is Deputy Director of Big Brother Watch. Follow Emma on Twitter.
Over the last few decades a worrying trend has emerged
in Parliament: knee-jerk reactions to a problem, followed by ill thought-out
legislation which is open to abuse and overzealous use by public officials.
Big Brother Watch has long warned against the risk
of police powers being used far beyond how Parliament intended, and in
situations where there is no real cause for suspicion. Stop and search powers
have been one of the starkest examples of how things can get out of control.
Under the last Government, stop and search
spiralled out of control, with hundreds of thousands of innocent people stopped
and searched without any good reason. The Home Secretary should be applauded
for reining in the use of these powers to both respect people’s liberties and
ensure the police focus their resources on where there is suspicion of
The fact that just nine per cent of stop and
searches lead to an arrest clearly demonstrates that the system is not working.
It has caused immense harm to the relationship between black and ethnic
minority communities and the police.
The official statistics show that if you are from a
black or ethnic minority background, you are seven times more likely to be
stopped and searched by the police than if you are white. As Theresa May said
yesterday, we shouldn't rush to conclusions about what these statistics mean,
but “everybody involved in policing has a duty to make sure that nobody is ever
stopped on the basis of their skin colour of ethnicity.”
It is, of course, not just ethnic minorities who
have felt the full force of stop and search, there was public outrage after it
came to light that between 2007-2009 450,000 people were stopped and
searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act; none were convicted or
Despite this, there will still be people who argue
that a reduction in stop and searches will have a detrimental effect on
tackling serious crime and terrorism related offences. But this has been
disproven in practice by a pilot scheme, undertaken by five police forces
including by the
Metropolitan police, which saw a more “intelligence led” approach to stop
and search. It resulted in an increase in the rate of detections and arrests,
alongside a reduction, of up to half, in the number of stop and search
If public confidence in the police is to be
maintained, these sorts of powers must be used in a far more targeted way – and
the pilot schemes already undertaken demonstrate that this is possible without
jeopardising public safety. The Home Secretary’s statement yesterday was an
important step towards ensuring the public, particularly people from ethnic
minorities, can walk the streets without fearing they will be subject to
further unjustified use of stop and search powers.