MPs rebuke police for ‘systemic failure’ to improve record on race

Failings have led to ‘unjustified inequalities’, says landmark report that finds little progress in 22 years since Macpherson

Police and governments have done too little to stamp out racial injustice in the ranks, with the failings being systemic and leading to “unjustified inequalities”, a report by an all-party committee of MPs has found.

The report by the home affairs committee was heavily critical of the progress made in the 22 years since the Macpherson report into why the white killers of Stephen Lawrence were allowed to go free, which blamed “institutional racism”

The report castigates the police for failing to reform themselves, but also successive governments of both main parties for failing to take racial justice seriously enough.

It condemns “deep-rooted and persistent racial disparities” and finds guidelines and recommendations ignored over the past two decades, or not followed through.

Amid this, racial disparities affecting black and minority ethnic (BAME) people, especially black Britons, remain and cannot be explained or justified, the report says.

Police leaders responded by accepting the report, saying the slow pace of reform was of “deep regret” and promising real change.

The report describes as “unjustified inequalities” the fact that black people remain nine times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched in England and Wales, with most found to be innocent. Black people are more likely to be stopped for drugs but are less likely to use them, the report says.

On Tuesday the prime minister described stop and search as “loving”, as he launched a new crime strategy derided by some as being a collection of gimmicks including government approval to make stops without suspicion easier.

The report found the recruitment of ethnic minority officers was too slow and it is “inexcusable” that forces would take decades to be representative of the areas they police. Currently 7% of officers are from ethnic minorities compared with 14% of the population, with demographic predictions for the Guardian projecting that the race gap will grow even bigger.

Retention of BAME officers who have joined is also a problem and they are twice as likely to be dismissed as their white counterparts.

In a highly unusual move, the committee described as “wrong” a big expansion by the Met in its use of stop and search in London during the first months of lockdown in 2020. That saw the equivalent of one in four of all black males aged between 15 and 24 searched, and found to be doing nothing wrong.

The report says: “It should never have been possible for the equivalent of one in four black males between the ages of 15 and 24 in London who were not committing a crime to be stopped and searched during a three-month period.

“This finding undermines arguments that stop and search was being used judiciously during this time.”

The report notes: “Those we heard from in London expressed strong sentiments of anger and frustration towards the police, particularly about the way in which they felt police officers did not treat them fairly or with respect, and also expressed the lack of confidence they had that the police would keep them safe.”

One rationale offered for the racial disparity in stop and search figures is the challenge of tackling knife crime. The committee rejected this argument: “We recognise the importance of the police being able to take action against knife crime, and their concern that victims and perpetrators of knife crime are disproportionately black, but we also note that this does not explain the fact that there are significant racial disparities in stop and searches in every force in the country, with some of the highest levels of disproportionality in areas with very low levels of knife crime.”

Neville Lawrence, father of Stephen, said: “I am very concerned that black people are continuing to be disproportionately subject to police powers such as stop and search, a situation that is worsening. It is also concerning that black people remain disproportionately the victims of violent crime.

Lawrence backed the committee’s calls for a new steering group to oversee changes: “Given these failings, increased oversight is clearly needed and I am pleased the committee has recognised this.”

The report calls for the appointment of a race tsar for policing; for the home secretary to take a greater lead in steering reform; and for police forces to look like the communities they serve by 2030. They were first set that target in 1999, given a decade, and missed it.

The report adopts as a key finding an admission made in a Guardian interview by Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, that race undermines policing’s legitimacy and effectiveness. It also says confidence in the police is lower among some BAME communities than among white people, and that the gap is growing.

Hewitt welcomed the report: “[The committee’s] thorough report does justice to the significant impact that Sir William Macpherson has had on society since 1999. Since then, policing has changed, but as this report makes clear, not far or fast enough to secure the confidence of all communities and especially black people,” he said.

“This is of deep regret for policing and of course those who knew Stephen. Putting that right is an operational imperative because the legitimacy and effectiveness of UK policing is built on relationships between the police and the public.”

The Macpherson report said that community confidence in policing should be a priority, but the committee found it was not “a policing priority or as a ministerial priority today”.

The committee praises some forces for progress made since the Macpherson report in 1999, but says it has been patchy and too little.

In a key passage, setting out the challenges policing needs to meet, the report says: “Policing today is very different from 22 years ago and there have been important and welcome improvements … We have also found persistent, deep-rooted and unjustified racial disparities in key areas.

“The failure to make sufficient progress on BAME recruitment, retention and progression, troubling race disparities in the police misconduct system, unjustified inequalities in the use of key police powers such as stop and search and a worrying decline in confidence and trust in the police among some BAME communities all point to structural problems that go beyond individual bias.

“There has been a systematic failure on the part of the police service and government, over many years, to take race inequality in policing seriously enough.

“The Macpherson report’s objective at the end of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry to ‘eliminate racist prejudice and disadvantage and demonstrate fairness in all aspects of policing’ has not been met.”

The committee makes no finding on institutional racism, which police deny, or the effectiveness in tackling crime of stop and search, instead calling for more research.

The report is a rebuke to those in policing and government that have tried to underplay or deny the race crisis that has gripped policing. That saw hundreds of thousands take to Britain’s streets in support of Black Lives Matter, triggered by the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the US in May 2020.

Last month in the UK a police officer who kicked a black man, Dalian Atkinson, in the head in Telford was convicted of manslaughter, the first such conviction of an officer in more than 30 years.

Andy George, president of the National Black Police Association, said: “The denial of institutional racism has prevented initiatives to bring about racial equality in policing. Not only are we failing to recruit enough officers from ethnic backgrounds, we are falling to retain them.

“This highlights the need to change the internal culture of policing.”

The report says it is “deeply concerned” that some victims of race hate crime say they have been treated by the police as suspects rather than victims, and warns that the police are failing to tackle racist hate crime on the internet.

Since George Floyd’s murder, police leaders have promised reform but little has been announced, and those with knowledge of draft plans tell the Guardian they are little different from what has gone before.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, said: “Without clear action to tackle race inequality we fear that, in 10 years’ time, future committees will be hearing the very same arguments that have been rehearsed already for over 20 years. That cannot be allowed to happen.”

Achievement was possible, the report found: “The recent progress by forces in Greater Manchester and Nottinghamshire has shown that it is possible rapidly to increase the proportion of new BME recruits into line with the proportion of BME residents in the local population.”

The Met said the criticism of its increased stop and search in 2020 at the start of lockdown was because “officers were redirected in their duties, as overall crime levels reduced, and saw many more of them on the streets undertaking proactive policing in violence hotspots and on general patrol duties.

“This led to an increase in the number of stop and searches carried out but was not the result of any direction to officers to increase stop and search.”

In a statement, the policing minister, Kit Malthouse, did not address key points in the report such as the need for government to do more. He said: ”We know there is much more to do – that is why attracting more officers from a wide range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds is a core ambition of our drive to recruit an extra 20,000 officers.

“Stop and search along with other preventative activity set out in the Beating Crime Plan is also vital to ensuring we create safer streets and neighbourhoods.”

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