Alison McInnes MSP writes…The Scottish Justice Secretary is wrong to say stop and search is an operational matter

Police stop and search1st April 2014 marked the 1st anniversary of Police Scotland, a single national police force that replaced our 8 regional forces.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats were the only group in the Scottish Parliament to oppose the national force from the outset.

One of the key strengths of Scotland’s policing up until then had been its local foundations.  Funded by local councils, managed by local officers and officials, accountable to locally elected representatives, responsive to local needs.

When the national police force was proposed, we had concerns over accountability, local control and political independence.  Savings claims were unproven, and we argued that it would lead to a one-size-fits-all approach to policing our local communities.

Many of our concerns have been justified. However, one issue we did not anticipate was Police Scotland’s zeal for “voluntary” stop and search.

There were over half a million stop and searches across Scotland between April and December 2013; Our FOI request revealed  a 516% increase in Fife in the first three months of the new force.

Most worryingly, three quarters of all searches were conducted on a non-statutory basis, without any suspicion that the subject was involved in criminal activity and therefore dependent on acquiring verbal consent.  In these cases, subjects are told little, or nothing, about their rights. And the success rate? Only 7%.

This appears to be a Strathclyde Police tactic that has now been rolled out across Scotland. (the new Chief Constable for Scotland was previously the Chief in Strathclyde).

A recently published Edinburgh University study has revealed that stop and search rates are 4 times higher in Scotland than the rest of the UK.

In Scotland children under 14 were searched 26,000 times in 2010 without statutory authority. That included 500 searches of children aged 10 or under, and 72 searches of children aged seven or younger.  How do children under the age of seven give their informed consent?

The Human Rights Commissioner for Scotland has said stop and search in Scotland is “unregulated and unaccountable”.

The Children’s Commissioner has warned that the police action risks alienating young people.

The power to search an individual without legal cause has simply been appropriated by the police, without due parliamentary scrutiny and approval. This is intolerable to me as a Liberal Democrat. In light of that, I led a debate in Parliament this week calling on the Scottish government to put stop and search on a firm legal footing.

Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, refused to act. He argued it is an operational matter for the police. He cited reduction in crime and the lack of complaints and said people welcomed it!

I now intend to bring forward amendments to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill to tackle this.

Evidence led stop and search, used in a proportionate and fair manner is a useful tool for the police. However, in its current form, the extensive use of unregulated stop and search powers threatens civil liberties. It threatens to alienate whole sections of our communities. It threatens to erode the trust, relationships and public respect upon which the police depend. And it threatens Scotland’s model of policing by consent.


* Alison McInnes is Liberal Democrat MSP for North East Scotland and speaks on justice matters in the Scottish Parliament

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