section 60, as we call it—to search people without suspicion when a weapon has been used, or where there is good reason to believe there will be a serious violence incident. The Government are introducing suspicionless stop and search for potential protests, an overreach of the law that the police have not asked for and which pushes the balance of rights and responsibilities away from the British public.
Yesterday, we debated Baroness Casey’s report into the Metropolitan police. It is an excoriating report that, among much else, calls for a fundamental reset in how stop and search is used in London. I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister today accept all the findings and recommendations in the report. The report states:
“Racial disparity continues in stop and search in London. This has been repeatedly confirmed in reports and research. Our Review corroborates these findings.”
It is ironic that the day after the report was published the Government are trying to pass laws that risk further damaging the relationship between the police and the public by significantly expanding stop and search powers way beyond sensible limits.
The hon. Lady says these measures may damage relations with the public. The vast majority of the public feel very strongly that their lives have been severely impacted by these protests, so giving the police the tools to get ahead of them may in fact command widespread public support, notwithstanding the issues of protest. I wonder what her solution might be to the problem of people who persistently come to protests and glue themselves to all sorts of surfaces, thereby causing enormous disruption to other people’s lives, disproportionate to the issue they are protesting about.
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. We do not disagree on some of the struggles here—we never have. We have never said that it is not a problem in terms of major infrastructure, getting around the country and so on. Our argument has always been, first, a series of existing laws is in place that enables the police to do their job. Secondly, the use of injunctions could have been made easier—we put that case forward in earlier stages of the Bill—so that we could get ahead of some of these problems. But fundamentally, we disagree with the premise that extending these powers, which are used at the moment for serious violence, to this loose definition of potential protest is helpful, or anything the police will necessarily want or use.
Clause 11 will introduce wide-ranging powers for the police to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest, including any of us who happen to walk through the area. The Government’s knee-jerk reaction to introduce sweeping powers that will risk further damaging policing by consent is not the way forward. Members in the other place passed very sensible changes to raise the threshold for the powers in clause 11 to be used. To the Minister’s point that they are not disputing the principle, they have already disputed the principle—we have had that argument and they have, rightly, as is their role, moved on. So they are trying to contain what they think are the problems with these measures. All we ask is that the Government accept these sensible minor tweaks to clause 11.
Lords amendments 6B to 6F would raise the rank of the officer able to authorise the power to stop and search without suspicion for a 12-hour period to a chief superintendent. The Minister argued that we need consistency. I do not accept that argument. There are all kinds of different levels of all kinds of different things across the law that we can all understand. Because this is a more significant intervention for potentially a lesser crime, the amendment is relatively reasonable.
Lords amendment 6C removes “subsection (ii)”, which means the power could be used for the anticipation of “causing public nuisance” such as merely making noise. Without this change, every time music is played outside Parliament anyone could be stopped and searched without suspicion. Baroness Casey suggests that
“as a minimum, Met officers should be required to give their name, their shoulder number, the grounds for the stop and a receipt confirming the details of that stop.”
Lords amendment 6F would insert:
“The chief superintendent must take reasonable steps to inform the public when the powers conferred by this section are in active use.”
That is important because communication failures are a common factor in problematic stop and searches.
A recent report from Crest Advisory, examining the experience of black communities nationally on stop and search, found that 77% of black adults support the use of stop and search in relation to suspicion of carrying a weapon. So, in the poll, the black community absolutely agrees that we need the power to stop and search. But less than half of those who had been stopped and searched felt that the police had communicated well with them or explained what would happen. That less than half of those who had been stopped and searched felt that the police had communicated well to them or explained what would happen shows how important it is to make sure people are communicated with when these strong and impactful powers are used by the police. If we imagine that in the context of clause 11, where anyone can be stopped, including tourists who might have got caught up in a crowd and not know what is going on, there is a risk of a chaotic invasion of people’s rights to go about their business.
We have discussed previously and at length the definition of “serious disruption”. The Minister considers it
“more than a minor degree”.
Would being stopped and searched for simply walking through Parliament Square when a protest is taking place disrupt his day more than a minor degree? The suspicionless stop and search powers being applied to protests are extreme and disproportionate. We have raised many times in this House the warnings from former police officers that they risk further diminishing trust in public institutions.
After the devastating Casey report, it is hard to see how public trust in the Metropolitan police could suffer more. Ministers were unable to offer any solutions to bring the reforms we desperately need in policing, but they could at least try not to pass laws that would risk making trust and confidence in the police even worse. Clause 11 will create powers that risk undermining our Peelian principles even further. When Ministers say that it would only be in very unusual circumstances that the powers would be used, I want to stress, why bother? Why bother, when to deal with disruptive protests the police could already use criminal damage, conspiracy to cause criminal damage, trespass, aggravated trespass, public nuisance, breach of the peace and obstruction of the highway? The Minister knows I could keep going. Many protestors have been fined and many have gone to prison using those powers. Thousands of arrests are already made using existing powers, but the Bill is apparently justified by an impact assessment that says it will lead to a few hundred arrests only. The powers are there for the police to use.
Disruptive protests have a serious impact on infrastructure and on people’s ability to go about their daily lives. Over the course of the passage of the Bill, we have spent many hours on new ways to ensure the police have all the levers they need. We tried to introduce sensible amendments on injunctions. The Government’s response to the problem is a totally disproportionate headline-chasing response that is, depressingly, what we have come to expect. Gone are the days when the Government were interested in passing laws that could fix problems or make things better. The truth is that the Government’s disagreement with the sensible narrowing amendments from the other place will create more problems than it will solve. I urge the Government to think again and to back these common-sense amendments from the other place.
I can now announce the result of today’s deferred Division on the draft Criminal Justice Act 2003 (Home Detention Curfew) Order 2023. The Ayes were 290 and the Noes were 14, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
I will be brief because much of what I have to say agrees with the Opposition spokesperson, Sarah Jones.
I remind the House that the biggest curtailment of stop and search in modern times was in 2010, when my right hon. Friend Mrs May was Home Secretary. The reason she did it, in large part, was the feeling that nearly all the stop and searches were in the Met—there were only about 50 in Scotland one year, but thousands down here—and ethnic minorities felt that they were targeted at them. The way they were pursued made race relations in the capital worse.
On that point, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that every year that the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was Mayor of London, the number of stop and searches went down.
I suspect that my right hon. Friend Kit Malthouse wants to intervene on that point.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. What he says is incorrect. At the time, we were dealing with a huge spike in knife crime in London, which was disproportionately reflected in the black community. Young black men were dying on an almost daily basis and, sadly, the vast majority of the perpetrators were also young black men. There was definitely a campaign to try to eliminate weapons from within that community, which worked. In 2008, 29 young people were killed in London, and by 2012 that was down to eight, so the campaign was successful. During that period and up to about 2016, confidence in the Metropolitan police rose to an all-time high of 90%, including rising confidence among minority communities in the capital. I am afraid that my right hon. Friend’s basic premise is not correct.
I have allowed my right hon. Friend to make his point, but the simple truth was that the reason for the Home Secretary of the day curbing stop and search was concern about its impact on ethnic minorities. He is also right that the biggest number of victims of knife crime came from ethnic minorities, so I take his point. My answer to him—and the general concern here—is that bad policing is not improved by bad law, which is what I think this is.
That brings me to the Casey report. The hon. Member for Croydon Central was right to cite the criticism of the Metropolitan police. The report said that there were numerous examples of stop and search being carried out badly. There were examples where officers
“justified carrying out a search based on a person’s ethnicity alone”.
That should not apply under any circumstance. There were examples where officers
“Had been rude or uncivil while carrying out a search” and
“had used excessive force, leaving people (often young people) humiliated, distressed, and this damaged trust in the Met”.
Those are all bad things from our point of view.
We all want—I include the Opposition—the disgraceful trend in modern demonstrations brought to an end. It is designed not to demonstrate but to inconvenience—there is a distinction. But the Bill is a heavy-handed way of doing that. The Minister tried to say that the Lords had accepted the principle. They had not. What they have sought to do with these amendments is leave the tool in the hands of the police but constrain it in such a way that it is used more responsibility.
The Lords amendments will change the level of seniority required to designate an area for suspicionless search from inspector to chief superintendent or above. Whatever Lord Hogan-Howe says, that is not a crippling amendment. Changing the maximum amount of time for which an area can be designated from 24 hours to 12 hours is not crippling but practical. While my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire was doing his job in London, I was on the Opposition Benches as shadow Home Secretary, dealing with a number of Metropolitan Police Commissioners. That is a perfectly practical change. Changing the level of seniority required to extend the authorisation by a further 24 hours to chief superintendent is, again, a practical change.
We talk about suspicionless stop and search. What does that mean? It means the right to stop and search innocent people who have no reason to be stopped and searched whatsoever. We are handing the discretion to a police force that has been called upon to reset its approach to stop and search. The Government are doing almost precisely the opposite of what Casey is calling for. The final amendment states:
“The chief superintendent must take reasonable steps to inform the public when the powers conferred by this section are in active use.”
Those are all practical changes. The smart action of the Government is to accept them, carry on and try to improve on the Metropolitan police that we have today.
I will be brief because I agree entirely with the two previous speakers. There should be no suspicionless stop and search powers anywhere near a Public Order Bill. It is pretty grim that removing clause 11 entirely from the Bill is now off the table. All we are debating, in essence, are a few inadequate safeguards, yet still the Government are not listening to or understanding the concerns of those who will be stopped and searched.
As we have heard, yesterday the Casey report spoke about the UK’s largest police force needing a fundamental reset on stop and search, because it was being deployed at the cost of legitimacy, trust and therefore consent. Among the report’s stark conclusions was that enough evidence and analysis exist to confidently label stop and search a racialised tool.
Suspicionless stop and search is a counterproductive, disruptive and dangerous police tactic for a whole host of reasons. Yet here we are, the day after Casey, and the Government still insist on handing out a ludicrously broad and totally disproportionate power to do just that. It is not good enough for the Government to say that the use of the powers will be restricted, as the Minister in the other place sought to do. The same Minister said that the whole reason for keeping public nuisance in the scope of clause 11 was that it was an offence committed so frequently. Suspicionless stop and search to prevent the possibility of someone being seriously annoying or inconveniencing someone would almost be funny if it was not so deadly serious. The Government should at least get public nuisance out of the scope of the clause.
The Minister said that he was trying to seek consistency on the rank of the authorising officer, but it is comparing apples and oranges if the Government think that a power to tackle nuisance has to be consistent with the power to tackle serious violence. It is also selective because, as was pointed out in the other place, no-suspicion stop and search powers in relation to terrorism require a far higher rank before they can be authorised.
I will finish my brief contribution with the Casey report, which states:
“We heard that being stopped and searched can be humiliating and traumatic. Yet we could find no evidence of the Met considering how this would impact on how those who had been stopped would use the police service”.
The Government’s insistence on this power means that exactly the same criticism can be levelled at them. They do not recognise the serious disruption caused by suspicionless stop and search. The fact that they have been so tin-eared to concerns raised is pretty worrying. The Lords amendments are the barest minimum that we can do to restrict a severe and draconian power, and we should support them.
It is three in a row, as I agree and associate myself with the remarks of the previous speakers. It is important to look at the Lords’ amendments in the light of yesterday’s Casey report. Throughout my involvement with the Bill, I have always tried to look at it as a former police officer, although not a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner. I have always tried to think about the Bill from the perspective of the police officers who will be required to carry out the powers in it, and from the capacity perspective—the capacity of officers to go and do these duties and to be trained to carry them out.
On the first point, I refer to page 86 of the Casey report, which states:
“The lack of comprehensive workforce planning and prioritisation…throughout this report also makes for a weak approach to learning and development. Officers regularly said that they had to keep their own records and that they were not held centrally.”
Can the Met say how many officers it has currently trained in public order, whether in basic command units doing aid training or in tactical support groups? When the Bill is enacted and police come to court, the defence will ask officers what training they had in these powers, so that is a valid point.
The second bit is about capability. If officers have not attended the training but are then abstracted to attend a protest, do they actually have the skills at all? I want to pick up on page 131 of the report, which mentions tactical support groups and their use across London. It states:
“While they can be tasked to carry out policing functions in a BCU area, they are not accountable to the BCU chain of command. This can undermine a BCU’s attempts to own its very extensive patch, and to be fully accountable for policing there, both to the Met and to the public.”
It goes on to say:
“We were told that specialist teams tended to have rigid attitudes to their style of policing. ‘TSG come here not knowing the area…they come late, allegedly go to the gym on job time…they annoy the community, and arrest people who probably didn’t need to be arrested anyway… My colleagues think it suppresses crime. I don’t think it’s worth the community upset, it poisons the relationship with the community.’”
Those comments have been made by some of the core teams that will be enacting these powers.
My third point goes back to the comments I made last time we discussed these Lords amendments. Whether a police officer is attending an incident or a spontaneous protest, and whether they are a police constable attending by themselves or taking directions from a silver public order commander in relation to a planned protest, they are still exercising those powers and making those decisions. We must look at the stress placed on police officers who are juggling all those multiple demands. Again, I refer to page 90 of the Casey report:
“The reality of policing means that most of the time, police officers are in threat perception and threat management mode.”I suggest that when people are policing in those kinds of modes, the strain they are under means that making good decisions, potentially about complex legislation, becomes more challenging.
I agree with the comments have been made about clause 11 being removed in its entirety; indeed, my colleagues in the other place continued to support that. We also support the new amendments that we are considering. In terms of arguing whether they are reasonable or not, I say this: they reflect the safeguards and the BUSS—best use of stop and search—scheme, which was introduced in 2014 and scrapped by the former Home Secretary in May 2022. What is proposed in the amendments has previously been utilised by the police, so I do not see why they cannot continue to do so.
I do not wish to repeat everything I said at the beginning, but I want to pick up on one or two points made in the course of this short debate. The first point relates to policing’s position on this power. The shadow Minister, my constituency neighbour Sarah Jones, said that the police had not been calling for this. I politely draw her attention to what was said by His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services, which is run by a former chief constable:
“On balance, our view is that, with appropriate guidance and robust and effective safeguards, the proposed stop and search powers would have the potential to improve police efficiency and effectiveness in preventing disruption and making the public safe.”
I do not want to reiterate yesterday’s extensive debate about the Casey report, which has been referred to, but I will say one or two things about the use of stop and search in that context. First, when I discussed stop and search with Sir Mark Rowley, the commissioner, a few days ago, he pointed out that between 350 and 400 knives are removed every month from London’s streets using stop and search. I think that is an extremely important contribution to public safety.
In her report, Baroness Casey referred to academic research from the United States that found that the use of stop and search led, on average, to a 13% reduction in crime. For the sake of balance, it is important to keep those points in mind.
It is fair to say that a very small proportion of stop and searches result in complaints. That has been the case particularly since body-worn cameras have been used, because the officer knows that when conducting a stop and search the whole thing is being recorded. Some of the bad practice that may have been prevalent 10 or 15 years ago is much less likely to occur when both parties are aware that the stop and search is being recorded.
Of course stop and search has a role to play, but it has to be applied appropriately and under the right criteria. As a barrister who has prosecuted and defended cases, and having been a member of the Home Affairs Committee, may I ask the Minister a question specifically about stop and search? How many individuals from diverse communities who have been stopped should not have been stopped in the first place? We need to have that data to know how to look at legislation moving forward. At the end of the day, we have to carry communities with us and ensure there is appropriate community cohesion. What is the figure?
In whatever context, stop and search has to be done in a respectful and appropriate way. That is why body-worn cameras are so important. As I pointed out a moment ago, only a tiny fraction of stop and searches result in a complaint these days.
To conclude, we have recently seen protesters use tactics, often covertly, that are deliberately and exclusively designed not to protest as a way of communicating a message, but to cause intentional disruption to other members of the public going about their daily business, including children trying to get to school and patients trying to get to hospital. These well-designed and proportionate measures will help the police protect the public and allow them to go about their daily business, while also allowing the right to protest. Therefore, I respectfully invite colleagues to disagree with Lords amendments 6B to 6F.
The House divided: Ayes 296, Noes 229.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendments 6B to 6F disagreed to.
Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing with their amendments 6B to 6F;
That Chris Philp, Scott Mann, James Sunderland, Aaron Bell, Sarah Jones, Gerald Jones and Stuart C. McDonald be members of the Committee;
That Chris Philp be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Jacob Young.)
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.