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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:36 am on 23rd May 2018.

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Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security) 10:36 am, 23rd May 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank Naz Shah for bringing this debate before us and for her contribution. Stop-and-search is a vital policing tool, and I welcome the fact that everyone who has spoken in this debate has recognised that it has a place in policing. I believe, however, that if that power is misused, it is counterproductive, has a negative impact on police-community relations, and is a waste of police time.

I patrolled some of the most hostile community areas in my early life. I patrolled the Turf Lodge in west Belfast, Northern Ireland and carried out stop-and-search there. At the time, that community was far more hostile than any on the mainland of the United Kingdom. I was also an intelligence officer two years later.

The nub of the issue is that stop-and-search is a tool that is often tactical rather than strategic. As the Minister responsible for security in the United Kingdom, I have the strategic responsibility of trying to keep people safe. That is what I am here to do. I will empower our police, intelligence services and communities to use whatever tools they can to do that. Sometimes we have to balance tactical and strategic needs.

I agree with Opposition Members that what really stops crime is gathering good intelligence, when communities speak to police and community representatives and tell them, as they would say in Lancashire, who’s a wrong’un. As a Lancashire MP stuck between two Yorkshire MPs from either side of the House, I felt in a somewhat difficult position in this debate. What stops crime in the long term is when the community is on the side of the police and gives them information. That can be casual information or well sourced information, and it could come from police working hand in hand with community groups to deliver the knowledge needed to use targeted searches. Sometimes that will mean doing less stop-and-search, if it means that there is a longer-term investment in communities to ensure a better flow of intelligence.

We should be slightly cautious about that, because every community is different. I joke about west Yorkshire, but it is different from Lancashire. Our communities behave differently and our ethnic communities often behave differently among themselves, so we have to be acutely aware of individual sensitivities at a local policing level. In my view, one of the most important decisions a chief constable can make is the right appointment of the chief superintendents in the divisions that they police, because the at that rank of the police force people hold in their hands the relations with the community. If they get it right there is a massive decline in crime, but there can sometimes be a rise just across divisional borders when they get it wrong.

After being spat at, abused or petrol-bombed, or after one of my soldiers had been murdered, it used to be tempting for me to walk down the street in west Belfast and abuse back. That would be tempting and understandable for any human being who had seen people killed who they owed a duty of care to, who they valued and, sometimes, who they loved. But it does not fix the problem in the long run. In the long run, the problem is solved when the community realises that the police are its help and saviour, not its enemy. That is why we have to get the balance right on stop-and-search, and why the Government started that process by introducing a reform package in 2014.

I make the point to the Opposition that if we are to be less tactical and more intelligence-led, it is important to give our police and intelligence services the power to gather that intelligence. It is no good saying on the one hand that we want less indiscriminate or blanket targeting, but on the other that we oppose Prevent or some of the investigatory powers measures that allow us to gather that intelligence, to be more targeted at people committing or planning wrongdoing and to ensure that we can leave the population alone to live their lives free of interference. That is an important point.

Good intelligence gathering and good intelligence measures and powers are how we can allow our police to leave people alone to carry on their daily business freely, and how we can ensure that we do not end up with such a disparity that we get into the circular debate that I have heard today about whether we go after more people from certain groups because those groups commit more crimes, or vice versa. I urge the Opposition to reflect on that in discussions about Prevent and other issues.