Nicola Richards (West Bromwich East) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of Stop and Search in the West Midlands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and to have secured the debate. I begin by referring to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am a board member of West Bromwich town’s business improvement district.
The bottom line for this debate that I want to highlight is: stop and search saves lives. It is one of the most effective methods police officers have to take dangerous weapons and drugs off our streets quickly, as I have witnessed in my constituency. At its core, stop and search is about pre-empting dangerous situations before they happen. It also acts as a deterrent to violent individuals, if they know that the police are willing to use the powers effectively. Not only does stop and search protect members of the public, it also saves some perpetrators, who might be vulnerable adults and children, from becoming further involved in crime and illicit activities, perhaps giving them the chance to change their path, once they face up to the consequences of their actions.
I felt compelled to apply for this debate after reading the comments of the West Midlands police and crime commissioner about stop and search in the Express & Star on 2 November. That came out of the recently published new crime plan for 2021 to 2025, in which he stated that
“if searches are only leading to an action in about a quarter of cases, then it is legitimate to ask if the ‘reasonable grounds’ threshold for a lawful search has been met in connection with many of the searches that take place.”
That concerns me, because not only can little be taken away from those metrics, but officers going about their job to protect our communities are undermined and the zero-tolerance messaging that we should be seeing is compromised. Let me explain why I feel that the police and crime commissioner’s comments on the ratio of positive searches are not proportionate.
Were the police to pull over a car of four people because of suspicious activity, and found either drugs or a weapon on just one occupant of the car, that is treated as a 25% positive outcome of the overall search under the official police definition, as four people were searched in total. If a weapon were found or recovered after the event took place, that would not be recorded as a positive outcome at all, even if police suspicions were right.
That shows that none of the data can be taken at face value, but must always be viewed with nuance and context. If the police and crime commissioner bases his measure of success solely on positive search rates, he will in effect be limiting the use of stop and search artificially to create more positive searches from a pool of fewer overall searches. The statistics do not back up that approach, and I am concerned that the policy will lead to more knives and drugs on our streets, unchecked.
I believe that there is a positive story to tell about stop and search in Sandwell in particular, where police officers use the powers well: 751 searches were conducted in July to September this year, with a 29.8% rate of positive outcomes over the past six months. In Sandwell, officers use body cameras to capture footage of searches; they have taken time to invest in training to fill in any knowledge gaps; and they use the acronym GOWISELY when conducting all searches to ensure that they act appropriately and proportionately.
I will explain what GOWISELY stands for. This is what is to be said as the stop and search takes place: grounds, a clear example of the reasons for the search; object, what the officer is looking for; warrant, production of a warrant card if officers are plain-clothed; identity, the name and collar number of the officer; station, the police station where they are based; entitlement, the person must be informed they are entitled to a copy of the record; legal, stating the legislation that permits the search to take place; and you, the officers must explain to someone that they are being detained for the purpose of the search.
Like all other communities, we have a local stop-and-search scrutiny panel that aims to ensure that stop and search is being used fairly and effectively, and GOWISELY is also in place. In these scrutiny panels, randomly selected body footage is shown to the committee, which includes members of the public among others, and the chair of the panel is always a member of the public. The community hold the police to account, which is how it should be. Sandwell has one of the most rigorous scrutiny committee panels in the region, which even offers advice on best practice to neighbouring panels. Any learnings or concerns are fed back to officers directly.
However, I know that some panels struggle with retention of members and some were not particularly well established before the pandemic, which has caused difficulties. We therefore need to invest in and expand such schemes truly to get the most out of such vital resources. That is an idea I hope the police and crime commissioner will take up, using Sandwell as an example for other areas.
To add a further layer of best-practice sharing and scrutiny to this process, each committee chair attends a meeting twice a year at the Stop-and-search Commission, where they share best practice and consider wider issues across the force. Scrutiny panels also provide career opportunities for members of the public to get involved in some really positive community work. If a young person has chaired or been otherwise involved in one of these panels, what a fantastic thing for them to have on their CV. Indeed, local police inform me that one former chair of a local scrutiny committee has gone on to become a special police officer himself, because he was so inspired by the work the committee did. That is the kind of story we want to hear. In fact, I have accepted an invitation to sit on one of the local panels in Sandwell next year, to observe what such panels do.
One thing remains true in all of this—proportionality is clearly based on consensus, with both the public and the police being confident about the methods and means being used. Indeed, complaints against police officers in Sandwell over stop and search are few and far between, which is really good to see. It shows that the proportionality is there, that police feel confident about using these powers, and that the body camera footage boosts faith in the police and gives our communities protection, as it will evidence the fairness and the proportionality of any search.
However, in the police and crime commissioner’s crime plan, the PCC cites complaints about stop and search as something to be improved. Of course complaints need to be heard and responded to, and lessons learned, but I am not confident that the life-saving nature of stop and search is fully appreciated in the west midlands, and that could lead to worse outcomes for local people.
It is such outcomes that worry my constituents deeply. Despite the fact that crime has been falling across most of the country over the last year, in the west midlands we have seen a huge increase in overall crime, and crime is an issue that floods the inboxes of most west midlands MPs on most days. Our constituents are worried, and rightly so.
I cannot stress enough the importance of backing our police officers and giving them the confidence to act with conviction. They need to have the confidence to know that their decisions, when they are reasonable and proportionate, are backed by their political leaders, which is the only way in which we can make our zero- tolerance approach truly felt by all.
It would be a travesty if an officer were to be worried about searching a suspicious individual because of the seeds of doubt that the police and crime commissioner has placed in their mind with their stance on the use of stop and search. The West Midlands police and crime commissioner’s own website says:
“West Midlands Police was one of the first forces to adopt the Home Office’s ‘best use of stop and search’ scheme. As part of the scheme, it introduced a raft of measures to improve its use of the power…There are also ongoing projects that are improving scrutiny, teaching young people their rights when stopped and searched, researching disproportionality, and increasing the range of data we publish.”
That is all available to view on the website.
As I have just set out, there has been a lot of work in recent years around stop and search, especially in Sandwell. I regularly speak to local police officers in Sandwell and they are confident about their grounds for stopping people and about the proportionality of searches, and when they have not been confident they have undertaken training to bolster their knowledge.
It is no secret that we have seen some horrendous incidents of violent crime in West Bromwich town centre in the last few months alone. Only a few months ago, there was a horrendous incident in New Square, West Bromwich, when a group of three men turned on police with machetes after the police approached them. The brave police officers at the scene handled themselves brilliantly, and thankfully the wounds that they suffered were not fatal. However, we should consider what would have happened if those individuals had not been spotted. Those knives would have been taken right into the heart of our communities.
That group of men was stopped by behavioural detection officers. BDOs do what it says on the tin—they are trained to spot “out of place” behaviour in the community and to challenge anyone suspected of suspicious activity. They are specialists in behavioural studies. It was a group of BDOs on patrol who stopped this group of young men who were carrying machetes in the town centre. The group of young men were noticed because of their suspicious behaviour, including wearing thick, heavy clothing on what was a warm day. After the officers managed to force the group into a safer area of the shopping centre in order to stop them, the men produced large knives from their bags and proceeded to attack the officers. The officers’ training, knowledge and bravery, and the actions of some brave members of the public, meant innocent bystanders were not hurt that day.
It is important to mention that without the deployment of Project Guardian to West Bromwich, those individuals might not have been spotted, apprehended and taken off our streets. For Members who may not know about Project Guardian, it is the West Midlands police team that works across the region to tackle youth violence and get dangerous weapons off our streets. If hon. Members need a reason to back stop and search, they should take the opportunity briefly to scroll through their Twitter account to find out more.
The team are out every day using stop and search, among other powers, to seize drugs and knives. They are on the front line, assisting our local police teams to tackle this scourge on our streets. Their work should be shouted about loudly so they have the confidence to keep doing what they are doing to keep us all safe. If officers are not confident in using stop and search, the outcomes will not be successful. Training should be expanded to help them learn from the best or, better still, to promote the training of behavioural detection.
I would like to place on record my thanks to Lisa Hill from the business improvement district, Chief Super- intendent Ian Green and PC Rich Philips, who have led on stop and search in our area, along with all our local police officers in Sandwell, who are doing some amazing work in our community. The business improvement district, local schools, colleges and MPs are backing our police officers all the way. I thank the Minister and the Home Secretary for their personal support and engagement with me on these issues.
The use of stop and search is a major tool in fighting back against county lines. Young people especially are exploited across the west midlands and forced to live in towns and cities outside their area to sell drugs. They go missing from school or college, sometimes for weeks on end. Stop and search can help save them when others in their lives have been unable to. That is why it is important to view stop and search not just as a tool to apprehend criminals but as a way to rehabilitate vulnerable people who sometimes, through no fault of their own, have become trapped in a life they do not wish to lead.
The use of stop and search in a proportionate and respectful way saves lives. It takes dangerous weapons and drugs off our streets and makes us all safer. Those who hold public office must send a message loud and clear that bringing violent weapons and drugs into our communities will not be tolerated. I do not think the police and crime commissioner’s statement sent anything like the right message. We should invest in training to get more BDOs on the street, expand and promote internal training opportunities for officers, and engage with the public even more through the positive use of the stop-and-search scrutiny committees. That is at the same time as putting 20,000 more police officers on our streets by the end of this Parliament, which we are well on track to deliver. We cannot just look at the figures when assessing stop and search. Context is crucial. To quote again from the West Midlands police and crime plan:
“How we measure, analyse and improve public confidence in policing and public satisfaction with police services will get better.”
I can tell police and crime commissioner that nothing promotes public confidence more than using stop and search. I could go on all day about my community’s experience with violent crime, but it is important that we hear from others. I am looking to hearing about other Members’ experiences.