This week's article for The Daily Telegraph: Theresa May is right to review stop and search
In the aftermath of the 2011 riots, I was inundated with letters and emails from constituents expressing both their anger at what a few hundred people had done to their town but also very clear views about why it had happened and what government needed to do to make sure it didn’t happen again. I tried to speak for those people when Parliament was recalled a few days later.
But I was very conscious that nearly all of the people who contacted me were my age or older, so I spent much of my time over the following months visiting schools, colleges and youth groups across Croydon to try to find out what younger people thought. For the most part, their view of what had caused the riots was almost identical to that of older generations – people growing up in unstable or even dangerous homes; a materialistic culture coupled with a feeling among many young people that they had little chance of succeeding; and the perception, based on what people saw on TV, that the police were over-stretched and therefore people were getting away with it. But there was one big difference and that was their attitude to the police. My older constituents were critical of the police for not being tougher with the rioters when the trouble started, but supportive of them as an institution. Many young people, particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds, were openly hostile to the police and cited a desire to get back at them as one of the causes of the riots.
The most common reason they gave for this hostility was stop and search. Many said they were stopped nearly every time they went in to Croydon and felt they were targeted simply because of the colour of their skin. They also objected to the way searches were carried out - they said the police didn’t treat them with any respect.
Even if their perception were wrong, it would need to be addressed. Policing in this country is by consent – in other words, it relies on the support of the public. If young black men and women don’t believe that the police are on their side, if they’re not willing to go to them when they are in trouble or have information about a crime that has been committed, it makes it much harder for the police to do their job.
But in fact there’s evidence that their perception is at least partly justified. If you’re black, you are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than if you’re white. Seven times more likely. Now that might be acceptable if the people who are being stopped and searched are in the main suspects the police are looking for or people who are found to be committing an offence. But of the just under 1.2 million stop and search incidents last year, just 9 per cent led to an arrest.
I’m therefore delighted that the Home Secretary yesterday announced a consultation on stop and search. It’s the right thing to do in public policy terms and it’s also right politically. In the past, the Conservative Party hasn’t paid sufficient attention to the concerns of London’s black and minority ethnic communities about how they are policed - the failure of the last Conservative Government to order a public inquiry into the police investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence being a case in point. Yesterday, Theresa May showed that today’s Conservative Party does understand and indeed share those concerns, that we are a party for people from all backgrounds who share a belief in personal responsibility, reward for hard work, family and fairness.
To be fair, many in the Metropolitan Police understand that this issue needs to be addressed. I spent a week shadowing officers in Croydon and it opened my eyes to the hugely demanding job they have to do. The people they stopped during that week were all suspects they were looking for and the searches were conducted with respect. The new Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, is making changes across the force and in the last year the number of stop and search incidents has reduced by 30 per cent while the proportion that lead to an arrest or drugs warning has increased to over 18 per cent.
Stop and search is a vital tool to help keep people safe, young people in particular. In the last year, its use by the Met has led to the arrest of 45,000 criminals, including 3,212 people who were carrying weapons. But it must be done with respect, it must be intelligence led and it must command the support of London’s diverse communities.
This article first appeared on The Daily Telegraph website on 3 July 2013