PACE (Stop and Search)

Nick responds to a Commons debate on police stop and search powers

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing the debate and on raising the issues in such a forceful way? Such matters continue to generate a significant amount of public interest and highlight some of the concerns about front-line policing that we are keen to address.

We are keen to ensure that officers strike the right balance between necessary bureaucracy for the sake of accountability - which is important - and irrelevant form filling that wastes the time of the police and the public, and impacts unduly on citizens going about their business by asking unnecessary questions.

It is important to understand how policing, and the bureaucracy that surrounds it, impacts on community relations. Procedures such as stop and account and stop and search are most effective when local communities understand them and support their use. There is a difference between stop and account and stop and search, and we must be mindful of ensuring that the processes associated with them are not confused. Stop and account is where an individual is asked to account for their presence, actions and so on, but they are not searched. It can be one step on from the general conversations that officers have with members of the public every day. Stop and search clearly goes further than that. It is an intrusive procedure and therefore a cause of more concern among local communities.

Many of the proposed changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of practice A are necessary to reverse the increase in paperwork generated by the last Government. In our judgment, that paperwork hampers police operations and leads to encounters with the public that are ineffective, bureaucratised and poorly understood. We need officers on the street to record only information that is of value, and it may differ from situation to situation and from force to force. I do not want to see in place measures that discourage proper interaction between police officers and members of the public.

Let me explain the rationale behind our stop-and-account proposals. The abolition of the national recording requirement for stop and account will potentially free up around 450,000 hours of police time, allowing officers to increase the quality-and shorten the duration-of these brief encounters, and enabling forces to be more responsive to the communities that they serve.

I share my hon. Friend's concerns about the level of disproportionality in the use of police powers. However, when the statistics for stop and account are examined more closely, it appears that it is not used in a disproportionate manner across England and Wales. It is also fair to say that there is less concern about the operation of stop and account than there is about stop and search. That is why we are removing fully the national requirement for recording stops and accounts, leaving local recording to a local decision where a local need is identified.

Individual police forces know their own communities better than Whitehall. Increasingly, they will be answerable to their local communities, as we have set out today with the introduction of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. Those forces should know the extent to which the operation of stop and account is a matter of particular local concern. They are best placed to analyse their own statistics and understand how they use the tactic and how it impacts on ethnic minority groups locally, and they should be held to account by their elected police and crime commissioners, with the scrutiny of new police and crime panels to ensure the proper use of such procedures.

The Government understand that stop and search is a very different tool and is far more intrusive. It is right that its monitoring and use should continue, both nationally and at a local level. We are reducing the number of pieces of data to be completed on a stop-and-search record from 12 to seven, saving more than 300,000 hours of officers' time every year as well as reducing the duration of these encounters for those stopped and searched.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about some of the pieces of data that will be removed. However, key information about each encounter will still be recorded, including the self-defined ethnicity of the person stopped, which is obviously the critical information, and we have made minor amendments to code A to encourage the further use of mobile technology to reduce even further the time taken to record each stop and search. The 12 recording requirements used during a stop-and-search encounter will be reduced to seven: ethnicity, the object of the search, the grounds for the search, the identity of the officer carrying out the stop and search, the date, the time and the place. Such requirements do not prevent police officers from recording information that they feel would be useful intelligence, but it is not necessary as a Government requirement for such information to be held in a stop-and-search record.

Our amendments to the guidance on the use of section 44 stop-and-search powers follow the Home Secretary's announcement on 8 July, which curtailed the use of this power in the light of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Gillan and Quinton v. United Kingdom. My hon. Friend also raised issues around section 60 stop-and-search powers, both in terms of the guidance supporting officers' use of this power, and the disproportionality figures that have been reported in the press recently.

Let me assure my hon. Friend and all hon. Members that there was never any intention on the part of the Government to encourage the use of ethnic profiling or unlawful discrimination in the use of this power-far from it. The original draft of the guidance contained wording that had been introduced in code A by the previous Government in 2003 in relation to the police's use of section 44 powers. The original draft explained that all authorisations had to be supported by clear intelligence and that, on occasion, intelligence could suggest a possible suspect description that included characteristics such as race, age, sex and so on. However, it also stipulated that race should never be the sole reason for stopping someone under section 60.

The guidance was evidently not clear enough and was misconstrued. We therefore considered the responses to the statutory consultation and have redrafted the relevant paragraphs to include all protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. We have stated clearly that unlawful discrimination will not be tolerated.

I must, however, warn against judging the use of a key tool such as section 60 purely on a national statistic. The figures cited in the press about black people being 26 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched under section 60 are potentially misleading if they are not examined a little more closely. In 2008-09, 76% of all section 60 stops and searches were conducted by the Metropolitan Police Service in London. Therefore, to assess the use of that power against the national population's ethnicity breakdown is deceptive. We need to compare that 76% with the ethnicity of the population of London and the remaining 24% with the rest of the country. When we do that, we find that the use is not so disproportionate.

The power is used to tackle specific issues relating to serious violence and, in particular, knife crime. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is responsible for crime prevention, recently responded to a debate in this Chamber on youth violence and was very clear about how we need to protect our communities against violent crimes.

The use of section 60 as one of the many tools that the Metropolitan police use as part of their continuing action against knife crime receives significant support from communities in London. The Metropolitan police have gone to great lengths since the start of Operation Blunt 2-their programme of action against knife crime-to increase community engagement. An example of that is the young Londoners engagement programme, which explains why the powers are so important and the dangers of carrying knives. The Metropolitan police are in the process of reviewing their operational use of the power, and all boroughs have been reminded that they must be proportionate in their use of section 60.

Neighbourhood policing-such a rare thing at the time of the Macpherson inquiry in the late 1990s-is now embedded throughout the country in such a way as to give the public far greater confidence in the way in which their police service operates. The Government are determined to do everything that they can to ensure that neighbourhood policing is protected, despite the budgetary challenges that confront forces. We are also determined that the British tradition of policing by consent should flourish, and that can happen only if the public understand why the police do what they do and, just as importantly, if the police understand how their actions are perceived by the public.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford referred to the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The commission has praised the "Next Steps" process developed by the National Policing Improvement Agency, which is being used by the police in, for example, Merseyside and Dorset, as well as Lewisham in London. It helps the police to understand the way in which they use stop and search and how the population of an area and the apparent levels of disproportionality might in some circumstances not present a true picture. The early feedback on "Next Steps" is positive, and we hope to be able to expand it to other areas shortly.

I have been impressed by the way in which my hon. Friend has raised these issues. Since the general election, there has not been a great deal of debate in the House about these issues or the changes that we propose to make. There may be debate in relation to the orders that we have laid to change the PACE codes, but I would welcome the opportunity for further discussion with my hon. Friend and other hon. Members. I would be happy to convene a meeting with key representatives of the police, including the deputy commissioner of the police in London if he would be willing, in order to talk about their use of stop and search, why they believe that it is such an important tool in their fight against knife crime, why they believe that it has public consent and how they are alive to the important issues of disproportionality that can be raised.

In summary, stop and search is a vital tool. The challenge for the Government and the police is to ensure that the powers are used fairly and with the support of the community, and it is a challenge that I am confident we will meet.

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1 December 2010


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