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Clause 11 – Powers to stop and search without suspicion | Public Order Bill | Commons debates

I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. We do not disagree on some of the struggles here—we never have. We have never said that it is not a problem in terms of major infrastructure, getting around the country and so on. Our argument has always been, first, a series of existing laws is in place that enables the police to do their job. Secondly, the use of injunctions could have been made easier—we put that case forward in earlier stages of the Bill—so that we could get ahead of some of these problems. But fundamentally, we disagree with the premise that extending these powers, which are used at the moment for serious violence, to this loose definition of potential protest is helpful, or anything the police will necessarily want or use.

Clause 11 will introduce wide-ranging powers for the police to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest, including any of us who happen to walk through the area. The Government’s knee-jerk reaction to introduce sweeping powers that will risk further damaging policing by consent is not the way forward. Members in the other place passed very sensible changes to raise the threshold for the powers in clause 11 to be used. To the Minister’s point that they are not disputing the principle, they have already disputed the principle—we have had that argument and they have, rightly, as is their role, moved on. So they are trying to contain what they think are the problems with these measures. All we ask is that the Government accept these sensible minor tweaks to clause 11.

Lords amendments 6B to 6F would raise the rank of the officer able to authorise the power to stop and search without suspicion for a 12-hour period to a chief superintendent. The Minister argued that we need consistency. I do not accept that argument. There are all kinds of different levels of all kinds of different things across the law that we can all understand. Because this is a more significant intervention for potentially a lesser crime, the amendment is relatively reasonable.

Lords amendment 6C removes “subsection (ii)”, which means the power could be used for the anticipation of “causing public nuisance” such as merely making noise. Without this change, every time music is played outside Parliament anyone could be stopped and searched without suspicion. Baroness Casey suggests that

“as a minimum, Met officers should be required to give their name, their shoulder number, the grounds for the stop and a receipt confirming the details of that stop.”

Lords amendment 6F would insert:

“The chief superintendent must take reasonable steps to inform the public when the powers conferred by this section are in active use.”

That is important because communication failures are a common factor in problematic stop and searches.

A recent report from Crest Advisory, examining the experience of black communities nationally on stop and search, found that 77% of black adults support the use of stop and search in relation to suspicion of carrying a weapon. So, in the poll, the black community absolutely agrees that we need the power to stop and search. But less than half of those who had been stopped and searched felt that the police had communicated well with them or explained what would happen. That less than half of those who had been stopped and searched felt that the police had communicated well to them or explained what would happen shows how important it is to make sure people are communicated with when these strong and impactful powers are used by the police. If we imagine that in the context of clause 11, where anyone can be stopped, including tourists who might have got caught up in a crowd and not know what is going on, there is a risk of a chaotic invasion of people’s rights to go about their business.

We have discussed previously and at length the definition of “serious disruption”. The Minister considers it

“more than a minor degree”.

Would being stopped and searched for simply walking through Parliament Square when a protest is taking place disrupt his day more than a minor degree? The suspicionless stop and search powers being applied to protests are extreme and disproportionate. We have raised many times in this House the warnings from former police officers that they risk further diminishing trust in public institutions.

After the devastating Casey report, it is hard to see how public trust in the Metropolitan police could suffer more. Ministers were unable to offer any solutions to bring the reforms we desperately need in policing, but they could at least try not to pass laws that would risk making trust and confidence in the police even worse. Clause 11 will create powers that risk undermining our Peelian principles even further. When Ministers say that it would only be in very unusual circumstances that the powers would be used, I want to stress, why bother? Why bother, when to deal with disruptive protests the police could already use criminal damage, conspiracy to cause criminal damage, trespass, aggravated trespass, public nuisance, breach of the peace and obstruction of the highway? The Minister knows I could keep going. Many protestors have been fined and many have gone to prison using those powers. Thousands of arrests are already made using existing powers, but the Bill is apparently justified by an impact assessment that says it will lead to a few hundred arrests only. The powers are there for the police to use.

Disruptive protests have a serious impact on infrastructure and on people’s ability to go about their daily lives. Over the course of the passage of the Bill, we have spent many hours on new ways to ensure the police have all the levers they need. We tried to introduce sensible amendments on injunctions. The Government’s response to the problem is a totally disproportionate headline-chasing response that is, depressingly, what we have come to expect. Gone are the days when the Government were interested in passing laws that could fix problems or make things better. The truth is that the Government’s disagreement with the sensible narrowing amendments from the other place will create more problems than it will solve. I urge the Government to think again and to back these common-sense amendments from the other place.