Who gets asked to “stop and account” and why?

Being mistaken for a pickpocket on the London Underground gives Sunder Katwala an insight into the changing practices of policing.

As I reached the top of the stairs at Embankment tube station, heading around to the ticket barrier, a voice behind me asked me to stop.

Had I dropped something?

As I turned around, the man produced a police ID, and said he wanted to ask me some questions.

Odd. I asked to see the police badge a second time. It looked authentic enough.

I was told that I had been observed as exhibiting possibly suspicious behavior, so the officer would like to know what I was doing and where I was going.

It was about quarter past six on a Thursday evening. I was taking the tube to Charing Cross station, so that I could get a train home, I said. The sort of thing that a lot of people were up to around that time in the evening, I imagine.

What was the suspicious behavior, I asked?

It turned out that I had been spotted in the very act of changing my mind.

You were headed in one direction to the Jubilee Line escalator, but you spotted a uniformed officer and went the other way, I was told. That had formed the basis for a theory, he explained, that I might well be a pickpocket, looking for a victim to target. Apparently, while cunningly avoiding surveillance by the law too.

I had indeed changed direction. After taking several steps towards the Jubilee Line escalator – and my most direct route home, via London Bridge – I had walked across to the much emptier platform on my right, realising that I could spend less time on the tube, and avoid those long Jubilee line escalators too, if I headed to Charing Cross.  

I hadn’t seen a policeman, just a lot of wet commuters with coats and umbrellas.

Perhaps I was in two minds because Westminster wasn’t my usual route home. I explained. I had been at the BBC offices on Millbank after doing an interview for Radio 4. Coming out into heavy rain, I had ducked into Westminster tube rather than walking down Whitehall to Charing Cross. (Historian Anthony Beevor and I had been discussing the government’s plans to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. We weren’t in the same studio, so I can’t use Professor Beevor as any kind of control in terms of his chances of having been stopped at Westminster tube on his way home.)

Was that suspicious enough to be stopped, I wondered? The explanation for stopping me meant, I realised, meant that the two police officers had probably come from the ticket hall at Westminster, and followed me on and off the tube at Embankment. Perhaps the slightly lazy one stop journey added to their suspicion that I was targeting my next mark.

Some people could hang around on the tube, for no reason, perhaps for eight hours at a time, in order to carry out criminal activities, hence the activity of stopping some people.

I had, I was told, given a perfectly legitimate reason for being on the tube network that evening, and so could go on my way.

Before going our separate ways, it did seem worth a couple of minutes more dig into how to carry out that tricky job of protecting us all from these undesirable criminals without too much inconvenience to law-abiding citizens, and in a way which Londoners of all types could trust.

My wife would be amused, I said, at my being taken for a pickpocket, I said. Why? They asked. She would doubt that I would make much of a pickpocket, I suggested, though I couldn’t be totally sure, having never tried it.

It felt to me that, even if I were a mastermind pickpocket, that I pulled off quite a good impression of a commuter. I was even, for me, at least a tiny bit more spruced up than normal, because my colleagues had rightly insisted I put a tie on to go and talk about the solemn issue of Remembrance on the BBC news channel about half past three. But perhaps the criminal masterminds can pull off the commuter look too, making decisions about who to suspect rather trickier.

So how did they decide? Was there any profiling involved, I asked. Of what kind?

Were single Asian males in their thirties travelling alone more likely to be stopped, I asked.

No. We just try to base it on behavior, I was told.

I am never quite sure whether or not to believe this official "no profiling" policy. I explained that my uncertainty about that is not based on a great deal more than my (inconclusive) anecdotal experience of seemingly happening to be stopped more often than my colleagues in think-tanks and journalism – though, only, as it happens at transport hubs. I am only, however, talking about four times in the last ten years overall: once at Stanstead airport, once at Luton, once on the Eurostar platform when it used to be at Waterloo, and now by the ticket barriers at Embankment.  

Any think-tanker knows that one could never derive any proof from such as small anecdotal sample.

But it has led me to ask the same question, and always to receive the same reply.

When I asked what details I could have from the police officers, I was told it was possible to record the incident, so I thought that I would like to do that.

Looking over the officer’s shoulder as he used his rather smart e-device, I questioned his initially selecting the option “white”.

I don’t think “white” is the right option for me, I said.

“That’s what I would have said you looked like to me”, he said. 

I wondered if that was over-compensating a little from one potential inference of the earlier profiling question.

But I thought non-white was the right answer if the question was ethnicity, while British was fine for nationality. That threw up a much more extensive menu, for “self-defined ethnicity” where I could choose an “M3 Mixed White/Asian” to reflect my Indian-Irish parentage..

That was one small insight into the stuff that the official statistics are made of.

Recording the stop seems to involve quite a lot of information – including giving your name, date and place of birth, and your home address if you filled out the full thing.

I wasn’t entirely sure that the opportunity would necessarily have been spontaneously offered if I hadn’t specifically asked for some type of identification or record, and opened up a broader policing policy discussion.

And the initial instinct to flag me for the computer as "white" offered confirms the insight that any statistics can only be as accurate as the source material.

But the officers were professional and polite throughout, and not necessarily any less so before I had mentioned coming out of a BBC interview either.

The hand-held printer – rather in the style of the Apple Store – took two or three minutes to print out, so we were able to have a bit more of a chat about policing, trust and indeed the politics of the think-tank scene. I established that I could do whatever I wanted with the receipt of the encounter – if, for example, I wanted to put it on Facebook – and was even given the Twitter account of the British Transport police. (Another culture shift there, as it tweeted me back this morning). 

The receipt shows that it was printed eight minutes after the stop, but we seemed to have covered a fair amount of ground.

It showed that the “power” was “Rec 61 – Stop and Account”, and the outcome was “no further action”.

The policeman asked me how I had found this experience, personally.

I said that it had been odd – but they had shown a professional willingness to answer my questions about it.

Stop and account, if you will, but it needs to work the other way around too.

I had found a rather more surly response when asking similar questions when being interrogated about my business at an airport. The policeman had found the same when flying to the US, so we turned out to have that in common too.

I said that I understood that the police have a job to do. My instinct was to be sympathetic to them, I said, because I felt they had tried to come quite a long way over the last fifteen years, certainly from some of the controversies that I had followed closely when I had lived in Eltham, on the Well Hall Road, during the inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case. So my instinct is that progress has been made – and that more progress is possible.

The question mark on which people want assurance have is that policing is effective, transparent and fair.

I think that may be why questions such as who gets stopped – and why – can still matter.

 

A policeman stands guard in an underground station. Photograph: Getty Images

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
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Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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