11 June 2012

UN Human Rights Review highlights Britain’s stop and search problem

Rebekah Delsol's avatar

​In late May 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council reviewed the UK record on human rights. Ten reviewing States concluded that the United Kingdom was falling short—on the issue of ethnic profiling in British police stop and search practices. All recommended that the UK takes action to end ethnic profiling in stop and search practices in ordinary policing and counter-terrorism.

Photo: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/994329

Once every four years, the human rights record of every member of the United Nations comes under review from the fifty or so states serving on the United Nations Human Rights Council. This “universal period review” checks each state’s record against the standards that each has signed up to under the UN human right system. This year, a substantial number of the reviewing states concluded that the United Kingdom was falling short—on the issue of ethnic profiling in British police stop and search practices.

Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Japan and Mexico all raised concerns about the UK’s counter-terrorism powers, noting the potential for discriminatory use and their lack of compliance with international human rights standards. Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia, Germany, Greece and Pakistan all raised concerns about ethnic, racial and religious profiling in police stop and search powers, both for ordinary policing and counter terrorism. All recommended that the UK takes action to end ethnic profiling in stop and search practices.

Taken together this is an indictment of the UK’s record with regards to freedom of movement, elimination of racial and religious discrimination and effective protection and remedies for citizens. In response, Lord McNally, the UK Minister of State for the Ministry of Justice, argued against the finding, stating that personal characteristics such as race, ethnicity cannot be used as the basis of reasonable suspicion to conduct a stop and search.

Yet, the statistics tell a different story. Although the law says that police must have “reasonable suspicion” to stop and search someone in ordinary circumstances, Ministry of Justice statistics show that black people are stopped and searched at seven times the rate for white people, while South Asians are stopped and searched at more than twice the rate of whites.

British minorities fare even worse under two laws that have created exceptional stop and search powers that do not requiring individual reasonable suspicion: section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which allows police stops without reasonable suspicion “in anticipation of violence”, and Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows stop and searches in ports and airports for counterterrorism purposes.

Under section 60, black people are stopped and searched at 30 times that for white people, while South Asian people are stopped seven times more often. Furthermore, police use of these powers has spiralled wildly in recent years. From 2005 to 2011, the use of Section 60 has risen more than 300 percent and stops and searches of black people rose by more than 650 percent. A legal power intended for exceptional threats has come to be used on a more or less permanent basis in some areas.

Under Schedule 7 powers, people can be detained and questioned for up to nine hours without any reasonable suspicion of involvement in terrorism. In 2010-11, 65,684 people were stopped under Schedule 7 and almost 60 per cent of them were black or ethnic minority—even though these groups account for only around 10 per cent of the national population. In July 2011, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation concluded that the discretionary powers in the Terrorism Act remained too broad.

What makes this worse is that this ethnic profiling is doing nothing to make Britons safer, indeed the evidence indicates that is doing real damage to community police relations and continues to spark periodic public order crises. Fewer than one in ten stop searches result in arrestand a large proportion of these are for cannabis possession (a minor offense). The Home Office’s own research estimates that stop and search reduces the number of publicly detectable crimes by only 0.2 per cent. 

While doing very little to prevent crime, stop and search is clearly alienating communities and has been identified as a motive behind England’s August 2011 riots. The independent panel inquiry into the causes of the riots found that stop and search was a major source of discontent with the police; in some instances, these tensions were cited as a motivating factor in the riots and a reason for some of the attacks on the police (See Five Days in August, interim report for the panel.) Research by the Guardian and the London School of Economics (funded in part by the Open Society Foundations) found that anger at the police was a major cause of the London riots, with 86 percent of rioters citing policing as an important, or very important, factor in causing the disorder.

Despite the mounting national and international criticism of the practice the UK government has failed to act. In September 2011, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also recommended that the UK “review the impact of ‘stop and search’ powers on ethnic minority groups under various pieces of legislation.” The committee warned that the current laws and practices may not only encourage racial and ethnic stereotyping by police officers, but may also encourage impunity and fail to promote accountability in the police service for possible abuses. The committee recommended that an effective external oversight be put in place to hold police forces to account for their use of the powers and the extent to which they disproportionately affect ethnic minorities.

The Government simply ignored the CERD committee’s recommendations. There has been no review into stop and search legal powers and no effective oversight put in place. There has been no public inquiry into the causes of the riots. For those on the receiving end of stop and search – nothing has changed.

In December 2011, Teresa May, the Home Secretary announced a review of “good practices” around stop and search. This misses the point. The problems with stop and search are endemic and deeply entrenched: it is the “worse practice” that needs to be reviewed and changed. Unfair and ineffective stop and search has plagued the UK’s black and minority communities for forty years and drastic reform is needed.

Let us hope the UK Government listen to the concerns raised by the international community and finally take some positive action. That must start with a serious review of the problems, the creation of a remedy for those unjustly targeted, and then the introduction of good practices to support fairer and more effective policing.