This week's General Committee debates

Week commencing Monday 02 February 2015

Version: Uncorrected

Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 4 February 2015

[John Robertson in the Chair]

Draft Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Codes of Practice) (Revision of Code A) Order 2015

8.55 am

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Codes of Practice) (Revision of Code A) Order 2015.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. This important statutory instrument is to do with the public’s trust in the police and giving the police the power they need to do their job. The order brings into effect the revised code of practice A issued under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, known as PACE. It is laid under section 67(7) of PACE and governs police use of stop-and-search powers. It sets out what those powers are, the preconditions of their use and how they should be exercised.

On 30 April last year, the Home Secretary announced to Parliament a comprehensive package of measures to reform the use of stop-and-search. The principal aim of those reforms is to ensure that the police use their powers effectively, fairly and in a way that promotes community confidence. I am sure we would all agree that the police need to have the confidence of the public, and I think the changes will help that.

There was an overwhelming response of evidence to the review. The Home Office carried out an extensive public consultation on the powers, which attracted more than 5,000 responses. It presented a clear case for reform of how stop-and-search operates. Additionally, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary published a report in which inspectors reviewed the stop-and-search powers in the 43 forces that come under my jurisdiction as the Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims Minister. The findings of that report were very concerning, showing that more than 250,000 stop-and-searches carried out under the Act last year were technically illegal.

The Government committed to revising the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to make it clear to all officers what constitutes “reasonable grounds for suspicion”, which is what they need to stop and search. The legal basis upon which officers carry out the majority of stop-and-searches needs to be made clear. For that reason, the Government have made it clear that, under the revised code, officers who are not using their powers properly will be subject to formal performance or disciplinary action. That is the least the public would expect.

The proposed changes in the code do not alter the nature of stop-and-search powers. The intention of revised code A is to provide a clear direction to police leaders, trainers, supervisors and the officers who are exercising these powers. This important piece of legislation is needed to keep public confidence in stop-and-search powers. Our police need those powers, but they need to use them correctly. I hope the Committee agrees.

8.58 am

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I start by saying that stop-and-search is a very important weapon in the hands of the police when properly used to combat crime.

I would like to tell a story from my constituency. Before Christmas, a wonderful young man—a star footballer of the future—from an African background came into my constituency surgery together with his mother. He said that he felt ashamed telling it, but he told a story about how he and his mum had gone out shopping together. They were on the same side of the street. He crossed the road to go to another shop. He was then stopped. He asked, “Why am I being searched?” but was then searched. His mum, who was on the other side of the road, became very upset, as did he. When they sat down in front of me and told this story, he said, “I felt humiliated. I’ve never been in trouble in my life. I’ve actually helped the police on two occasions when I saw things that I thought were wrong and reported them. Why did they choose me?” There were no grounds whatever for that search, and it was wrong for him to be humiliated in the streets of Birmingham in that way.

These steps on behalf of the Government are long overdue. We have been calling for reform of the stop-and-search system for years and it is welcome that steps are now being taken.

The Minister was right to paint the background and I will do the same very briefly. The Equality and Human Rights Commission report for 2011-12 on disproportionate stops-and-searches gave an insight into the statistics. Particularly concerning was evidence that showed, first, that across the country there were more than 1 million stops-and-searches over the year and only 100,000 justified an arrest. In London alone there were 260,000 stops-and-searches that did not find any justification for arrest. There is a wide variation in the level of use of stop-and-search and the percentage of cases that result in arrest.

Secondly, 27% of the 8,783 stop-and-search records reviewed by HMIC between October 2012 and April 2013 did not even include sufficient grounds to justify the lawful use of the power. Thirdly, the number of arrests following a stop and search has gone down by around two percentage points over the past five years to 9%, suggesting that the powers are being used in an even less targeted way than before.

Fourthly, and shamefully, young people in ethnic minority communities are seven times more likely to be stopped. Fifthly, the evidence is that people who are unhappy with stop-and-search encounters, in particular young people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, have the least confidence in both the police and the police complaints system. Bad experiences of stop-and-search are likely to feed back into negative perceptions and resentment of police and policing. Such resentments create barriers between communities and the police, particularly in the ethnic minority communities that are most affected.

It is of the highest importance that the police have the confidence of the communities that they serve not only in diverting and preventing crime but, crucially, in identifying wrongdoers. If people are treated with respect, they are more likely to co-operate with the police in the lawful discharge of their functions.

The Opposition supported moves by the Home Secretary to overhaul the current system of stop-and-search. With regard to progress, we welcome the clarification of “reasonable grounds” for stop-and-search; the fact that where officers are not using their powers properly, they will be subject to formal performance or disciplinary proceedings; and the reference to the safeguarding of children according to the Children Act 2004.

However, we do not believe the proposals go far enough, and it is regrettable that disagreements between the Home Secretary and No. 10 have got in the way of making progress as quickly as it should be made. It is fair to say that the Home Secretary has wanted to change the law. She has said that repeatedly, including on the Floor of the House of Commons, but her advisers said that “regressive attitudes” in No. 10 were stopping the Home Office from making progress.

That is to be regretted because, in the meantime, with experiences such as I have described of the fine young African man in my constituency, too many people have suffered in a way they should not.

Today we jointly send a strong message that in future, the powers of stop-and-search should be used properly. We need to send an unmistakeable message that stopping anyone on the basis of the colour of their skin is illegal, discriminatory and shameful. That is why we think sensible reform is crucial for good policing, tackling discrimination and building confidence. We hope that further progress can be made at the next stage: banning the practice of giving officers targets for stop-and-search in some areas; restricting the use of section 60 searches, which do not require any grounds for suspicion, to ensure that they are not used for dealing with routine crime problems; and requiring a more senior level of authorisation. [Interruption.]

The Chair:

Order. If hon. Gentlemen want to have a private conversation, can you go outside?

We also hope to put the guidance on race discrimination on a statutory basis. The proposals we have made are not reflected in today’s SI. For too long, too many have been stopped in the streets of our country—often poisoning relationships—who should never have been stopped. For too long, there were too many practices on the part of some police officers that damaged relationships with the communities they serve. Yesterday, I met a group of police officers—fine men and women—who said they had learnt lessons from the bad practices of the past, and they themselves were champions of change for the future. For too long, because the Government were divided, earlier progress was not made. However, some welcome progress has now been made. It is reflected in this statutory instrument and we will therefore support it.

9.6 am

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I will not detain the Committee and will not tax my voice, given the man flu with which I am afflicted. There are two issues that concern me and on which I would like the Minister to touch when he closes this important debate, if he does not want me to divide the Committee and if he wants my support for the motion before us.

These changes are no doubt very good things in and of themselves, but part of the problem that appears to have led to the findings of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on unlawful searches previously conducted by the police seems to be a lack of training on the part of those charged with stopping and searching people. It is all very well changing the codes of practice, but the police are overtaxed already. Can the Minister for Policing confirm that proper training will be available for those obliged to exercise such powers under the revised code, so that we do not see what we have seen in the past, which is unlawful stops-and-searches of the kind to which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington referred?

The second point—which, I have to tell the Minister, troubles me—is this. The papers available for the Committee before today—for those of us who actually bothered to collect them—included the constitution of the Committee, the statutory instrument itself and an explanatory note, but not the code of practice with its revisions. Indeed, paragraph 8.3 of the explanatory note, which was prepared by the Department in which the Minister sits, simply refers those of us who actually want to look at the code of practice to the gov.uk website. With the greatest of respect to the Minister and those who advise him, it is a vast website, containing many millions of documents, and I have no idea where I should go, even as I have been sitting here trying to find out what these changes are.

Paragraph 8.3 of the notes says that some of the changes relate merely to headings—those are no doubt completely unobjectionable—but it goes on:

“Other changes have been made in the interests of clarity, legal accuracy and to reflect current practice. As a result of the consultation, some provisions have been substantially extended and a number of new provisions have been added. For full details…see the Government’s response to the consultation at www.gov.uk.”

I have to tell my right hon. Friend that I am not entirely sure that it is a satisfactory way of proceeding simply to tell the Committee in the explanatory notes that there are substantial changes, not to identify what those changes are and not to put before the Committee today a copy of the revised code. I am inclined to support the Minister, not least because the Opposition do and they have no doubt reviewed the provisions carefully. However, I would like to know a little more about what the substantial changes are and how they will deal with the underlying problem, which is the fact that, as identified by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, for far too long in this country there have been a number of unlawful stops-and-searches.

I am glad that the hon. and learned Gentleman shares my concerns. Before becoming an MP one of my jobs was teaching PACE to police officers; one of the most bedevilled questions was always whether reasonable suspicion was subjective or objective and the way that was assessed. I was trying to work out whether that had been clarified further. When the Minister sums up and answers the hon. and learned Gentleman’s questions, I will be looking for clarification as to how that dilemma has been resolved.

I cannot do better than to echo what the hon. Lady has said. In the absence of a copy of them—I have to say that I find it extraordinary that the Department has not given us hard copies—the Committee is entitled to hear the Minister say a little more about any substantial changes. For the future, I must say to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, who whips for the Government, that it is not satisfactory to turn up to a Statutory Instrument Committee, where the House is supposed to be doing its job of properly scrutinising an order, without producing the thing to which we are actually giving effect—if indeed the motion before the Committee is passed.

9.11 am

Following that excellent contribution from my hon. and learned Friend I want to ask the Minister to address one further point in his summing up. I have a small amount of experience in this area, as before becoming an MP I worked with a number of police forces to try to improve their operational efficiency and effectiveness, and went out on the beat with them to see some of the challenges they face.

I will bring a real life example to the Committee’s attention regarding stop-and- search. One police force with which I was working was having a problem with two Somali gangs that were literally warring in a number of streets, using knives and guns. In operational terms the police had decided that the best way to deal with those warring gangs was to do lots of intrusive stops-and-searches on suspects to try to stop such clearly unacceptable behaviour.

I am sure that every sensibly minded person would agree that the gangs’ actions constituted reasonable grounds for suspicion, as per paragraph 12.1 of the explanatory memorandum, and that the police’s response was a sensible use of police time that had been decided upon on the grounds of operational efficiency and protecting the public. However, I spoke to the police officers conducting that operation, and they were terrified that when the statistics came out for their police force for that month they would show a disproportionate number of male Somali youths being stopped and searched. The officers were incredibly worried about how that would look for their statistics as a force. That links to the problems in the S.I. concerning bias in decisions; would that policy constitute unconscious or, indeed, conscious bias in the force’s decisions?

Will the Minister deal with that point in his remarks? We cannot have policing to politically correct statistics. We have to have effective policing for public safety, which may mean that the statistics for a certain force in a certain month look as though they are biased in a certain direction.

May I distinguish between that situation, in which there is evidence of serious wrongdoing on the part of Somali gangs, and other situations, and ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect upon and perhaps withdraw his remarks about not being politically correct over stop-and-search? It cannot be right, can it, that if someone has a black face they are seven times more likely to be searched?

The hon. Gentleman raises the point that I am trying to make. We cannot have policing based on what looks statistically reasonable to a lay member of the public. Policing must be based on what is going to ensure public safety. My argument is that if, in the example of the particular force that I have given to the Committee, it is decided, in an operationally independent decision, that it is best for public safety—for the people who are walking down those streets where two Somali gangs are fighting—to have lots of stops-and-searches of Somali youths, that is the right way to police even though the statistics may not look like what the hon. Gentleman wishes to see. It is important that the Minister addresses that point, because we must give the police freedom to conduct operations in a way that they feel is operationally effective, not in pursuit of statistics for the Home Office.

I would have thought that if two Somali gangs are fighting, the police have every reason to stop them, arrest them and everything else. That does not mean, however, that any Somali person should be stopped because they are of that ethnic origin. That is the fundamental problem.

I agree with the right hon. Lady. The point I am drawing the Committee’s and the Minister’s attention to is this: should we not be worried as MPs that the police are considering the statistics when they are carrying out the actions she describes? It worries me that they should even consider that if they are doing what is in the public good. I have made my point and perhaps the Minister will address it.

9.16 am

Some important points were raised and I will touch on some of them. On the remarks my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase made finally, I think I know what he was saying, but perhaps it would be good if I went to visit some of the police who have such concerns, because that is not right.

We have used the example of Somali gang culture, but, no matter what gang culture is out there, I would hope that the police would use stop-and-search because of reasonable suspicion in that area. I do not care what race, colour or religion people are. If they are likely to have broken the law, which is what reasonable suspicion allows for, the use of that power is right.

One of the things that came out clearly from the inspector’s report has concerned not just this Government but previous Administrations. I fully respect the shadow Minister for saying that we have not gone far enough, but, with all due respect, Labour had plenty of time to do things previously. This measure must be looked at as a package of reforms. What we should be looking at is whether the police are using the right powers in the right way to stop the right people. That is what the codes are about.

On training, the new police college is fully engaged. I was at Hendon only on Thursday, where wonderful, new, keen recruits passed out on Friday—I think 300-plus were going into the Met, which we all welcome. That will bring the Met close to 32,000, the highest figure we have ever seen in London.

I put my hand up and take responsibility as a Minister: I did not realise that the documents were available only on the website. The Whips and I will talk afterwards to ensure that the business managers ensure that such documents are available in future. Some of us are better at googling than others, but that should not be necessary. However, we went through extensive consultation, with 5,000 responses, and the measures were laid in the House on 5 December. I accept and respect that Back Benchers—I may well be one again quite soon—want to have as much information before them as possible when on a Committee. I knew that I was coming here, but many hon. Members probably got the note late to say that they were on the Committee. It would be respectful to members of Committees to provide them with more information before sittings going forward.

It is so important that we give the police the powers they so desperately need—it is important that we get it right, that we get the training right, that the people who are training the police get it right, and that their supervisors get it right. The shadow Minister alluded to targets, but there are no targets from the Home Office and quite rightly so. We are trying to make our streets safer for the communities that we represent. The statutory instrument before the Committee will help the police in that struggle to ensure that we are safe in our homes. I hope the Committee agrees to it.

Question put and agreed to.

9.19 am

Committee rose.

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