Police control rooms reprieved as stop and search scrapped

Justice Minister Michael Matheson makes a statement in the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
Justice Minister Michael Matheson makes a statement in the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
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PLANS to close control rooms will be halted and the controversial tactic of consensual stop and search is to be scrapped in a major review of Scottish ­policing.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) was asked to review ­Police Scotland’s call handling following the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill in a crash on the M9 in July.

It took rescuers three days to find the couple’s vehicle after a call handler failed to log a call from a member of the public.

HMICS said call-handling staff in parts of Scotland were under “unacceptably high” pressure.

The findings came as a separate report was published yesterday by an independent advisory group set up by the Scottish Government, which found consensual stop and search was of “questionable lawfulness and legitimacy”.

Justice secretary Michael Matheson said the report’s recommendations – which include a call to end the practice – would be accepted in full.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday issued a public apology over the deaths of Ms Bell and Mr Yuill and confirmed the programme of police control-room closures would be halted.

Police Scotland has come under increasing pressure in recent months over a number of high-profile controversies.

The advisory group on stop-search, which was led by human rights lawyer John Scott, recommended that a code of practice backed by law be developed to cover stop and search.

But the tactic of consensual stop and search, which has no statutory basis, should be ended altogether, the group said.

It concluded: “Non-statutory stop and search lacks any legal framework and is of questionable lawfulness and legitimacy, with poor accountability.”

It said: “All searches by police officers in Scotland of persons not in custody should thereafter be undertaken on the basis of statutory powers exercised in accordance with the code of practice.”

It adds: “If non-statutory stop and search is ended, officers of Police Scotland will still be able to carry out their duties effectively. Abolition will not result in any significant gaps.”

The report called for a consultation on whether to change the law to give officers the power to search under-18s for alcohol when they have reasonable grounds for suspicion.

It also wants Police Scotland to provide regular and public reports and data about stop and search to oversight body, the Scottish Police Authority.

Scottish Liberal Democrat spokeswoman Alison McInnes said: “This report confirms that hundreds of thousands of people have been the subject of unregulated and arguably unlawful police searches.

“Driven by an unhealthy targets culture and a one-size-fits-all approach, the practice unfairly targeted young and vulnerable people across Scotland. Complacency from SNP ministers and police chiefs allowed this to go on for more than two years.

“The case for comprehensive reform of this discredited tactic is now overwhelming. There is no place for random, unregulated police searches in a modern, progressive Scotland.”

But the Scottish Police Federation (SPF), which represents 98 per cent of rank and file officers, said it could not accept the report’s findings.

SPF chairman Brian Docherty said: “We would like to thank John Scott QC for his work on examining what has become a highly controversial area of police work. We know that almost no matter what he was to recommend, it would have resulted in criticism from someone.

“However, we simply cannot agree with his recommendation that what has become known as consensual search should come to an end.

“Consent has led to the detection of serious crimes in the past and its removal will hinder the investigation of crime and the disruption of serious and organised criminality in the future. We don’t believe any of our communities want that. We also don’t believe the report adequately explains why this would not in fact be the case.”

Publication of the report came as it emerged controversial plans to close police call centres in Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness are to be postponed.

Ms Sturgeon was asked at First Minister’s Questions if the Scottish Government will implement the recommendations of the HMICS which called for the closures to be halted.

She said: “We accept that recommendation unreservedly.”

She added: “We were all shocked and saddened by the circumstances surrounding the deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell and my thoughts continue to be with their families.

“Police Scotland have already apologise and on behalf of the Scottish Government I want to say how deeply sorry I am for what those families are going through.”

The HMICS report found staff shortages in Bilston Glen, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness.

The current practice of diverting unanswered overflow calls to Govan, Motherwell and Bilston Glen creates “additional risk” as these are then passed back to North Area control rooms, the report said.

HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland Derek Penman said: “HMICS recognises the constraints placed upon Police Scotland as a result of staff shortages in Bilston Glen, Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee, but considers the practice of diverting overflow calls to the main sites in Govan, Motherwell and Bilston Glen is creating additional risk.

“This will not be resolved until there is a full complement of trained staff supported by effective systems, processes and procedures in the main sites and we strongly believe that, until that is the case, the facilities in Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee should remain in place.”

Mr Matheson said Police Scotland would be given an extra £1.4 million to recruit 70-75 call handling staff.

There will also be a review of police governance led by Andrew Flanagan, the new chair of the SPA, whose appointment was announced yesterday.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: “Events like the tragic deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell and the fact thousands of police calls in Dundee are going unanswered have not come out of the blue.

“They were predicted as a direct consequence of this Scottish Government’s centralisation agenda.

“The then justice secretary [Kenny MacAskill] was warned this would happen, the Scottish Police Authority was warned this would happen, and the Scottish Government was warned this would happen. Nicola Sturgeon has to explain why nobody took notice.”

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said: “In the two years since Police Scotland has been established we have seen searches on children spiralling out of control, police counters closed, allegations of spying on journalists, police armed without the consent of parliament or the Scottish people and two tragic deaths.

“Men and women putting their personal safety on line to keep people safe have been let down.

“This has been an unnecessary crisis and tragedy caused by a blinding adherence to a government policy demanding savings.”

In a statement released through their solicitor, the father and grandfather of Lamara Bell’s son, Kieran, said: “The family welcome the report but a great deal still remains to be investigated. The Scottish Government must act on all the interim findings, ordinary people who entrust their lives to call centres must be 100 per cent sure their cries for help will be answered.

“We are conscious that this tragedy has been turned into a political football and very convenient way to scapegoat individuals, but for us it is about why a young boy will face many difficult years of going to sleep and waking up without his mummy.

“We have tried our best to protect Kieran and we know we will never be able to fill the massive void left in his life by the loss of Lamara, but if there is to be a legacy from this tragedy then lessons must be learned as soon as possible, so that no child has to experience what our ­Kieran is going through.”