BAME Communities: Stop and Search — [Albert Owen in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 23rd May 2018.

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Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Labour, Bradford West 9:30 am, 23rd May 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the effect of police stop and search powers on BAME communities.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. Stop-and-search is often referred to as the litmus test of police-community relations, and it is one of the first encounters that young people from ethnic minority backgrounds have with the police. Those early interactions can shape how young people view the police for the rest of their lives, especially when they, their family or their friends are searched repeatedly. Members from all parties will undoubtedly have heard accounts from their constituents of deeply negative experiences of stop- and-searches and other types of police-initiated stops, such as detentions at ports and airports under counter-terrorism legislation, and stops under road and traffic legislation.

Unfortunately, we have debated stop-and-search time and again due to the way that it has been misused since the 1960s. Recently, the Government initiated a series of reforms backed by cross-party consensus, which I will refer to. However, numerous inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary—in 2013, 2015 and 2016—found that many chief officers are frustrating that process because they are

“failing to understand the impact of stop and search” on people’s lives. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government seek to carry on reforming these powers and prevent the backsliding that we have seen in the last couple of years.

I stress that stop-and-search can be a useful tool to detect crime, but only when it is used in a very targeted way. Claims are often made about how useful stop-and-search is, but they are not backed by scientific research and, in fact, often contradict the evidence base. Stop-and-search is neither the solution to crime problems nor a substitute for intelligence from good relationships with communities. Evidence shows that stop-and-search is a blunt tool for the prevention and detection of crime, and has a profoundly negative impact on police-community relations.

Home Office research in 2000 showed that stop-and-search had only a marginal role in combating crime, because its use was not linked to patterns of crime, and that searches for drugs were fuelling unproductive searches of ethnic minorities, particularly young black men. Ten years later, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reached the same conclusion. Threatening legal action against the five forces that it felt had the worst ethnic disproportionality at the time, it managed to reduce their volume of searches and that disproportionality—importantly, without reversing the long-term fall in crime. Last year, the College of Policing published analysis on the effect of stop-and-search on various crimes. It, too, found that stop-and-search had a weak role in reducing only certain types of crime, while having no measurable impact on most others.

Those studies show just how ineffective stop-and-search is as a general tactic. Even within a similar family of forces, stop-and-search use, outcomes and ethnic disproportionality differ so drastically that, as some of the research concludes, they are determined more by the culture set by chief officers than by local crime trends.

On the ground, the ease with which police officers can use their discretionary powers, together with their widely divergent views about what constitutes reasonable suspicion, mean that stop-and-search has become the go-to power for social control, and one that is influenced by unconscious biases or outright racial prejudices. For example, “smell of cannabis” and “fits a suspect description” are routinely used to justify searching people of colour. There are, of course, other powers that do not even require reasonable suspicion. Members will not be surprised to hear that those produce even worse ethnic disproportionality.

Given the national debate about the apparent increase in knife and violent crime, what are the Government doing to resist the urge to increase stop-and-searches in the false view that that will solve the problem? When the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, she rightly called that

“a knee-jerk reaction on the back of a false link.”

In fact, the police’s own data show that most searches are for drugs, rather than knives, guns or other weapons, and that the proportion of searches for drugs is actually increasing. For most forces, that figure is consistently more than 50%, and in a number of cases it is even above 70%. Will the Minister outline what the Government are doing to ensure that stop-and-search is actually targeted at violent crime?

Ironically, that increase has occurred at a time when police forces have signed up to the Best Use of Stop and Search scheme, the main purpose of which is to increase trust and confidence in policing by addressing the disproportionate impact of stop-and-search on ethnic minorities and by giving communities a stronger role in scrutinising those powers. Although that has delivered a welcome 44% reduction in the use of stop-and-search and has improved detection rates, if we probe behind the headlines we find that little else has changed.

After initially declining, disproportionality has shot to new heights in the past two years. Estimates for last year show that black people were searched at more than eight times the rate of white people, and people from mixed, Asian and other ethnic backgrounds were searched at around double the rate. Under the “suspicionless” powers in section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, black people were searched at 14 times the rate of whites, mixed people were searched at twice the rate, and people from Asian or other backgrounds were searched at a slightly higher rate than whites.

Clearly, the benefits of scaling back excess searches of people who would not otherwise have been searched have not filtered through to ethnic minority groups. As with the Government reforms following the Brixton riots in the 1980s and the Macpherson report on the mishandling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, we are at risk of giving up too soon and allowing stop-and-search to regress to unacceptably high levels of disproportionality and grief.

In her final months as Home Secretary, the Prime Minister argued that

“there is still a long way to go.”

That is partly because numerous HMIC inspections have shown that most chief officers are failing to show leadership in addressing stop-and-search. At one point, the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, declared:

“The Conservatives have become the party of equality.”

So can the Minister explain why the current Prime Minister has allowed disproportionality to increase and reform to grind to a halt under her premiership?

Communities have been left wondering whether the Government remain committed to reform of stop-and-search, particularly because the previous Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, did not give it the attention it deserves, despite it having been so central to her predecessor’s race equality agenda. The Prime Minister has also failed to live up to her promises to introduce monitoring of traffic stops and remove individual officers’ ability to use stop-and-search where they are found to be routinely misusing it. Will the Minister affirm that the Government are still committed to those proposals and say when we are likely to see them?

The powerlessness of ethnic minority communities to scrutinise and shape police policies and practice is a crucial issue that remains unaddressed. The true test of a democracy is the way it treats its vulnerable and minority groups.