The new Prime Minister has made tackling serious and violent crime a key focus of his first few weeks in office. On Sunday (11 August) the Home Secretary Priti Patel announced the Government is lifting “emergency stop and search restrictions” to empower more police officers to use the power. The Home Secretary said the use of stop-and-search will help the police “halt” what she calls the “knife crime epidemic.” This Insight takes a closer look at the announced change to ‘no-suspicion’ searches.

What is stop-and-search?

Police officers can stop and search individuals to look for prohibited items such as dangerous weapons and drugs. Stop-and-search powers are used by officers to confirm or deny whether a member of the public has a prohibited item without the need to formally arrest them. If an officer finds a prohibited item, they can then, if deemed appropriate, carry out an arrest.

The police can only stop and search people using a specific power set out in legislation – there are several on the statue book. When an officer conducts a search, they should first state what item they are looking for and which legislative power they are using to conduct the search.

Stop-and-search powers can be grouped into two categories: powers that require officers to have ‘reasonable grounds’ and those that don’t.  The latter are sometimes called ‘no-suspicion’ powers. Of the around 282,000 searches conducted in 2017/18, only around 1% (or around 2,500 searches) were conducted using no-suspicion powers. The Government announcement on Sunday relates to these no-suspicion searches.

What are no-suspicion searches?

No-suspicion stop-and-search powers are highly controversial, and officers cannot use them without specific authorisation. Under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1996 an Inspector can authorise their use in a specific area, if an incident of serious violence has taken place or they have intelligence to suggest it might. This authorisation can last for an initial 24 hours and can be extended for a further 24 hours by a Superintendent (two ranks above an Inspector) if necessary.

Without a no-suspicion search authorisation, officers must use ‘reasonable grounds’ powers to conduct stop-and-search. These powers require them to demonstrate there were objective factors which made them think the person searched was likely to have a prohibited item.

When no-suspicion searches are authorised, officers can stop and search individuals without suspecting they have such an item.

As outlined in official guidance from the College of Policing (the body responsible for professional standards in policing) the authorisation of no-suspicion searches, “does not justify the blanket use of stop and search powers.” Officers are still expected to search only those they believe are likely to have been involved in, or will be involved in, violence.

What does the Government’s announcement mean?

The Government has not announced any changes to the legislation concerning no-suspicion stop-and-search powers. Instead it said that police forces are no longer expected to comply with voluntary guidance on the powers, which was introduced by Theresa May as Home Secretary.

Theresa May’s voluntary guidance

In 2014 Theresa May introduced the Best use of stop and search scheme (BUSSS). This was in response to concerns that no-suspicion searches could be incompatible with human rights legislation and that they may be counterproductive in tackling serious violence. A human rights challenge to no-suspicion searches, that made its way to the Supreme Court, highlighted the need for safeguards when using the power. The Court ultimately found no-suspicion powers are compatible with human rights law but warned that they must be used proportionately and only when necessary.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published a critical inspection of the police use of stop-and-search in 2013. It found that few forces were routinely monitoring their use of no-suspicion powers and as a result, the police were “not able to establish whether the use of the power works, or what impact it has on communities.”

Aiming to provide more stringent safeguards on the use of no-suspicion searches, BUSSS required forces to meet higher standards than required by legislation. Forces that signed up to the BUSSS pledged to:

  • Require their Assistant Chief Constable (or Commander in London) to authorise no-suspicion searches. Assistant Chief Constables are four ranks above an Inspector (who under the legislation can authorise no-suspicion searches) and are amongst the most senior officers in any police force.
  • Only authorise no-suspicion searches when an incident involving violence has taken place or intelligence suggests one will take place. This is different to legislation which requires officers to demonstrate their intelligence suggests a serious violence incident may take place.
  • Only authorise no-suspicion searches for an initial 15 hours and only authorise extensions up to 24 hours.

Theresa May introduced BUSSS to “reduce the number of no-suspicion stops significantly,” and it worked. Between 2013/14 and 2017/18 the use of no-suspicion searches fell by 36% (from around 4,000 searches to 2,500).

What will change?

In March 2019 then Home Secretary Sajid Javid instructed seven forces which police largely urban areas (London, West Midlands, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, South Wales and Greater Manchester) not to follow certain aspects of BUSSS when authorising no-suspicion searches.

He said suggested Inspectors should authorise no-suspicion searches if intelligence suggests that serious violence may rather than will take place. However, these forces were still expected to follow BUSSS guidance once the search was underway.

Priti Patel announced she is extending her predecessor’s instruction to the whole of England and Wales. It means that no police force in either country is expected to follow BUSSS guidance on no-suspicion searches, except for restrictions on the duration of authorisation.

What difference could these changes make?

It is difficult to say what difference these changes will make. Urban forces use stop-and-search more regularly than forces that police more rural areas. The seven forces Sajid Javid singled out in March accounted for around 60% of all use of stop-and-search powers in 2017/18 (the Metropolitan Police alone accounted for 47% of searches).

Early evidence from these forces suggests they are now authorising the use of stop-and-search more frequently. It was reported in June that the Metropolitan Police said it increased its use of no-suspicion powers by more than 400% in 2018/19, but official statistics have not yet been published. It is unknown whether forces who use stop and search less will increase their use of the powers now that the BUSSS guidance has also been relaxed for them.

Whether an increase in the use of stop and search will reduce violent crime is another matter. There is some evidence to suggest stop and search has a marginal impact on crime reduction.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission argued that any positive impact on crime reduction stop and search might have could be outweighed by negative impacts on police-community relations. Black people were subject to nine and half times as many searches as white people in 2017/18. Many argue that the disproportionate use of stop-and-search powers on black people causes mistrust between communities and the police.

Our Research Briefing Police stop and search powers discusses the available evidence on the effect of stop and search on crime in more detail.

Further reading

About the author: Jenny Brown is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in home affairs and justice.