Liberal Hero of the Week #67: Theresa May

by Stephen Tall on May 3, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

cf hero theresa may

Theresa May

Conservative home secretary
Reason: for announcing plans to reform police stop-and-search in England and Wales.

Home Secretary Theresa May has featured in this series twice before: once as a Hero (for her decision not to extradite Gary McKinnon to the US) and once as a Villain (for supporting minimum alcohol pricing).

The balance has tipped in favour of Hero status this week thanks to her plans to reform police stop-and-search in England and Wales, and her announcement that officers who fail to use their powers properly will face disciplinary action or retraining.

She has good reason to do so. The findings of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) show that 27% of the stop-and-search records it examined did not contain reasonable grounds to search people, even though many of these records had been endorsed by supervising officers. That suggests more than one-quarter of the million-plus stops carried out under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 in 2013 could have been illegal. Unsurprisingly, but still depressingly, those who are black or from a minority ethnic background are up to six times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police.

If this activity yielded significant results perhaps it could be justified. But in reality just nine per cent of stops result in arrest, mostly for possession of small amounts of cannabis. As Diane Abbott pointed out in response:

No single issue has done more to poison relationships between young people in inner cities and the police. Unless you have a young male family member who is repeatedly stopped and searched, it is difficult to appreciate the bitterness it causes.

To her credit – and apparently against the opposition of some Conservatives in Downing Street – Theresa May has recognised the issue. Here’s how she concluded her Commons statement on Wednesday:

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, because 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. That is why these are the right reforms and why I commend this statement to the House.

And that’s why she’s commended here this week.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.