Controversial stop and search changes passed

Posted by Vicki 04 February 2011 : criminal justice ,

Controversial changes to stop and search powers were passed in parliament yesterday, despite campaigns from race equality and human rights organisations. The changes include a substantial reduction of the information recorded on stop and search forms, which will now make it impossible to measure repeat stops and harassment; the effectiveness of a stop and search; and any misuse of force. In addition, police will no long be required to record the use of “stop and account”, which will make it impossible to determine if stop powers are being used proportionately and remove local community scrutiny of stop practices.

These changes were introduced as amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) Code of Practice A, and were passed in parliament as a statutory instrument yesterday by a House of Commons legislation committee. A number of concerns were raised in the committee, particularly by Labour MPs David Lammy and Vernon Coaker.

Lammy in particular criticized the government for not widely consulting with Black and minority ethnic communities – who are more likely to be stopped and searched – before introducing the changes, particularly given the social unrest historically associated with disproportionate use of stop and search. In response, Policing Minister Nick Herbert MP stated that he now recognizes this concern, adding that the need for wider consultation has been taken as “lesson learnt for the future”.

Lammy added that whilst he understands the government’s desire to reduce the amount of bureaucracy faced by the police, he firmly stated that this must not come at the cost of good community relations.

Most strikingly, Lammy stated that he has “grave reservations” about the changes, suggesting that he believes this will lead more unrest in the future. Urging the Minister to keep the changes under review, he added he expects the topic will be returned to in the future. 

Citing figures that Black people are 7 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched, Shadow Policing Minister Vernon Coaker suggested that the changes to stop and search may worsen disproportionality, and also drew attention to the even greater ethnic disproportionalities under the use of Section 60 (a stop and search power used where there is a threat of serious violence that does not require reasonable suspicion). He also drew attention to comments made by Home Office Minister Baroness Neville-Jones that “if it is demonstrated that the changes are not helpful, it will be right and proper to think again”, and asked Nick Herbert whether the powers will therefore be kept under review.

Responding to these and other concerns, Nick Herbert reiterated the argument he has made in the past regarding the amount of time that will be saved, and also added that he believes policing has “moved on” since the Macpherson Report largely due the presence of community officers “embedded” in the local community. He did however recognize that disproportionality needs to be reduced, and added that the government is committed to ensuring ethnic minorities have confidence in the police. He also suggested that the changes will be kept under review, but added that he would not be able to commit to a formal review timetable.