Does our criminal justice system work for ethnic minorities?

There is increasing concern that Britain’s criminal justice system treats black, minority and ethnic (BME) people more harshly than their white counterparts. Such concerns are not new. In 1999, the official report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence found that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”. However, concerns now relate to all aspects of the criminal justice system, including policing but also the sentencing of BME people and their experiences of prisons.


Confident rates in the police are particularly low among BME individuals. In 2015-16, around 80% of adults felt confidence in their local police. Yet, confidence levels were lowest among Black adults and those from a Mixed background. Individuals among such groups were around six percentage points less likely to report confidence in the police than white adults. Confidence was lowest among the youngest adults with only around 60% black people aged 16 to 24 reporting confidence in the police.

There are a number of potential causes of this. First, BME individuals are significantly more likely to be the victims of crime. In 2015-16, for instance, almost 20% of mixed race adults were the victim of a crime compared to around 14% of white adults. Moreover, police forces are frequently made up of predominantly white officers. No police force in England and Wales currently has BME representation that matches its local demographic. While 11 police forces have no BME officers above the rank of Inspector.

There is also concern about how suspected criminals are treated by the police. Since 2008-9, there has been a significant reduction in the use of Stop and Search powers which allow police officers to to stop and search individuals if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect they are carrying certain contraband. However, despite these reductions, such powers are still used disproportionately against BME individuals. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has found that, in some areas, black people are 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.

In custody and sentencing

There is significant concern that BME individuals are subjected to unfair sentencing practices by courts. This concern recent provoked a review of the criminal justice system by the Labour MP David Lammy.

Before a person accused of a crime stands trial, they may be held in custody until their trial or they may be released on bail until their trial dates. In 2016, Black defendants at the Crown Court, particularly Black males, were the most likely to be remanded in custody, whereas White and Asian defendants were less likely to be remanded in custody. However, the subsequent conviction rates for different ethnic groups do not suggest bias. In 2016, white defendants had the highest conviction ratio - defined as the number of offenders convicted as a proportion of the number prosecuted - at 86%, while all other ethnic groups had conviction ratios of 81%.

Despite the similar conviction rates, there are significant differences in the length of sentencing. In 2016, the average custodial sentence length received by different ethnic groups varied significantly. For instance, white offenders received an average sentence of 18 months while black and Asian offenders received the longest average custodial sentences at 24 and 25 months respectively. It must be noted, however, that these statistics do not take into account the context of crimes. For instance, they do not control for factors such as the offences dealt with, which may differ by ethnic group.

In detention

There is also concern that different ethnic groups have wildly different experiences of prisons. Since 2011 there has been a significant increase in assaults in adult prisons across all ethnic groups. For instance, the number of assault incidents in adult prisons increased by a third in a year alone (between 2014 and 2015).

Adult prisoners from a mixed ethnic background are mostly likely to be the assailants in such incidents. But, they are also most likely to be the victims of such incidents. In contract, Asian prisoners are the least likely to be involved in such incidents.

Self-inflicted deaths are a relatively rare in prisons. However, such incidents disproportionately affect white prisoners who account for over five times the number of self-inflicted deaths than all other ethnic groups combined. Similarly, self-harm also disproportionately affects white prisoners whose rates of self-harm are more than three times higher than Asian prisoners and more than five times higher than Black prisoners.


There is rising concern about how Britain’s criminal justice system treats individuals from different ethnic groups. Evidence suggests that certain BME people are more harshly treated in certain areas. For example, certain BME groups are much more likely to be subjected to so-called Stop-and-Search powers, are less likely to be granted bail, and are more likely receive harsher sentences. However, in other aspects, there does not appear to be considerable bias. White defendants have a higher conviction rate and are more likely to commit self harm in prisons or be involved in a self inflicted death.

James Dobson is a senior researcher at Bright Blue




Is ‘stop and search’ effective?

It’s five years since London was struck by the worst rioting in a decade. The riots resulted in five deaths and over 200 injuries. In the aftermath of the riots, 1,292 rioters were handed custodial sentences totalling 1,800 years.

A number of inquiries were held to identify the underlying causes of the riot. Once possible cause cited was the use of stop and search powers, which have been disproportionately used against people from ethnic minority backgrounds. It was argued that this created distrust and ultimately anger in the police in ethnic minority communities.

After the riots, the then Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP, ordered the police to reduce their use of stop and search powers. However, some proponents of stop and searches have argued that they were effective, and the recent reduction has led to an increase in crime.

A troubled history

Under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, police officers were allowed to search civilians when they were deemed to be behaving suspiciously. This law became known as the ‘Sus’ law; short for ‘suspicious’ person.

This law caused significant controversy in the 1980s when it was employed abundantly by the Metropolitan Police. In early April 1981, Operation Swamp - an attempt to cut street crime in Brixton - used the Sus law to stop more than 1,000 people in six days.

Soon after, rioting broke out in Brixton. The riots resulted in over 300 injuries but no deaths. In his official report into the riots, Lord Scarman identified Sus law as a causal factor of the rioting. In response, the Government repealed the Sus law in August of 1981.

However, in 1984 the Government introduced the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) which permitted police officers to search civilians without arrest where there was “reasonable” suspicion.  PACE is the law currently used by police officers in order to carry out the vast majority of searches of a person without arrest.

PACE provoked significant controversy following the 2011 riots when its disproportionate use against ethnic minority individuals was identified as one cause of the riots by a number of inquiries. Following the then Home Secretary’s, order for the police to significantly reduce their use of the powers, stop and searches fell from a peak of 1.2 million in 2010-11 to 539,000 in 2014-15.

Detecting crime

However, some such as the Metropolitan Police have been critical of the reduced usage of stop and search. They argue that the reduction in stop and searchers has coincided with a significant increase in crime, particularly knife crime.

Proponents of stop and search laws argue that it allows police officers to detect crime. They claim that police officers can frequently have reasonable suspicion that a person is committing a crime, but not enough evidence to arrest the suspect. In such circumstances, it can be impractical for police officers to seek a warrant to search a suspect.

The most useful evidence surrounding detection is the proportion of individuals arrested following a stop and search. Since the Macpherson Inquiry, which examined the practises of the Metropolitan Police following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, police officers have been compelled to keep a record of stop and searches and subsequent arrests.

The graph below shows the proportion of stop and searches, under PACE, which resulted in arrests. This arrest rate dropped from a high of 13% in 2003-04 to lows of 9% between 2009 and 2012. The arrest rate currently stands at 12%. The overall arrest rate suggests that stop and searches are not a particularly effective form of detecting crime.


Proportion of searches using PACE leading to arrest (2003-2014)

Source: Home Office (2016)

The arrest rate does, however, vary significantly depending on the reason that a person was searched. Twenty per cent of people who were searched because a police officer suspected that they held an offensive weapon were subsequently arrested. In contrast, only 9% of people who were searched on suspicion of possessing drugs were arrested.   

Deterring crime

A low arrest rate in itself does not necessarily mean that stop and search does not work. Proponents of stop and search also argue that its use can deter and prevent crime. They argue that the powers can effectively disrupt crime, particularly in relation to terrorism.

Estimating the number of crimes prevented by stop and search powers is inherently difficult. The most recent Home Office study into this used the British Crime Survey to estimate the number of crimes which were susceptible to disruption by searches. These offenses include burglary, vehicle thefts, bicycle theft, robbery and wounding. The study estimated that stop and searches reduced these crimes by 0.2%. It should be noted that the Home Office study did not include crimes under the Misuse of Drugs Act. However, this research does suggest that stop and searches have only a very small effect in preventing crime.

Earlier this year, the Home Office released research under a Freedom of Information request into Operation Blunt 2. Operation Blunt 2, which began in the spring of 2008, was an attempt to reduce knife crime in London. It involved a significant increase in stop and searches in some London boroughs. The official evaluation looked at ten London boroughs which saw 300% increase in weapon searches by the police, up from 34,154 in the year before to 123,335 in the first year of the Operation.

It compared the crime rates in these boroughs to 16 other London boroughs, which saw a much smaller increase in weapon searches over the same period. The researchers examined nine different measures of crime including assaults involving a knife, robbery, and weapons and drug possession offences. Their analysis found that “no statistically significant crime-reducing effect from the large increase in weapon searches during the course of Operation Blunt 2. This suggests that the greater use of weapons searches was not effective at the borough level for reducing crime.”


Since 2011, there has been a significant reduction in the use of stop and search powers. A number of inquiries have suggest that stop and search created distrust in the police in ethnic minority communities. However, it is possible that this distrust might be an acceptable price if stop and searches were particularly effective at reducing crimes. The evidence does not suggest this is the case. The use of stop and search does not seem to detect crime nor deter it.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue

We must tackle racial disparities in poverty

Participation in the labour market generally has an enormous impact on the ability of individuals and families to move out of poverty with problems around both access to and progression within work helping to explain the strikingly different poverty rates across ethnic groups. The rates for those defined as persistently poor between 2009 and 2012 were 14.1% for individuals of Black African heritage, 13.7% for those of Pakistani heritage and 5.1% for those from White groups.  

Some of this, especially for relatively new arrivals, can be traced to language issues - speaking English as a first language reduces the likelihood of being in persistent poverty by a substantial 5 percentage points. Weak English language skills are associated with the types of social and occupational segregation behind some groups’ disproportionate presence in work that is both poorly paid and which offers few prospects for progression. Pakistani and Bangladeshi men, for instance, are far more likely to be earning below the living wage.

However as the Women and Equalities select committee noted in its recent report on Muslim women, inequality, discrimination and Islamophobia also have a stark impact on people’s poverty risk.  Muslim women are 71% more likely than White Christian women to be unemployed, more likely than women from other groups to be asked about their marital status or family aspirations in job interviews, and their participation in the workplace is greatly affected by the disproportionate number of hate crime attacks perpetrated against them.    

For those at the start of their occupational careers, the likelihood that they will be able to escape low income adulthood is slim, and focussed government policy attention in both early years, through the extension of free childcare, but also in the transition between adolescence and adulthood, in reform to post-16 education is of the utmost importance.  Young people who begin their working lives in low paid work find it difficult to move beyond this while those who experience early unemployment can be faced with longer term periods without work.  The unemployment gap is high between ethnic groups – in 2014 young minority ethnic people had an unemployment rate of 28.6% compared with 15.5% for young white people.

This should be a cause of major concern. Earlier this month the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report Counting the Cost of UK Poverty in which we outlined the cost to the public purse of people being in poverty across a range of indicators including health, education and criminal justice.  Poverty costs us all financially – £69 billion in spending on public services, with an additional 9 billion in benefits spending and lost tax revenue.  The spend on education at approximately £10 billion, is a combination of the Pupil Premium and other targeted local authority work, and directly addresses support for children from low income families.  Investment of this kind is showing results with BME school attainment on an upward trajectory, but unless more is done to smooth young people’s transitions into the world of work their poverty risk will remain high, with the broader cost of the harms caused by such inequalities difficult to express in financial terms.  

Strategies to support transitions for poorer young people should include the provision of good quality careers advice, together with access to good quality apprenticeships and more effective widening participation activity from universities to address the woefully low representation of poorer young people across the higher education sector.  These areas however require reform – high quality careers advice is patchy, and while the emerging Apprenticeships Levy may assist in incentivising employers to provide better quality apprenticeships, access for minority ethnic young people is low – 26% of those applying for apprenticeships are from minority ethnic backgrounds but only 9.5% are successful.   

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has spoken of the clear inequalities that exist in the UK which can impact on life chances, employability and quality of life which suggests the possibility of renewed policy focus on early years, the criminal justice system and education among others.  These are all public policy areas in which those from poor and/or minority ethnic backgrounds experience ongoing difficulties and initiatives to address these will be welcome.

It is clear that the financial cost of poverty to society, in the form of lost earnings and increased spend on areas such as health and education, can be reduced with effective action to tackle its causes and the broader impact of particular inequalities, such as discrimination in recruitment processes exacerbates this.  These costs, while clearly tangible and measurable as we have shown, are also both moral and ethical and should contribute to our ‘collective shame’ – that within a prosperous society, the failure to support its most vulnerable members not only contributes to broader economic cost, but to social, material and psychological harm.

Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard is policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Why conservatives should defend human rights: The case of racial equality

Considering the experience of black and minority ethnic people in the UK, conservatives have at least two reasons to support human rights. First, human rights should amend if not replace conservative support for a narrow vision of basic freedoms. Racial discrimination has been historically defended on grounds of individual liberty, an argument that that was explicitly affirmed by the Conservative Party until at least the 1970s. Second, human right principles are a philosophically and pragmatically better response than a prominent conservative alternative to what John Rawls calls ‘reasonable pluralism’.

Conservatives since Burke tend to be sceptical of the idea that human rights might be grounded in universal claims about human nature, claims that appear to rest on curious metaphysical claims or ‘nonsense upon stilts’.[1]

At the same time conservatives are deeply committed to the rule of law, and in most cases support the actual content of human rights, even where there is scepticism about their grounding in abstract philosophical claims. Instead, conservatives point to custom or tradition, and suggest that in England (and Britain) a long tradition of rights can be traced back to Magna Carta and further elaborated through incremental parliamentary and social change, notably including the ‘Glorious Revolution’.

There is reason to doubt the accuracy of this standard Whiggish account – an account shared by many liberals and conservatives alike. Instead, I will suggest, conservatives should much more explicitly defend human rights based on the experience of the treatment of ethnic minorities in Britain. 

The need for race relation legislation 

Conservatives should be wary of interpreting common law as inevitably protecting people’s civil liberties and viewing human rights as a corrupting influence on this superior tradition. Under common law English men had the freedom to discriminate on grounds of race, a freedom that was unfortunately exercised over the course of history until the 1960s. As related by Hon. Justice Rabinder Singh, The West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine had in 1944 challenged the Imperial Hotel for refusing to serve him, but the case carried no further weight or protection under common law. At a reception marking the 50th anniversary of the first race relations act in December, Paul Stephenson, the leader of the Bristol bus boycott, related how he was kicked out of a pub for daring to order a half pint of beer, and how numerous police arrived to escort him to prison and then charged him in court with refusing to comply with the publican’s racist demand that he leave.

Cases like these explain why Parliament passed various race relations acts in 1965, 1968 and then 1976. The legislation needed updating in such quick succession because the first act was so weak (in part because of vocal Conservative opposition to it), failing to protect black and minority ethnic people even from the infamous ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs, or from discrimination in the labour market, where it remained legal not to employ someone because of the colour of their skin until the 1968 Act.

At that December reception Conservative MPs including Maria Miller and Kwasi Kwarteng expressed their disappointment but also bafflement at their predecessors’ rejection of race relations legislation. In one way today’s Conservative MPs are right to think that many of their predecessors (and some Labour MPs of the day) were more motivated by explicit racism, but there’s two further lessons for contemporary conservatives.

First, that high-minded or general reference to the ‘rule of law’ or even ‘basic liberties’ have historically proven insufficient to protect the rights and freedoms of disadvantaged and less powerful groups. It’s worth reminding ourselves that rights are always claimed by the less powerful against overweening authority – whether barons on the fields of Runnymede, sans-culottes against the ancien regime, ethnic minorities against racist landlords, or indeed those who today appear vulnerable to mistreatment or even torture by another state, typically (though not always) minorities.

Individual liberty and discrimination

The second lesson for conservatives is that there is a serious danger in appealing only to custom or, indeed, historic Englishness to defend minimalist civil liberties, and not to support human rights. In arguing against the 1968 Act, Enoch Powell’s argument that the black man would have the ‘whip hand’ over the white man was grounded in a view that white English men had the ancient liberty or freedom to discriminate. Powell’s argument was that liberties were for English men only, and not universal.

But however noxious Powell’s particular phrasing, his view that race relations legislation was contrary to English liberty was a key plank in the Conservative Party’s opposition to the 1968 Act. In his intervention in the Commons on 23 April 1968, Reginald Maudling explained the Opposition’s view: “we believe that it definitely encroaches on individual freedom and individual liberty”.[2]

The point of going over this history is not to condemn the Conservative party of the 1960s, or to gloss over reasonable concerns about the efficacy of the 1968 Act. Rather, these arguments are simply a recent example of the argument that liberty entails or requires the ability to discriminate. This was in fact, the more historically common interpretation of English (later British) civil liberties, and not only among conservatives, stretching back at least as far as parliamentary debate and popular pamphlets in the late 17th century that defended the expansion of the enslavement of African people.[3] At the same time as the Glorious Revolution Parliament followed democratic opinion in arguing that the Royal Africa Company’s monopoly on the slave trade was an infringement on English men’s liberties, in this case the freedom to trade in enslaved Africans.

Conservatives after Powell have of course rejected his claim that liberties are somehow unique to or prior for white English men, and it was Harold Macmillan whose ‘winds of change’ speech heralded the freedom of British colonies in Africa. At the same time, however, many conservatives hold to a version of the Whiggish view of the natural or inevitable development of rights first set into train at Runnymede 800 years ago, and have simply placed the various race relations acts within this wider story.

Universal rights 

Instead of seeing race relations acts as an organic and subtle change, we should probably agree with Maudling and view this legislation as a genuine break from a prior tradition. English men previously had the liberty to discriminate against others as a fundamental principle, with Magna Carta and later legislation clearly rejecting the idea that rights and liberties were universal or could be exercised by all. The idea of universal rights, is of course, a core plank of human rights.

By contrast, conservatives from Herder to Burke to Powell might be called ‘multiculturalists’: they believed that rights and customs were not universal, but rather attached to particular peoples and cultures with particular institutions and ways of doing things. An important strand of conservative thinking is resistant not only to the thought that human rights can be universally grounded, but also doubtful that non-English (or non-German or non-American or whatever) people will ever generally affirm English values and customs, including respect for civil liberties and the rule of law, unless they fully assimilate culturally and dispositionally. Powell was perhaps the ideal-type: he supported civil liberties because he was an Englishman, not the other way round. This is quite far from Kantian-influenced arguments about the role of reason in recognising the universal claims of all humans, and ably defended more recently by James Griffin

And it’s not just philosophers who agree about the universality of human rights. The United Nations now has a range of human rights treaties, including the first 1965 Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the vast majority of nation-states have signed up to these. Significantly, British conservative lawyers (including David Maxwell Fyfe) were the authors of much of this international legal framework, and remain some of its strongest defenders.

English (or British) Conservatives should therefore reject the idea that rights uniquely originated in the fertile soil at Runnymede, both because this tradition has proven inadequate for protecting the rights of ethnic minorities and because those rights are now accepted globally.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the conservative affirmation of liberty of opinion is understood to result in a diversity of views about what matters most, or what John Rawls has called ‘reasonable pluralism’.[4] Reasonable pluralism is a hallmark of an open society; it obtains when reasonable and rational people come to different conclusions or judgments about some of the most significant matter in our lives. Conservatives and liberals, atheists and Catholics may all have reasonable views about such matters, but cannot reasonably expect those with opposing views to simply conform to their position – at least not in an open society.

By way of a conclusion it is perhaps worth clarifying an important difference between the modern ‘multiculturalist’ tradition and the older conservative one. One of the things conservative critics of multiculturalism miss is that most of its defenders in fact hold quite strongly to a conception of universal human rights. While Runnymede and others have argued that we should recognise the historic and ongoing contribution of different cultures to British society, we have explicitly argued, most notably in the 2000 multi-ethnic Britain report[5] that human rights set a limit on how permissive the state can be with respect to cultural difference. In other words, we have argued that practices cannot be accommodated where they violate universal principles of human rights.[6]

The alternative is rather to view non-English or non-Christian cultures as being less committed to rights which instead originate in and can only be contingently grounded by dispositional deference to tradition. Conservatives are right to be sceptical of high-minded metaphysical arguments, but they should be equally sceptical of a fable in which civil liberties have naturally and uncontroversially evolved since 1215 (a fable described by the historian and Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption as ‘high-minded tosh’[7]). Especially in a context where ethnic minorities were denied their basic rights in recent memory, and where ethnic minorities will grow to one-third of the population by mid-century, conservatives should instead affirm the value of universal human rights as the best way to protect civil liberties and ultimately to ensure the long-term stability of British society and democracy.

Omar Khan is the director of the Runnymede Trust

[1] The phrase is Jeremy Bentham’s. See Waldron, J. (2009) Nonsense Upon Stilts: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man. London: Routledge.

[2] HC Deb 23 April 1968 vol 763 cc53-198; Maudling at column 154 http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1968/apr/23/race-relations-bill

[3] Pettigrew, W. (2015) ‘Civil Liberties and the Genesis of Racial Inequality: Freeing the Trade in Enslaved Africans’ in O. Khan (ed.) How Far Have We Come? Lessons from the 1965 Race Relations Act. London: Runnymede. http://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/publications/pdfs/Race%20Relations%20Act%20Perspectives%20report.pdf

[4] Rawls, J. (1993) Political Liberalism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

[5] Often called the ‘Parekh report’ after its Chair, Lord Bhikhu Parekh. Commission on the Future of Multi-ethnic Britain (2000) The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain: The Parekh Report. Profile Books.

[6] As summarised in 2000, the Commission explained: ‘Negotiations over contested issues – for example, the content of the national curriculum, sensitivity to cultural diversity in the health service, the wearing of religious clothing at work, equality for women in the home – cannot take place in an ethical vacuum. They require ground rules that provide a minimum guarantee of protection for individuals and a framework for handling conflicts of interest. The argument in this chapter is that such ground rules are provided in part by international human rights standards’ http://www.runnymedetrust.org/projects/meb/reportPartOne.html#building

[7] Sumption, L. (2015) ‘Magna Carta then and now’. Address to the Friends of the British Library, 9 Marchhttps://www.supremecourt.uk/docs/speech-150309.pdf