Chris Marshall: What next after stop-and-searches are no more?

The use of 'consensual' stop and search has been brought to an end. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The use of 'consensual' stop and search has been brought to an end. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Now that the use of “consensual” stop and search has been brought to an end, the debate has moved from the controversial tactic itself to the measures that should replace it.

Much of the first two years of Police Scotland’s existence was dominated by discussion of stop and search, namely its use to check children and teenagers for weapons and alcohol.

Routinely described as “consensual”, non-statutory stop and search was an ad-hoc tactic based not on intelligence, but the everyday experience of officers policing Scotland’s cities.

Last year, an advisory group led by respected QC John Scott found banning the controversial practice would not hinder Police Scotland’s ability to tackle crime.

The Scottish Government duly announced that the use of consensual stop and search would end, not just for children but adults too.

But while Mr Scott’s advisory group was firm in its view that non-statutory stop and search should end, it did not come to a decision on whether powers were needed to allow the police to search for alcohol.

Currently, police officers can confiscate alcohol from under-18s but have no specific power to search for it. Police Scotland has warned that removing stop and search without introducing legislation to allow for alcohol searches would leave a significant “gap” in its capabilities.

MSPs have already passed an amendment which will allow for legislation to stop and search children under the age of 18 for alcohol when police have a “reasonable suspicion”. The powers will also extend to adults thought to be “hiding” a child’s alcohol.

However, the final decision on whether to implement the legislation will depend on the outcome of an ongoing consultation.

In a persuasive blog by the academic Kath Murray–- an expert on stop and search – it was argued that police have no need for the new power they crave. According to Dr Murray, statistics show 91 per cent of alcohol detections involving children between June and August 2015 resulted from existing statutory powers of seizure. Just 7 per cent involved a non-statutory stop and search.

The challenge for the Scottish Government will be where it takes its cues from on the issue.

With Police Scotland likely to ramp up their calls for a new alcohol search power, the justice secretary Michael Matheson faces a difficult decision.

As if to indicate the pressure he will be under, Mr Matheson faced difficult questions from one of his own backbenches – albeit in the shape of former First Minister Alex Salmond – during a recent debate on stop and search in Holyrood.

Passing the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill – which includes provisions for a new statutory code on stop and search – Mr Matheson was repeatedly challenged by Mr Salmond, who said stop and search had made great strides in tackling the “social evil” of knife crime.

Mr Salmond said the government should be “extremely careful” not to dismiss the connection between a drop in stop and search activity in England and a rise in knife crime.

He said Scotland would be making a “fatal bargain” by scrapping stop and search if that meant impeding the police in tackling knife crime.

Alcohol is not knife crime. But the fact that alcohol is a major driver of crime is not in ­dispute.

It remains to be seen, however, if the police would be undermined by their inability to carry out stop and searches to look for it.