Chief Constable Sir Stephen House was among senior officers from Police Scotland called before a meeting of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) yesterday after it emerged last week that officers had continued to search children under the age of 12, despite the force giving an assurance the practice had been stopped. The police intend to consult on ending the use of consensual searches – where the subject gives verbal consent – for all ages, but have warned that legislation would be needed to “plug the gap” left behind. While police currently have the ability to confiscate alcohol, there is no law which allows them to search for it.
Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick said the use of stop and search had helped reduce the number of calls received by police about disorder by 64,000 in the past year. There was also a fall of 53,000 in the number of calls about antisocial behaviour.
She said the removal of consensual stop-search would entail a “significant consequence and loss” for the police, leaving a gap which would need to be filled.
She said: “If we look at our stop and searches for last year, just over a third were for alcohol and about 40 per cent of those were in relation to alcohol and under-18s. This is a big issue for society, not just the police.
“The big issue at the heart of all this is that we have no power to search under-18s for alcohol. That leaves us with a gap.”
Ms Fitzpatrick said Police Scotland would consider a number of options including scrapping consensual searches altogether for all ages or for those aged under 18. Another option would be to replace consensual searches of under-18s with legislation, she said.
Figures obtained by the BBC and reported last week showed 356 children under the age of 12 had been stop-searched since Police Scotland gave a commitment in June that the practice would be stopped.
However, the force yesterday told the SPA that the figures were incorrect. The actual number of consensual searches was 130, with only 18 contravening the force’s policy of not searching those under 12.
Responding to comments from the SPA board that it had been an “uncomfortable week” for his force, Sir Stephen said: “This is actually quite a positive time because we’re having a debate about stop and search. What I want is clarity from Scotland about what it expects from stop and search.
“As an organisation, we have made mistakes on data gathering and presentation, and I take full responsibility
“I don’t think that, in the 21st century in Scotland, we should routinely be using consensual search on children. I don’t think it feels correct. But it’s a policy, it’s now a law.
“If my officers step outside the policy and they feel they have good reason, they will get 100 per cent support from me.”
Sir Stephen said alcohol seizures were being recorded in the stop and search database, when they probably shouldn’t be.
“If we took those off the stop and search figures, they would reduce by several hundred thousand,” he said. “Which brings you into the issue of why Police Scotland searches so many more people than the Metropolitan Police, the New York City police, any other police department you can think of: it’s because we record as much as we can and then are damned for it.”
SPA chairman Vic Emery said: “This has raised questions of trust and quality of information, and the SPA will be asking the HMICS [Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland] to carry out independent validation of this revised picture and provide SPA with assurances.
“Today’s discussion also highlights the need to think through very carefully the need for any legislation. Rushed legislation is rarely successful in the longer term.
“We must be cautious about bringing a legal policing tactic like stop and search to an end before we have alternatives in place.
“If removing consensual stop and search would leave gaps, then we owe it to both the public and officers to fill those gaps.”
Speaking after the meeting, Kath Murray, a research fellow at Edinburgh University who has studied stop and search, said police already had confiscation powers for alcohol.
She said: “We don’t actually know whether there is a ‘gap’ in the legislation for alcohol search powers.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are supportive of the work being taken forward with Police Scotland to consult thoroughly with SPA, HMICS and partners on ending the practice of consensual stop and searches. The Scottish Government will explore whether any legislative changes are required once this process is concluded by the end of March.
“This approach will ensure the outcome properly balances the safety of communities in Scotland with proportionate and effective powers for police officers. It is crucial this is allowed to take place.”
Officers can confiscate alcohol from under-18s but have no specific power to search for it.
Officers can also carry out a stop and search without having a search warrant if they suspect someone of being in possession of drugs; an offensive weapon; stolen property; alcohol, at certain football or rugby matches or on public transport travelling to such an event; evidence in relation to an offence under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002; cash or equivalent of £1,000 or more that is the result of criminal activity, or fireworks intended to be used antisocially.
Officers must have reasonable grounds for suspicion. There are exceptions to this rule, for example, if a serious violent incident has taken place. The police can also stop and search someone or their vehicle if they reasonably suspect them of terrorist activity.