The arguments for and against blanket stop and search
Proposals permanently water down the reforms made to Section 60 searches seven years ago
Boris Johnson is planning to permanently reverse the limits on police stop-and-search powers imposed by his predecessor Theresa May during her time as home secretary.
The proposals include new unpaid community service schemes for offenders, greater GPS tracking for burglars and a named police officer for residents to contact in every neighbourhood in England and Wales.
But it is the change to stop and search that is “likely to anger campaigners” and “reignite questions about race relations in Britain in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last year”, says Bloomberg.
The changes would permanently relax the conditions of a specific type of stop-and-search power, under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, whereby police can search an individual without reasonable grounds for a limited time in an authorised area where they anticipate violence involving weapons.
While some believe stop and search is acceptable when there are grounds for suspicion, the use of blanket powers under Section 60 has proven particularly controversial.
Here are some of the arguments made on both sides of the debate.
In its Beating Crime Plan, the government argues that stop and search is “one of many vital tools used by the police to tackle serious violence and keep our streets safe”. It claims the powers enabled officers to remove more than 11,000 weapons from the streets and make 74,000 arrests in the last year alone.
“That is why we are making it easier for the police to use stop-and-search powers by permanently relaxing voluntary conditions on Section 60 stop and search, used when the police anticipate serious violence,” it says.
In reality, these conditions have already been “watered down in recent years” as part of a temporary national pilot scheme, says Paul Waugh on HuffPost. The level of authorisation needed to impose Section 60 orders has been reduced, the time period in which the order can take place has been extended and authorising officers only have to anticipate that there “may” be violence rather than “will” be violence.
Johnson now wants to make these reduced checks permanent, which “finally buries” May’s 2014 policy as home secretary to cut the number of stop and searches, says Waugh.
A Home Office spokesperson told him that an assessment of the pilot – which is yet to be published – “gave police officers greater confidence to make use of the power, better reflected the realities and uncertainties officers face on the ground around predicting serious violence, and acted as a deterrent”.
One of the biggest complaints from campaigners about stop and search, particularly the blanket searches under Section 60, is that they “unfairly target minority ethnic groups”, says Bloomberg.
Home Office figures show that, for the year to March 2020, a black person was nine times as likely to be stopped as a white person.
Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns officer at civil rights group Liberty, told Bloomberg that the new rules would “compound discrimination in Britain and divide communities”. She added: “Many communities, particularly communities of colour, experience overbearing and oppressive policing and the package the government has put forward will only worsen this.”
When the pilot was rolled out in 2019, Labour’s Diane Abbott made a similar argument, warning that while “evidence-based stop and search will always be a vital tool in preventing crime”, random stops under Section 60 “have only poisoned police community relations”, reported Police Professional at the time.
Indeed, in February this year Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services called on forces to analyse their data and explain to communities why stop and search disproportionately affects ethnic minorities or “risk losing public trust”.
Others argue that blanket Section 60 powers are simply “ineffective”, says The Independent. It notes that today’s announcement comes “two months after the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA), a network of 160 organisations, launched a super-complaint calling for the power to be repealed”.
The CJA points to government data showing that 99% of searches under Section 60 did not lead to an arrest for weapons in the year ending March 2020. And its own research found that “harmful or ineffective use of stop and search damages trust and confidence and prevents victims and witnesses from cooperating with police”.