‘As long as I’m Home Secretary, police will maintain their right to stop-and-search,’ Theresa May told the House of Commons on Tuesday, writes Mary-Rachel McCabe. But it was time to get it right, she added, as she announced the opening of a six-week public consultation into the way police in England and Wales use the controversial power.
Currently, more than one million stop-and-searches are carried out by the police every year, with people from a black or ethnic minority background up to seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than those from white backgrounds. At a debate earlier this year organised by www.thejusticegap.com on what the law means to young people, one young man in the audience said he had been stopped and searched seven times in one day, and another over 100 times in a year. Lemn Sissay has been stopped and searched by the police more than 50 times between the ages of 20 and 40.
Each of these searches, followed by the paperwork afterwards, is estimated to take an average of 16 minutes. Last year 312,000 hours were consumed in this way, the Home Secretary told MPs on Tuesday, but only nine per cent of stop-and-searches resulted in an arrest. Although a ‘vital police tool’ for crime prevention, May reckons stop-and-search represents a ‘dreadful waste of police time’ if used ‘too much or with the wrong people’. ‘It must be applied fairly and in a way that builds community confidence in the police rather than undermining it,’ she said. ‘Everybody involved in policing has a duty to make sure that nobody is ever stopped just on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity,’ she added.
The consultation – which will look at whether stop-and-search is used appropriately and fairly, and how it can be better targeted and more intelligence-led – has largely been welcomed. ‘After years of bad and counterproductive practice, it’s encouraging that the Home Secretary is waking up to concerns about stop-and-search. Lax powers have failed to increase public safety and only alienated the young,’ said Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights campaign group Liberty. Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch agreed with Chakrabarti, arguing that under the previous Labour government, stop and search ‘spiralled out of control’ and that Theresa May’s statement ‘is an important step towards ensuring the public, particularly people from ethnic minorities, can have confidence that they can walk the streets without fearing they will be subject to further unjustified use of stop-and-search powers.’
Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz, encouraged the Home Secretary to visit communities affected by stop-and-search powers as part of a review of the practice, as he warned Theresa May that the consultation needs to be more than just a ‘paper exercise’. ‘It’s important to hear from the community themselves – not just an online consultation, but actually hearing what people have to say about this practice,’ said Vaz. Fellow Labour MP Diane Abbott also erred on the side of caution in welcoming the Home Secretary’s announcement, as she urged May not only to review the police power, but also training methods for stopping-and-searching, as it is often the way police talk to young people that alienates them most: ‘There is a lot to be done around training – it is an important weapon for police but the proper training should stop it being used as detrimental to community relations,’ said the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.
Even the police themselves welcomed May’s consultation announcement. ‘We agree that changes need to be made to stop and search which do not jeopardise public safety and work fairly in the interest of everyone,’ said national policing lead for stop-and-search, Craig Mackey. Met Commander Adrian Hanstock said ‘As a police force that has always striven continuously to increase public engagement we welcome this chance for increased feedback from the general public.’
Others were less critical of the police’s overuse of stop-and-search, and did not agree that the power needs to be curtailed. Stephen Pollard argued in Wednesday’s Express that stop-and-search is ‘an answer to street crime’, and that police should use it more often. ‘The thugs who think they rule the streets – and in many areas actually do – should not be able to swagger along with impunity,’ he said. He added that crime would be reduced by ‘a stronger police presence’ as it would ‘make life more uncomfortable’ for young people. The Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts was cynical about Theresa May’s motive in announcing the consultation, opining that ‘it was interesting piece of political positioning’, which enabled the Home Secretary to ‘occupy political ground which until now has been regarded as the domain of the Lib Dems and Labour.’ ‘Less stop-and-search? The legal aid lawyers aren’t going to like that!’ he added.
Mary-Rachel McCabe is a pupil barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. She tweets @MaryRachel_McC