Police searched me, not my white friends, writes the Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf.
One of the key challenges for any government minister is understanding how the impact of your polices is felt by people in their day-to-day lives. Actions have consequences, sometimes unintended ones, and getting the balance right is tricky. As a politician, my job is to see it from both sides by meeting, talking and listening to people.
But in the case of police powers to stop and search, I have first-hand experience. As a young Asian man growing up in Glasgow, I’ve been stopped and searched around a dozen times, sometimes at the airport, but when I was younger in the street or in my car or a friend’s car. I was never committing a crime but I felt singled out because of the colour of my skin. When I was the only one in my group of white friends who was told to stand aside and be questioned, I have to be honest, it wasn’t great for my trust in police.
That was quite a few years ago now. Today I am in the privileged position of Justice Secretary and am able to ensure the police have the tools to do their job and civil liberties are protected. Stop and search has an important place in terms of tackling, indeed preventing, crime and protecting the public. It is right the police, who work to keep our communities safe, have these powers. But I know that I wasn’t alone in being concerned about some of the practices around stop and search.
It is vital there is a balance between, on the one hand, allowing the police to continue to address crime in all its aspects, and, on the other, the right of the public, including our young people, to go about their daily lives untroubled by unjustified police activity.
As a parliament and as a country, we have been having this very debate over the last few years and this Government has responded by putting in place the checks and balances needed. We introduced a statutory code of practice in 2017 to ensure that stop and search is used legally and proportionately and that searches are carried out with fairness and respect, including specific guidance on searching children and vulnerable adults.
The practice of non-statutory searches, which involves people being stopped in the street and searched after giving their verbal consent, has been ended entirely by Police Scotland and we have seen a dramatic fall from the previously very high numbers of searches, while positive detection rates have increased.
This suggests that stop and search is being used in a more effectively targeted and proportionate way. There is an independent advisory group, led by human rights lawyer John Scott QC, which is currently reviewing how well the code is working in practice and will recommend to me if any further changes are required. This group, which includes representation from the police and the children’s commissioner, is also examining the impact of stop and search on people from ethnic minority groups.
The code of practice makes things clearer so Scotland’s police officers better understand when stop and search is lawful, appropriate and proportionate – and when it is not. Individuals also now have a better understanding of their own rights.
I believe there have been significant improvements but that is not to say that further improvements don’t need to be made. I will keep that closely under review, as the police and the public would expect. Everyone has the right to be confident that they won’t be targeted by police because of their age, sex, ethnic background or religion. By learning the lessons of the past – and being open and frank about them – we can create a safer and fairer society for everyone.