Stop-and-search powers proposed by the Home Office risk “perpetually criminalising” previous offenders, rights groups have warned.
In a letter to the home secretary, Priti Patel, the groups say the move is “disproportionate and unnecessary” and that the Home Office’s own research has suggested higher search rates may have no discernible crime-reducing effects.
The proposal was designed to meet the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto pledge to make it easier for officers to stop and search those convicted of knife crime. The government is also exploring the possibility of making it an offence to fail to cooperate with a search while subject to a serious violence reduction order (SVRO).
Organisations including StopWatch, Inquest, Open Society Foundations, Liberty and a number of experts, said in the letter that research shows that widening police powers further increases racial disparities in stop-and-search practices.
The letter said: “The use of stop and search is heavily concentrated on black and minority ethnic groups – government figures show that black people are searched at 8.9 times the rate of white people.
“These disparities are reproduced throughout the criminal justice system; in arrests, out-of-court disposals, prosecution and sentencing. Years of policing research tells us that when discretion in the use of police stop and search is increased, racial disparities worsen.”
Under existing section 60 powers to search individuals without suspicion in areas where there are fears of serious violence, research shows that black people are searched at more than 40 times the rate of white people.
The proposals to introduce stop-and-search measures without reasonable suspicion would further undermine the safeguard, the letter said, after previous efforts were ruled unlawful by the European court of human rights in 2010. The consultation on the proposals ends on Sunday.
StopWatch’s spokeswoman, Lucy Bryant, said: “The orders not only ignore, but run counter to a substantial body of evidence that shows stop and search has little, if any, effect on violence. Successful public health approaches provide a clear template, and yet these lessons about crime prevention and public safety have been overlooked.
“What these powers will do is perpetually criminalise those who receive them, only making it harder for them to make positive changes, locking them into the very patterns of behaviour we hope to prevent.”
The Home Office said on its consultation document that SVROs would target known knife carriers. It said although some rates of serious violence crime had stabilised, the overall figures were too high and there had been an increase in cases involving people who have already committed one knife or offensive weapon offence.
“These SVROs would give the police personalised powers to target those already convicted of certain knife offences – giving them the automatic right to search those who pose the greatest risk,” it said.
“These searches could take place without suspicion so that these known criminals could be stopped at any time. SVROs would empower the police to stop and challenge those who are known to carry knives.
“They will help to keep communities safer by giving officers a tool to help tackle the most dangerous offenders. The government hopes that they will also help the police more effectively target their approach.”
The proposals come after the Guardian revealed that the Home Office dropped plans to improve the best use of the stop-and-search scheme, which aimed to reduce “no suspicion” searches, and withdrew from consultations at the end of 2017.
Patel then appeared to scrap the scheme altogether after it was announced in August last year she would “lift all conditions in the voluntary best use of stop-and-search scheme over the use of section 60” in an attempt to crack down on violent crime.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.