Amendment 129

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 3 November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 5:15, 3 November 2021

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions and thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for explaining the amendments, which relate to stop and search powers. We can always rely on him to share his experience on the ground. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his very thoughtful contribution at the end.

Amendment 129 seems to be a step in the direction of decriminalising drug possession, but I do not think that the noble Lord has ever disguised his wish to see that happen—ditto, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. As the noble Lord will know, this Government have no intention of decriminalising drug possession. Our approach on drugs remains clear: we must prevent drug use in our communities, support people through treatment and recovery, and tackle the supply of illegal drugs.

The noble Lord gave the statistic from Matt Parr saying that 63% of searches were for drugs. He is absolutely right on that. We make no secret of our intention to disrupt drug markets, because that is often part of the police’s strategy for tackling serious violence, and possession searches may come in response from reports from CCTV or the public or from factors that officers more obviously encounter on patrol, such as drug transactions. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, seemed to reflect that in talking about the types of issues that he sees in the magistrates’ courts.

There is a substantial body of scientific and medical evidence to show that controlled drugs are harmful and can damage people’s mental and physical health, and our wider communities. The decriminalisation of drugs in the UK would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence and the misery that this can cause to families and communities. I bet that everyone in your Lordships’ House can think of someone who has been affected. The police therefore have a wide range of powers at their disposal to deal with drug-related offences, including the powers to search and obtain evidence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. How the police choose to pursue investigations is an operational decision for chief constables, but we are clear that we expect them to enforce the law.

I return to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about what we are doing to assist young people away from drugs. He will know that we invested tens of millions of pounds in the National County Lines Coordination Centre; he will also know that we do not wish to criminalise young people—our prime aim is to move them away from a life of drugs and some of the criminal activity that can sit alongside it.

On Amendment 276, the police should have the powers they need to keep the public safe and combat serious violence while ensuring that these powers are used fairly and within the law. The Government fully support the police in the fair use of stop and search to crack down on violent crime and protect communities. It is only right that these powers are used to stand firm against criminals who break the law.

Every knife taken off our streets is a potential life saved. While I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for his statistics, I will give some of my own. In 2019-20, stop and search removed over 11,000 weapons and firearms from our streets and resulted in over 74,000 arrests. Crime statistics have previously shown that increasing proactive policing such as stop and search is helping the police find more knives and arrest more criminals.

That said, the noble Lord is right to highlight the vital importance of ensuring that officers are using their powers based on intelligence and legitimacy, to ensure that the rights of the individual are upheld. Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives police the powers to stop and search individuals or vehicles, in anticipation of or after an incident of serious violence, to find offensive weapons or dangerous instruments. They do not need grounds to suspect that the person or vehicle is carrying these items.

Because of its suspicionless nature, the use of Section 60 must be limited in geographical scope and duration, and must be authorised by an officer of at least the rank of inspector. That is to ensure that these powers are used proportionately and only where necessary. PACE Code A sets out that use of Section 60 should be authorised only where there is a reasonable belief that serious violence may occur, and that this should be based on objective factors and led by intelligence. The authorising officer should communicate this intelligence to officers on the ground. When carrying out searches under a Section 60 authorisation, officers should search only individuals likely to be involved, having regard to the intelligence that led to the Section 60 being authorised.

Section 60 searches make up a tiny proportion of the stops and searches carried out by police officers: in the last year they were just 3% of all searches carried out. Despite its low level of use, the police tell us it is a vital tool to tackle serious violence. These powers can also act as a deterrent to prevent offenders carrying weapons, by increasing the perceived risk of detection.

That is why the Government announced, as part of the beating crime plan in July this year, the relaxation of the five voluntary restrictions on the use of Section 60. This follows a two-year pilot during which we gathered and analysed data from forces and community scrutiny leads on their perception of the changes, which told us that officers felt more confident using Section 60 during the pilot, and that the relaxations better reflected the operational reality of policing and the pressures and conditions officers face on the ground. It also showed that many forces had implemented their own best practices to reassure themselves internally that this power was being used legitimately and with accountability.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, pressed me on this and I will say that there are a number of legal safeguards, including statutory codes of practice and the use of body-worn video, to ensure that officers are accountable during a search, including any conducted under the powers in the Misuse of Drugs Act. We publish extensive data on these powers, which allow police and crime commissioners and others to hold forces to account. HMICFRS also inspects force level disparities and the use of stop and search as part of its regular inspection programme. I assure the Committee that no one should be subject to the use of stop and search powers based on their race or ethnicity, and that safeguards exist to prevent this.

As part of our Section 60 pilot, the Government asked the College of Policing to update its stop and search guidance to ensure fair and proportionate use. The updated guidance was published in July 2020 and provides best-practice examples for forces to use on community engagement and scrutiny. We expect that forces will follow the guidance in their use of the powers. The Government will always give the police the tools they need to tackle serious violence and other crimes, and I do not think it is in the best interests of public safety to repeal these important powers. I hope that, with those words, the noble Lord will be happy to withdraw his amendment.