Serious Violence Reduction Orders and increased police stop and search powers – should we be worried about the pilot scheme launched this week?
Police forces covering the Thames Valley, Sussex, West Midlands and Merseyside regions this week began a pilot scheme of the use of Serious Violence Reduction Orders (“SVROs”) and post-conviction powers associated with SVROs. The scheme has a planned duration of two years before a decision on national roll out will be made.
SVROs were introduced under Section 165 of the recent and controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 (“the Act”). The introduction, pushed through despite fierce campaigning by various rights groups on this and other aspects of the new measures covered in the Act, appears to be a product of the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto pledge that “Police will be empowered by a new court order to target known knife carriers, making it easier for officers to stop and search those convicted of knife crime”.
Under the Act, SVROs can be made by a court against anyone over 18 years of age who is convicted of an offence which involves an offensive weapon or bladed article. Orders can be applied for a fixed period of six months to two years and a breach of the order will constitute a criminal offence with a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. Whilst during the pilot scheme SVROs can only be applied for and made in the 4 regions subject to the scheme, officers across England and Wales will have the power to stop and search anyone subject to an order regardless of their location.
The purported purpose of these new measures as set out in the draft statutory guidance is to provide the police with “powers to take a more assertive and proactive approach” in stop and search practices, which it describes as “a vital tool to crack down on violent crime and the habitual carrying of weapons by a number of offenders.” Essentially, the application of a SVRO allows officers an automatic right to search the person to whom the order applies (i.e. none of the other usual stop and search requirements, such as that the officer must have reasonable grounds for suspecting the person is carrying an offensive weapon, need to be satisfied). The guidance states that the underlying rationale for this move: “is intended to increase the risk of detection in the mind of those individuals subject to the order, helping discourage them from carrying weapons, and provide them with a credible basis for distancing themselves from weapon-carrying and other criminal behaviour”.
A number of Human Rights groups have released a joint statement in response to this worrying move this week calling for it to be scrapped. A key concern is that the order can be applied where, on the balance of probabilities, (1) an individual is found to have themselves used, or had with them, an offensive weapon or bladed article at the time of the offence; and/or (2) another person who was simply with an individual who used, or had with them, an offensive weapon or bladed article and is found to have committed an offence at the time and “knew or ought to have known that this would be the case”.
Effectively, this means that a SVRO can be applied to an individual who has not used or carried an offensive weapon nor been involved in serious violence themselves; ergo they can be held criminally accountable for the actions of others or “guilty by association”. In addition to a principled objection to this move from a criminal justice standpoint, it must be borne in mind that those who find themselves at risk of a SVRO under the second limb are likely to include a high proportion of vulnerable victims who are with the offender at the time due to underlying criminal exploitation and/or coercive control, including for example women subject to domestic abuse.
More widely, this move is also inevitably likely to lead to further discrimination and disparate adverse impacts on young men from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, who statistically are already over-exposed to the use of stop and search powers. This is recognised and acknowledged within the Home Office’s equality and impact assessment.
At a time of such turmoil, where serious internal systemic issues and corruption within police forces across the UK are rarely out of the headlines, handing over further increased powers and seemingly expanding the remit of criminal justice in this way is indeed a worrying move, particularly given the lack of evidence that stop and search powers have a measurable impact on violent crime reduction. We support the calls of rights groups instead advocating for proper investment in effective measures to tackle the root underlying causes of serious violence, with meaningful and community level initiatives and the maintenance and protection of individual’s human rights.