Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 3rd November 2021.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 129, I will speak also to Amendment 276 in my name. It is unfortunate that these amendments were not grouped with amendments concerning the new violent crime prevention orders, as these, too, relate to police stop and search.
As well as being a police officer rising to the most senior levels in the Metropolitan Police over the course of more than 30 years, I worked in Brixton in south London between 1980 and 1982, in the 1990s, and again in the early 2000s. I was a police sergeant during the Brixton riots, a chief inspector and acting superintendent in the 1990s in Brixton, and I was the police commander in Lambeth, unusually in the rank of commander—the equivalent of assistant chief constable—in the early 2000s. In so saying, I am an expert on police stop and search. I realise that an expert is somebody who knows a little bit more about a subject than other people do, but I think I fall into that category, particularly in areas with high levels of visible minority communities and a poor track record of police community relations.
In 2001, Lambeth, with Brixton at its heart, had the highest street robbery rate in western Europe and high levels of burglary, and criminals were openly dealing crack cocaine and heroin on the streets. We were 100 police officers short of the 1,000 officers we were supposed to have in Lambeth. I recall an incident when I was a sergeant in 1982, the year after the Brixton riots, that clearly demonstrated that the community was concerned about street robbery, and not about possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use. When we chased a handbag thief into an illegal gambling den, the youth was ejected from the premises into our waiting arms; when we chased someone who we thought had cannabis, the door was slammed in our faces.
In 2001, it was more than just community priorities, and that involved the arrest of one of my officers for allegedly taking cannabis from suspects on the street and keeping it himself. But one of the prime motivations for suggesting on the front page of London Evening Standard that the police should not arrest people for small amounts of cannabis for personal use was that there were far more important things for the police to spend their time on—both far more serious crimes that were at endemic levels and crimes that were a priority for the community. Clearly, possession of small amounts of cannabis was not one of them. When the “no arrest” policy was introduced, a public opinion survey found that well over 80% of people in Lambeth were in favour of the approach—slightly lower among the black community but still over 80%.
Following intense media debate and the submission of detailed data about how long it took officers to process someone arrested for cannabis—two officers over four hours each—plus the administrative work by police support staff and the CPS to prepare the case for court, the court time involved and the usual conditional discharge or small fine on conviction, this all persuaded the then commissioner to agree to a six-month pilot in Lambeth, where no adult was arrested for possession of small amounts of cannabis. These are the sorts of penalties courts are imposing today for possession of small amounts of class A drugs for personal use, if the case gets to court at all—many cases are dealt with by means of a police caution.
Despite false stories in newspapers, an independent assessment by the Metropolitan Police Authority of the pilot, which was extended to 12 months, showed reductions in all forms of serious crime, an increase in the amount of cannabis seized—as officers were able to quickly and easily deal with any that they found by seizing it and warning the person on the street—and an increase in the number of class A drug dealers arrested. Fears of an influx into the borough of those seeking cannabis proved to be the reverse of what actually happened.
Police and community priorities change. Now, in many areas of the country, knife crime is the priority, rather than street robbery. Noble Lords will quite rightly think that properly targeted stop and search is a powerful weapon in taking knives off the street, particularly if third-party information—community intelligence—points to those who are the knife carriers.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services has done some number-crunching on stop and search, and I am very grateful to Matt Parr —he might not be thanking me in a moment—who briefed Peers on the issue last week. Some 63% of police stop and search is for drugs; over 80% of those stop and searches are on suspicion of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. On average, only 9% of police stop and searches—less than one in 10—are intelligence-led; the proportion varies by police force between 23% in the best performing and 1% in the worst. These are HMICFRS figures. The top five police forces in the UK account for 90% of all stop and search carried out. Policy Exchange, a centre-right think tank, published a report a few weeks ago that found the Metropolitan Police had the highest rate of stop and search of any police force and the lowest rate for apprehending drug dealers.
Tackling knife crime is the Government’s priority, it is our priority, and it is the priority of many communities, but, looking at the facts as presented by HMICFRS, it is not police officers’ priority when it comes to stop and search. My Amendment 129 would not allow the police to stop and search someone on suspicion of personal possession of a small amount of a controlled drug for personal use. The police already cannot search for possession of illegal psychoactive substances that are not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act; in fact, possession of small amounts of illegal psychoactive substances for personal use is not even an offence.
We are not talking about not tackling drug dealing—that is not covered by this amendment; indeed, there will be more police resources available to tackle drug dealing. We are not even talking about an untried and untested leap of faith. When we did not arrest people for simple possession of cannabis over a 12-month period in Lambeth, the police ended up concentrating on more important offences instead, more serious crimes and crimes that were a priority for the community.
We have too few police officers at this time, as I had in Lambeth when I was the police commander. We have too much serious crime, as I did when I was the police commander in Lambeth. We need to focus scarce police resources on what really matters; whatever that priority is, it is not possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.
The key to effectively reducing serious violence is the police and communities working together, with communities providing information to the police about who is involved in serious violence, so that the police can concentrate their efforts, particularly stop and search, on those carrying and using knives. Policy Exchange believes that community policing is key. Other metropolitan forces, such as Merseyside, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire, do less stop and search and more community policing than London’s Metropolitan Police, and they are far more effective at arresting those involved in drug dealing.
Nothing is more damaging to police-community relations, trust and confidence in the police than poorly targeted stop and search. From standing in the middle of Brixton, being bombarded with bricks, paving slabs and petrol bombs, as I was in 1981, following a massive poorly targeted stop and search operation, I can tell noble Lords that that is the sort of damage it does. Visible minorities are four times more likely and black people nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people, but they are no more likely to have something illegal in their possession than white people. That is when the police have to have reasonable grounds to stop and search people. Amendment 129 would not allow the police to stop and search for small amounts of controlled drugs for personal use, removing the cause of so much hostility between the police and communities, whose support and co-operation are vital in reducing serious violence.
That is not the only disproportionate form of stop and search. In 2010, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, responding to a European Court of Human Rights judgment that suspicionless stop and search under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act was illegal, said:
“The first duty of Government is to protect the public. But that duty must never be used as a reason to ride roughshod over our civil liberties”,
adding that the then Government would not have appealed the judgment, even if they could. She said that the court found that the powers were
“drawn too broadly—at the time of their initial authorisation and when they are used” and
“contain insufficient safeguards to protect civil liberties.”—[
That is very similar to the position we are in today with Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which still allows indiscriminate stop and search.
The purpose for which the police are using Section 60 goes far beyond what Parliament intended it to be used for. When this power was given to the police there was a recurring problem with rival gangs of football supporters arranging to meet at a specific time and place, arming themselves with weapons. Noble Lords will immediately see the point of a Section 60 power to search everyone in the area at the time rival gangs planned to meet, without the need for reasonable suspicion in these particular circumstances. This rarely, if ever, happens today.
Instead, if there has been a stabbing, the police will routinely impose a Section 60 order in the area surrounding the incident. That is not what it was intended for and of limited use in such circumstances. The first thing a knifeman will do after stabbing someone is dispose of the weapon and go to ground. Even if he is in the area, there is usually a description, from witnesses or CCTV, and other powers of stop and search based on reasonable suspicion can be used. I maintain that the Section 60 power is being misused and is ineffective.
The second problem with Section 60 is that indiscriminate stop and search causes untold damage to police-community relations. As I have said, people from minority-ethnic communities are four times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police and black people are nine times more likely. But when it comes to Section 60, where no reasonable suspicion is required, that figure rises to you being 18 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police if you are black than if you are white. The overwhelming majority of these people have nothing on them to justify such a stop and search. Community intelligence is vital to make stop and search effective in tackling knife crime, but communities are losing trust and confidence in the police because too many innocent members of their communities are being stopped and searched using Section 60.
The police have argued that black people are disproportionately involved in knife crime, and in some areas, this may well be the case, but it is in these areas, in these communities, that the flow of community intelligence is even more important if knife crime is to be tackled effectively. In evidence to support a super-complaint about Section 60, it was revealed that in 2012, the Metropolitan Police reduced the use of Section 60 by 90%, and stabbings and shootings fell by a third and 40% respectively. In the year ending March 2020, only 1% of Section 60 stop and search resulted in an arrest for possession of a weapon. Between 2016 and 2019, there was a 2,800% increase in the use of Section 60, despite the evidence showing that Section 60 is effective only in creating hostility between the police and the communities who are subjected to it, the very communities whose intelligence is vital in reducing serious violence.
The cost-benefit analysis of Section 60 is negative. The reason for its enactment rarely, if ever, occurs. Therefore, Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 should be repealed. That is the intention of Amendment 276. I beg to move Amendment 129.