At StopWatch, we’re currently working in partnership with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies on a research project funded by the Transition to Adulthood Alliance, on serious violence reduction orders (SVROs).
SVROs allow police officers to stop and search those subject to an order in a public place at any time, any number of times – without the usual need for ‘reasonable suspicion’. In other words, they give police ‘the power of unlimited harassment’. A two-year pilot scheme was launched back in April this year. So, what have we learnt six months into the pilot?
In the last project update, we set out the Home Office’s refusal to provide an adequate response to a freedom of information (FOI) request we submitted about the SVRO pilot and its evaluation. Since then, we’ve received a couple more responses to subsequent FOI requests, which we submitted to the four police forces participating in the scheme: Merseyside, Thames Valley, West Midlands, and Sussex.
The numbers so far
The responses we received show Merseyside Police have issued almost ten times as many SVROs as Thames Valley Police since the pilot scheme began in April. According to their FOI responses, Merseyside had issued 38 SVROs, West Midlands six, and Thames Valley four. Despite the 20 working days timeframe set out in the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Sussex Police have not yet responded to our request.
However, since Merseyside Police’s response to our FOI on October 9, on October 18 they published an update on their website claiming to have secured a total of 44 SVROs since April. This would mean that six SVROs were issued in a period of just nine days in the Merseyside area. Superintendent Phil Mullally said Merseyside officers would ‘relentlessly target’ those subject to an SVRO (BBC News, 18 Oct).
Who’s on the receiving end?
Over the past six months, we’ve also been keeping track of media reports about individuals issued with SVROs. In contrast to the government’s messaging that SVROs will be used to target violent knife and offensive weapon offenders and ‘those who pose the greatest risk of harm’, almost none of the reported cases we’ve come across so far involve the use of a knife or offensive weapon as part of the original offence. Instead, all but one of the SVROs in these cases have been issued for knife and offensive weapon possession.
It is also worth noting that SVRO legislation sets out extremely wide parameters about who can receive these orders. Someone can be issued with an SVRO because of their perceived association with someone who has used (or been found in possession of) a ‘bladed article or offensive weapon’, operating in a similar way to the controversial legal doctrine of joint enterprise. This means that someone could receive an SVRO without ever having used or carried an offensive weapon themselves, simply because the court decides that they ‘ought to have known’ that someone else might do (PCSC Act 2022, s342A(4)).
Whilst individuals on the receiving end of SVROs so far do not appear to be ‘high risk’ violent offenders, they do appear to have experienced multiple layers of vulnerability at the time of the related offence – including homelessness, mental health issues, substance and addiction issues, and learning disabilities. We hope to be able to explore this further as more information emerges.
How SVROs are implemented and who they are used to sanction are important tests for these pilot orders. The government rationale for introducing SVROs claimed that these orders were a necessary power to tackle ‘prolific, high-risk offenders’. The evidence available so far suggests that the high bar set for these invasive powers is not being met.
Stay tuned for further updates on the project and, fingers crossed, a response from Sussex Police before the year is out.
This post was first published as part of StopWatch's October newsletter on Substack.