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Police adopt new stop and search code of conduct: analysing Theresa May's role

Tracking the Home Secretary's tenacity on stop and search is an interesting context for the police now having agreed to adopt a new code of conduct.

Police will adopt a new code of conduct on stop and search powers. Photo: Getty

Police stop and search powers have always been a painful topic, both for members of Britain’s black population who are disproportionately targeted, and for government ministers, who never quite manage to stamp out both unlawful use and racial discrimination in the practice.

Today, all of England and Wales’ 43 police forces have agreed to adopt a new code of conduct on stop and search powers launched by the Home Secretary Theresa May. She insists that the police power is misused too often, and is therefore a factor in the breakdown of trust between the police and public.

These changes are being brought in after it was found by the Inspectorate of Constabulary that 27 per cent of stop and searches are not carried out on reasonable grounds for suspicion, and are therefore illegal. The changes also come after the discovery of the Equality and Human Rights Commission last year that black people are six times as likely to be stopped, and that this has been 29 times as likely in some areas.

Following the London riots of 2011, many argued that it was police misuse of stop and search powers that built resentment of the authorities in certain communities, and it has been a subject of much controversy both before and following the riots.

Politically, May’s role in curbing police stop and search powers is worth looking at closer. It is a subject on which the Home Secretary has been very vocal – and at odds with her seniors in cabinet – over the years.

She clashed with David Cameron over curbing the powers, as reported in January this year. It came out that May had been keen to announce sweeping measures to tackle police abusing their powers before Christmas of 2013, something that the PM apparently vetoed due to the risk of the Conservative party appearing soft on crime.

However, May has never quite dropped the issue, in spite of the perception concerns her party supposedly fears. She was unable to achieve her aim of having a curb of police stop and search powers incluced in the Queen’s Speech this year. Yet she has continued to battle for change, in April vowing to introduce a “comprehensive package” revising the powers after telling the Commons that a quarter of a million street searches in 2013 were probably carried out illegally.

At the time, though clearly having not managed to persuade Downing Street of the importance of reform, she told the House:

"I want to make myself absolutely clear: if the numbers do not come down, if stop and search does not become more targeted, if those stop-to-arrest ratios do not improve considerably, the government will return with primary legislation to make those things happen.

"Nobody wins when stop and search is misapplied. It is a waste of police time. It is unfair, especially to young, black men. It is bad for public confidence in the police.”

It is a tough one for the Tories, with many not wanting the party to seem soft, particularly with Ukip's criticism and questioning of its rightwing credentials mounting, and some on the other side arguing that liberalising stop and search is a way the party can extend its appeal to black and ethnic minority voters.

Although May will inevitably face accusations that Cameron has watered down her plans to curb stop and search in the announcement of today’s changes, due to the rather public reporting of her clash with No 10 on the issue, and disappointment from campaign groups who want the practice stopped altogether, it is clear that she has remained steadfastly up for the political challenge of reforms in this area of policing. A senior Conservative MP close to another cabinet minister once told me that there is a strand in the party who nicknamed the Home Secretary “Theresa May-be” because of her reputation for prevaricating over the big issues. Perhaps seeing her perseverance on stop and search, they’ll have to think of something new.

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