UK stop-and-search data ‘withheld to hide rise in discrimination’

Figures delayed as police and borders bills pass through parliament

The Home Office has failed to release its annual stop-and-search data, prompting concern that the figures will reveal a further increase to disproportionate targeting of black people.

At the same time, the department is refusing to publish the results of its own public consultation into its heavily criticised “anti-refugee” legislation.

Campaigners said the withholding of key data appeared to be an attempt to avoid negative headlines while the Home Office’s two controversial legislative proposals – the policing bill and the borders bill – pass through parliament.

The government’s official stop-and-search statistics, covering the year up to April 2021, should have been published last month. The Home Office has failed to do so, saying that the three-week delay is because of a change in the level at which recorded data has been collected, meaning extra time is required to check it and to “resolve data quality issues”.

Critics believe the real reason is because the statistics show that the use of stop and search that disproportionately affects black communities has widened – findings that would provoke fresh scrutiny on the policing bill, which seeks to expand the use of the contentious measure at a time when trust in policing is under scrutiny. Black people are already nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people, official figures for England and Wales show.

Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns officer at human rights group Liberty, said: “Transparency over the use and abuse of police powers is critical, yet this government has shown time and time again that it will do anything to evade scrutiny and undermine accountability.”

Meanwhile, the Home Office is refusing to share the results of its own research into what the public think of its nationality and borders bill, which has been heavily criticised and recently was found to breach international and domestic law in at least 10 different ways.

The unveiling of the borders bill was preceded by a public consultation asking people to forward their views on its proposals, which include the provision to send asylum seekers overseas. The bill has been described as ruthless and pernicious.

Despite almost 7,500 responses from the public – compared to 1,120 stakeholders – the Home Office is refusing to publish the results, raising questions over what it is trying to hide.

Using a Freedom of Information exemption, officials argue that the “balance of the public interest lies in… withholding the information”, seeming to overlook that the data is from a public consultation on an issue of widespread national debate. However it did concede: “Disclosing the full reports would increase public awareness of the issues, accountability and transparency.”

Sonya Sceats, chief executive at Freedom from Torture, which submitted the FoI, said: “Opposition to this government’s cruel and law-breaking anti-refugee bill is growing. The Home Office’s refusal to publish findings from its own public consultation begs the question: what exactly has the British public told them that they want to keep hidden from us?

“It is an affront to caring people across this country who are horrified by this vicious political agenda designed to distract us from this government’s failing.”

Sceats called on the home secretary, Priti Patel, to release the report, adding that her group has instructed solicitors to draft an internal review into the decision.

Solicitor Carolin Ott, from law firm Leigh Day, said Freedom from Torture believed “there are clear and cogent reasons why disclosure of the requested information is essential to allow scrutiny” of the borders bill.

Protesters against the policing bill hold large Kill the Bill banner, standing in front of Admiralty Arch, central London in May 2021.
Protesters against the policing bill at Admiralty Arch, central London in May 2021. Photograph: Penelope Barritt/Rex

The policing bill has also come under recent and sustained criticism, including from former police leaders, with Patel keen to add new protest-related stop-and-search powers.

Andrews added: The government is facing growing opposition to its policing bill, which will expand stop and search in a way it knows will lead to more discrimination, more dangerous interactions with the police for people of colour, especially black men, and will exacerbate the underlying conditions that lead to serious violence. The government must listen to these warnings and scrap the bill before it puts more people in danger.”

The Home Office says that the release of the stop-and-search data has been put back to 18 November with the policing bill currently passing through the vital committee stage in the Lords where every clause has to be agreed and votes on any amendments can take place.

The unpublished data covers part of the first lockdown when the Metropolitan police increased its most discriminatory form of stop and search – section 60 – despite a fall in crime.

Liberty has warned that plans to ease restrictions on the use of blanket stop-and-search powers would disproportionately affect black people, who are already up to 18 times more likely than white people to be subjected to “suspicionless” stop and search.

The government announced in July it will be expanding section 60 powers but so far has not published any evidence to support its decision.

Habib Kadiri, research and policy manager at StopWatch, said: “The reason given for delaying the annual stop-and-search dataset implies that a record number of street searches took place in 2020/21. This holds a special irony when you consider that crime levels fell during this period primarily because of lockdown rules that mandated the nation to stay indoors.

“The government seems committed to helping the police avoid scrutiny over the effectiveness of their actions while increasing their stop-and-search powers.”

Katrina Ffrench, founder and director of Unjust-UK, said: “Without transparency there cannot be proper accountability or scrutiny. Ultimately, police legitimacy will continue to be undermined if the government persists with enacting the bill and ignoring its own data.”

• This article was amended on 10 November 2021. An earlier version quoted the Home Office saying the delay was due to a “record level” of data. After publication the Home Office explained that when it referred to checking “new record level” data, it meant that data had been collected for the first time at the level of an individual stop and search record, rather than in aggregate.


Mark Townsend Home Affairs Editor

The GuardianTramp

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