Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
26 August 2014updated 23 Jul 2021 9:59am

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.

By Anoosh Chakelian

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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

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.