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The legend is that Theresa May wants to end stop and search altogether.  It is mistaken: in her own words, “as long as I am Home Secretary, the police will maintain their right to stop and search”.  But she has sought to rein the use of the power in.  The police have signed up to a voluntary code which requires authorisation for the practice at a more senior level than previously, sets out more stringent conditions for it to be used, and requires forces to record the outcome of searches in more detail, including whether the suspect was arrested and charged.  Here is her rationale for the reforms:

“Only about ten per cent of stop and search incidents lead to an arrest. If you’re black you’re six times more likely to be stopped than if you’re white. And according to the Inspectorate of Constabulary, 27 per cent of stops are carried out without the “reasonable grounds for suspicion” required by law. That means more than a quarter of a million stops carried out last year were probably illegal.

This is hugely damaging to public confidence in the police. It’s a dreadful waste of police time…And that is why I’ve always been determined to reform stop and search.

Under Labour – you remember them, the party of equality – stop and search powers were extended and extended. Under the Conservatives, they’ve been cut back. Under Labour, oversight rules and safeguards were downgraded and discarded. Under the Conservatives, they’ve been strengthened. And the result is less and better-targeted stop and search.

At its peak under Labour, there were more than 1.5 million stop and search incidents per year across the country. We have reduced that by a third, to one million last year. The result is less injustice, less anger, and more time for the police to catch real criminals.”

She spoke those words in the opening section of her speech to last year’s Conservative Party Conference – an unusual gambit for such an occasion.  Usually, the politician in question seeks a crowd-wowing opening: in this case, May could easily have plumped for terror and security as a topic – and raising, in doing so, her success in deporting Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada.  Instead, she chose a matter about which she has probed evidence, thought hard, and feels strongly.  That she did so says a lot about her character and approach to government.

The case against the Home Secretary’s changes is that stop and search is a vital tool in persistent and prolific offender targeting – crafted to deter and detect criminals.  However, May acknowledges this herself, and it does not follow that because the practice is necessary it is being carried out properly (unless you believe that it’s fine and dandy for over a quarter of stop and searches to take place outside the law).  Furthermore, the disparity in arrest rates suggests that some forces have been using stop and search rather casually.

In 2011, for example, the rate in Kent was 19 per cent.  In Cumbria, it was three per cent – the other end of the scale.  The rate in London, where most stop and searches take place, was in between: eight per cent.  It is worth following the story in the capital.  The police guidance for stop and search was changed and a target set: that 20 per cent of stop and searches in London should result in an arrest or drugs warning.  The number of stop and searches then fell from 500,000 to 350,000 – but the arrest rate rose to 18 per cent.

The most simple explanation of these figures is that the Met is targeting the people who should be arrested, thus using their time more efficiently and improving confidence in stop and search.  The Home Secretary wants further improvements nationwide: ‘if the use of these powers does not become more targeted, and stop-to-arrests ratios do not improve, then a Conservative Government will not hesitate to bring in primary legislation to make it happen’, she told a conference recently.  The reason it hasn’t been introduced already is that Downing Street blocked it.

Number Ten may have been right to stress the necessity of the practice – one which May does not dispute, as we have seen – and to opt for a voluntary rather than a statutory route.  However, she is  clearly right to seek to ensure that it is better targeted.  Her reforms will do the Conservative drive for ethnic minority votes no harm at all (and there seem to be signs that it is starting to pay off).  But the best reason for them is that they are right in themselves, and now part of the legacy that this Government will hand on to its successor.


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