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UK policing bill will unfairly criminalise ethnic minorities, warn experts

Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy joined by rights campaigners in accusing the government of bringing in discriminatory legislation

Adam Bychawski
9 July 2021, 3.31pm
Bell Ribeiro-Addy fears the bill will increase racial inequalities
David Mbiyu/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The UK government’s controversial new policing law will increase the unjust criminalisation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, Labour’s Bell Ribeiro-Addy has warned.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which passed through the House of Commons this week, has been condemned by experts over the controversial new powers it gives to police and judges that would allow them to place restrictions on demonstrations and increase sentences for children.

Ribeiro-Addy said that the bill would exacerbate racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

“It has nothing to address the historic problems that the police have had with Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities going over decades,” the MP for Streatham said during an openDemocracy webinar on Thursday. “In fact, all it will do is criminalise those communities more, not just more generally, but thinking about how it relates to the justice system.”

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Stop and search trauma

The bill will increase stop and search powers by allowing police to search anyone previously convicted of an offence involving a knife without ‘reasonable grounds’ for doing so.

Stop and search powers disproportionately target Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. People from those communities were more than four times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people between 2019 and 2020; for Black people specifically, this rose to almost nine times more likely. Three quarters of overall searches resulted in there being no further action taken.

Ribeiro-Addy told the webinar panel that for “someone from a background like mine, experiences with the police haven’t always necessarily been great”, adding that seeing the police being handed more powers was “extremely scary”. She was joined on the panel by Jake Bowers, a Romani journalist and rights campaigner, and Becka Hudson, a mental health and imprisonment researcher.

If this bill comes into law, we will see more Black, Asian and minority ethnic people swept into the criminal justice system

The bill also allows 18-year-olds to be given a life sentence without the possibility for parole. And children will have to serve two-thirds, rather than half, of custodial sentences of seven years or more before they can be released.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic children are overrepresented across the youth justice system. They make up half of all children in custody and are more likely to receive harsher sentences than white children.

Nina Champion, director of Criminal Justice Alliance, told openDemocracy that the bill would increase racial inequalities in the justice system.

“Positive efforts to address race disparity in the criminal justice system risk being undermined by discriminatory measures in the bill. If it comes into law, we will see more Black, Asian and minority ethnic people swept into the criminal justice system and for longer periods of their lives, further entrenching race inequality and decreasing trust and confidence among these communities,” she said.

In March, a coalition of criminal justice and race equality organisations wrote to prime minister Boris Johnson warning that the bill would further entrench racial inequality in the criminal justice system.

In response, Alex Chalk, an under-secretary in the Ministry of Justice, said that the government was “doing more than ever before to identify disparity in the current practice and to put in place safeguards to prevent new policies from having unintended consequences that may have a cumulative impact on disparities”.

‘Unjust over-policing’

Shadae Cazeau, head of policy for the race equality organisation EQUAL, told openDemocracy the government's response was “disappointing”.

“Despite repeatedly flagging our concerns, the government has failed to take this opportunity to reform legislation to improve outcomes for minority ethnic communities and go some way to rebuilding historical mistrust,” she said. “The over-policing of our communities is unjust, the longer sentences given to our communities is unjust and this bill will only exacerbate the situation.”

The bill has also been accused of criminalising the Gypsy and Traveller way of life. It gives new powers of fines of up to £2,500 and three-month prison sentences for unauthorised encampments. Police will also be able to seize the homes of Gypsies and Travellers until the conclusion of criminal proceedings.

Bowers told the openDemocracy webinar that the bill was the “final nail in the coffin for nomadic life”.

The bill passed its third reading in the Commons by 365 votes to 265. It will now be considered by the House of Lords, where peers may insert changes before the legislation returns to the Commons.

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