No more ‘acting on a hunch’ as stop-and-search shakeup goes nationwide

The coalition is taking another step towards ending discriminatory stop-and-search powers today, after pilot schemes confirmed the controversial practice has been unfair and inefficient.

Home secretary Theresa May told the Commons the Home Office is launching a six-week consultation on broad reforms to stop-and-search and promote its 'intelligence-based' use only.

She told MPs the government supported stop-and-search and said 45,000 criminals were arrested in London following searches over the last year.

"But as important as stop-and-search undoubtedly is, we have to be frank about public concern about its use," May said, pointing out on average only about nine per cent of searches result in an arrest.

"That figure prompts me to question whether stop-and-search is always used appropriately," she added.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has been supervising an 18-month 'action programme' with five police forces, including the Metropolitan police, which has resulted in drops in the disproportionate use of stop and search against black and Asian people.

Under the terms of the Police and Criminal Race Act, passed by Margaret Thatcher's government, police officers in England and Wales have been able to use stop-and-search powers if they have 'reasonable grounds' to suspect a person is carrying illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property or something which could be used to commit a crime.

The Metropolitan, Merseyside, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and British Transport police forces each carried out more than 2,000 stops and searches in 2008/11.

In 2011/12 just nine per cent of the 1.2 million stop-and-searches led to an arrest.

That prompted the ECHR's calls for reform after it found a much higher proportion of black, Asian and mixed ethnicity people were being targeted – and warned officers could be exposed to discrimination claims.

May said stop-and-searches taking an average of 16 minutes is the equivalent of 312,000 hours per year, or 145 full-time police officers.

"I want to see stop-and-search only used where it's needed," she added. "At its worst it is a waste of police time and serves to undermine public confidence in the police."

Dorset police, Leicestershire Constabulary, Thames Valley police and the Met all managed to achieve falls in the disproportionate nature of their stop-and-searches after engaging with the Stop And Think Again programme.

West Midlands police did not see a fall but its total number of stop-and-searches did decline more than in any of the other five pilots.

"Where forces use an approach based on evidence rather than hunches or generalisations, they have not only seen reductions in crimes rates in line with overall trends, but have also increased public confidence in the police," the ECHR's chief executive Mark Hammond said.

"We will be continuing our work with police forces across the country based on this evidence to show them the positive outcomes which can be achieved by respecting human rights and discrimination law."

Its work has involved training police officers in what actually constitutes 'reasonable grounds' for a stop-and-search.

Police chiefs have contributed by cutting out performance targets, race patterns have been monitored more carefully and a written force policy on stop-and-search has also been introduced.