Our research on SVROs
As part of the Young Adult Safety project, StopWatch is working in partnership with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, looking at serious violence reduction orders (SVROs).
SVROs, a new type of civil order introduced by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, grant police officers the discretionary power to stop and search anyone subject to an order at any time, in any public place, any number of times – without the usual need for ‘reasonable suspicion’.
The orders are currently being piloted in four police force areas: Merseyside, Thames Valley, West Midlands, and Sussex.
We asked the Home Office for information about plans for the pilot’s evaluation, what kind of data will be collected as part of the pilot, the pilot’s design, and any measures put in place to mitigate the predicted disproportionate impact SVROs will have on Black people (according to the government’s own impact assessment). The response we received from the Home Office was less than forthcoming – and also raises broader questions about transparency in policing and policy.
Evaluating a controversial new practice
A letter from Lord Sharpe of Epsom sent in March to Peers stated that the SVRO pilot ‘will be independently evaluated’ by international consultancy firm Ecorys (who also happen to be part of the ‘SVRO Working Group’ overseeing the development and implementation stages of the pilot).
The letter outlined the evaluation’s terms of reference, setting out its timeline and governance, as well as information about the ‘process evaluation’ and the ‘impact evaluation’ of the pilot.
The former part ‘will seek to understand how SVROs are implemented and whether there are any barriers to successful implementation’, while the latter ‘will try to understand what impact SVROs have on reoffending rates and serious violent crime in the four police forces during the pilot’ by collecting data on, for example, the number of SVROs issued, the length of each SVRO, the number of SVROs granted per individual, and the number of stop and searches carried out per individual, alongside a breakdown of protected characteristics such as age, sex, and ethnicity.
Exempt from disclosure
But beyond this basic information about who will be carrying out the evaluation and the kinds of data they plan to collect, the Home Office is apparently unwilling to divulge any further detail about the pilot. Despite confirmation from the Home Office that it does indeed hold the information we requested, ‘after careful consideration we have decided that the information not publicly available is exempt from disclosure’.
This decision was justified by reference to s35 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which allows government departments to withhold information if it relates to ‘the formulation or development of government policy’ (which, in theory, could be used as the basis to withhold information on almost any subject). ‘As the policy is still in development’, the response said, ‘it is vital that officials, Ministers and stakeholders have a safe space to design and debate the policy’.
Serving the public interest?
In making this decision, the Home Office claim to have weighed up several reasons for and against disclosure. In their view, the public interest in ‘openness and transparency with regards to stop and search’ and in ‘transparency relating to the SVRO evaluation, which will be used as the basis for a publicly available report’ is ultimately trumped by the five reasons given in favour of withholding the information.
First, according to the Home Office, the disclosure of the relevant information ‘may curtail the ability of officials to do their work effectively (i.e., have a chilling effect), particularly in what is arguably a contentious policy area’. Second, ‘[d]isclosure of information that is intended for policy making can be mis-interpreted and unhelpfully stimulate inaccurate and negative discourse which is not in the public interest especially where trust and confidence in policing is important’ (my emphasis).
Then, third, ‘[t]he Home Office, Ministers and officials will need to respond to such misinterpretation and scrutiny, which when based on inaccuracies, will unnecessarily divert public resources, and inhibit officials from conducting their duties effectively’. Further, if the information requested is released, ‘it could have a chilling effect on police forces’ willingness to participate in pilots’. Fifth and finally, ‘[n]egative publicity or speculation about the anticipated impact of these pilots could affect the willingness of individual officers to carry out this scheme’.
When it comes to such a ‘contentious policy area’ like stop and search, the need for transparency and openness is arguably all the more urgent. The Home Office seems to have pre-emptively decided that the only reason the SVRO scheme could fail would be due to external criticism or negative publicity, rather than because of objective evidence showing that the policy is either ineffective and has an unfairly disproportionate impact on a particular demographic.
Refusing to disclose information out of concern that it may not support the government’s political agenda, or because any information disclosed will be deliberately and maliciously misinterpreted, ‘stimulat[ing] inaccurate and negative discourse’, does not induce confidence in effective policymaking – nor is it likely to promote ‘trust and confidence in policing’.
A version of this article was first published as a blog post on the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website.