We should stop and pause over stop and search

First the good news.  As a 47 year old woman living in Edinburgh, I am unlikely to be stopped and searched by the police.  Last year, only 21 women like me were. The Big Yin – male, 23 – is more likely to be stopped and searched: last year, 362 were.  Good job he doesn’t live in Glasgow where 2,886 young men like him were. And while only 282 wee boys aged 11 (like Boy Wonder) were stopped and searched by police anywhere in Scotland last year, this last is the real worry. Hundreds of children under 12 – the age at which the law deems children capable of prosecution for a criminal offence, incidentally – were stopped and searched between 2013 and 2014.

In total, an astonishing 640,699 people in Scotland were stopped and searched by police, the vast majority of them supposedly consensual.  More alarming still is the fact that most (84%) of these consensual searches resulted in nothing being found.

Since these figures emerged, there has been something of a stushie about the use of this policing power and how it is being used. Police Scotland’s Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House, would like a consensus to emerge around the use of stop and search powers. Wouldn’t we all.

Sadly, that position seems to be at odds with the rank and file. One presumes that the Scottish Police Federation’s Secretary General, Calum Steele, was acting with the consent of his members (aha!), when he launched an extraordinary broadside at MSPs. His missive begins by questioning politicians’ role in this debate: “the events of the past week have resulted in a frightening narrative that politicians believe that they are in a position and indeed have a role to play in determining how and when police officers exercise their right to stop and search someone.

That is before he goes on to betray an alarming ignorance – similar to that with which he castigates our MSPs – about the habits of Scotland’s children. There’s a lot of generalist denouncing going on, with precious few statistics to back up his own narrative. Apparently, it is “an absolute reality” that “many” children roam our streets, “many smoke from pre-teens, many more drink and yes some occasionally carry weapons and drugs”. Police officers have to deal with “thousands of calls”  involving pre-teenage youngsters – that’s weans to you and me.

Yes, but how many of them are found to be committing criminal offences? And how many of them were reasonably suspected to be in possession of drugs, or an offensive weapon, or alcohol (if on the way to or from a football match), or stolen property? Data is scant, while hyperbole, it would seem, is not.

So far, there has been an awful lot of heat generated on this issue, with strong views being expressed not just by the police, but also by the Scottish Human Rights Commission, commentators, legal experts and yes, politicians. It’s a debate of sorts, but let’s not just ramp up the volume: now is the time to stop and pause and consider calmly the rights and wrongs of this weapon in the arsenal of modern policing. Let’s all use the remarkable space created by our recent conversation with ourselves to stop and pause and consider this – what kind of Scotland do we want to be? How should a small country of some 5 million folk want to be policed?  What is the role of the police in a 21st Century country where crime is falling? What is the purpose of the criminal law and who is it there to protect and provide for?  How should our society want to treat and protect our most vulnerable citizens, especially children?

Stushies like this create opportunities. The appetite for serious contemplation and consideration of big, meaty issues has not waned since the referendum: it is still there. People are interested in their present and in their future and we should all seize upon that. For stop and search is a microcosm of the bigger debate we held – who has power, control and responsibility and how should each be wielded?

We should have a Commission – not a parliamentary inquiry – but a body set up by the First Minister. Use the emerging structures post referendum, as well as existing ones, to encourage debate. Importantly, let’s make sure those who are most likely to be subjected to stop and search are included, especially children and young people.

Let’s explore what the law actually says on stop and search and whether or not we need such operational methods of policing.  And if not, what might replace it.  If it stays, what does consensus look like?

I might rather naively believe that most people’s view might be quite different from the police’s. That stopping and searching people with or without consent is not a right of police officers but a responsibility to be taken seriously and used proportionately, a measure set out in law. That politicians do have a role in providing legislative empowerment and scrutiny of how well statutory duties work, as well as a democratic oversight over the institutions which have power over how we live our lives.

I think we might well agree that the use of consensual stopping and searching of individuals should be a last, rather than a first resort. And further that children under the age of 12 can never consent to such an invasion of their privacy. We might conclude that children – like the rest of us – have human rights and that we adults have a duty to uphold and protect those rights. We might agree that no child under 16 should, in fact, ever be stopped and searched by the police, except under clear and unequivocal, exceptional statutory conditions.  In doing so, we might want to ponder how we arrived at a situation whereby the supposed upholders of law and order in our communities found themselves using the very same arguments about consent that some use to justify why they sexually abuse children. We might also conclude that far from our streets being alive and teeming with feral children up to no good, that most children are law abiding and those who are out at night inappropriately are often there because it’s safer than being at home. And what might we want to do about that, hmm?

Far from being an operational policing matter, the power to stop and search is one bestowed by statute. It comes with conditions in which it might be used. The figures suggest that police might not be applying those conditions fully in the use of this power. In aiming for a consensus then, we might want to debate how we got here, to a place where it would appear that the police in Scotland no longer thinks the law applies to it in some circumstances, and perhaps worse, that it thinks it has the right to operate outwith the law as and when it likes. Perhaps, we are happy, as a nation, as communities, with this situation and agree that the police need the widest possible powers, indeed even powers they don’t actually have, to do all they can to keep us – and children – safe.

Until and unless we have a mature debate, where no voice is loudest, and all have equal weight, where we listen and consider respectfully to each other’s point of view, while thinking about the small details and the big picture in terms of society, rights, law, power, control and responsibility, then the stushies will continue.  And I think Scotland is ready to be better and bigger than that.

Laura Cameron-Lewis: A Letter from Portobello

One of the loveliest things about taking part in David Greig’s All Back to Bowie’s Fringe show was the chance to meet some amazingly talented women.  Singers, poets and writers.  Laura Cameron-Lewis is definitely two of these, and arguably a poet too,  On my third venture into the Bowie yurt (sorry, they’re done now…) in St Andrew’s Square, I got the chance to meet Laura and hear her Letter from Portobello.  Boy did it strike a chord or three. And it’s all the better for only obliquely referencing the Great Debate.

Laura can be found on twitter @lauraclewis and she blogs here 

Letter from Portobello

I have two infant children. I’m what the marketeers like to describe as the yummy mummy.  My god that phrase makes me sick.  I might have a womb, but I’m a serious person with shit to do in the world, a person who makes shit happen.
But that’s not how this world sees me, this world sees me as a gap, a vacant space to be occupied, a redundant consuming machine who lives in a bolstered world of coffee mornings, boden catalogues and cuteness.  If you’re lucky, that is.  If you’re among the 1%, the woman behind the man who makes enough money to ensure your financial redundancy in  manner of the lifestyle magazine.  The rest of us get to battle it out against that prejudice whilst facing the reality of the brutal poverty that comes with not working, or the brutal combination of near poverty whilst trying to keep your place in a workplace culture that discriminates against you for your motherhood whilst making no such assumptions about the fathers in your workplace.

How are you going to go back to work?  I was asked.  Never have I head that question asked of an expectant father.

And then when it was clear I was staying in the workplace – ‘I wouldn’t give that role to her, she’s about to have a baby’ said by a female colleague who, shockingly, is a mother of two herself.

Having a baby made me invisible.

It made me invisible on buses, trains and in the busy street as streams of commuters barge in front of me because MY journey isn’t important.  I have a pushchair to manage as well as my laptop and bag bursting with board papers, but even if I wasn’t on the clock of my paid labour, the assumption is that I’m not working. I have become, albeit temporarily, like the elderly, the sick, the young and the disabled.  We see each other, we give each other space and consideration because we understand what it is not to be able to get from A to B without the fear of broken pavements, lack of space, ignorant cotravellers and at the end of it perhaps the inabililty to enter a building. How does one also get into the workplace when it takes all you can muster just to get into town. This world is a hostile place to those that are invisible.

I have a disability and I have a baby.  Unless I am able to work, I am invisible economically.

Which is baffling, because raising children is proving to be the most productive time in in my life, in personal terms and in terms of the economic investment I’m making for our future society.  Real investment is about creating value, and a huge amount of work goes into rearing children to be good productive citizens, and that work largely goes unpaid, whether it’s done by me, their father, their granny, their Dey, or our neighbours.  We also pay for a wonderful nursery which enriches our child even more, the costs of that nursery are the equivalent of the living wage you’d receive for working that time.  We know that most childcare is done with no financial value attached.  Most childcare, (as with volunteering and caring, is done by women) mothers and grandmothers are neither valued by the labour market, or by the state benefits system (women who haven’t paid their national insurance contributions by working, receive no state pension entitlement).

Becoming a mother made me see that the status quo, this world was not made for me.

Chances are, it probably isn’t made for you, either.

This world is made for the man who doesn’t have a family to look after, because someone else does that for him.  Its made for the man who doesn’t have a disability or condition that prevents him from driving a car, running, standing for long periods of time, or dodging obstacles whilst walking.  He probably has nothing to carry or has someone to do that for him.  This world is made for the man who is young enough not to fear falling over or jostled by those that rush past, but is not so young that he needs help getting about, or needs places to play  learn to swim or ride his bike.

As a young, relatively able bodied woman, having a child and getting sick gave me a real glimpse of what the world is like for everyone else, who can’t pretend to be that man. Thanks to generations of feminists, as a young professional woman, you can sometimes inhabit his world, for a while… but once you reach a childbearing age, even if you never want to have a family you find out differently.

You see, women are always getting themselves ‘pregnant’.
Themselves.

Why is childcare not men’s policies?
Why is equality not men’s policies?
Why do we not have a universal citizen’s income (which Thatcher discovered in the 70s is cheaper than the current benefits system) Why don’t we have this proven system that would value all the invisible work of women, the disabled, the underemployed?

Why?

Because imagine, if our Board rooms, the Westminster government, was full of people like us as well as those men who don’t have to worry about pick ups and drop offs, illness, or how to get into that meeting venue using a wheelchair.
They don’t want us in their board room or in government, because there’d be less space for them.  They’d become a little less relevant.

So we can continue to accept the way things are by dutifully giving it our vote, our consent.

Or we could do something a little harder and stand behind some different ideas – we can choose to stop propping up a status quo that only benefits that middle aged privileged man. It’s scary, because we’re so schooled into thinking that we have to side with the winners to get on in life. But I’m going to suggest we stop doing that and stop giving that man legitimacy.  His model of success and wellbeing suits only him.

There are other ways of doing things that will work, the New Economics foundation’s 21 Hours as industrial policy, Copenhagenized transport infrastructure, equalities considerations and flexible working applied to all posts up to Board level.

It can be done, but their will isn’t there. So how about we exert OUR WILL and start siding with plans that benefit us and people like us, that value other ways of being and other ways of doing things.  How about we place our support behind things that will give us the opportunity to have a voice, to be able to influence things, to make a difference.

Just think what could happen if all our skill and graft was visible and made new things happen instead of using all our energy struggling to make this weighted system work for us.

We are here. 

We are not invisible.

Tales from the Campaign Trail (2)

So, eight weeks of the sabbatical down, four to go.  Where on earth did the time go?

On the doorsteps mainly. But also at meetings, in leafleting, on street stalls, on the airwaves, providing training, dealing with 100 emails a day and making lists that contain important details like “buy milk”.

The target of engaging with 100 voters a week is proving a scoosh.  Easily that and then some. And I’m loving it.  Even the cranky old No voters.  Because actually, there are few of them.  Instead, there is a populace whose political conscience has been awakened.  Who want to chat. Even if they have decided naw, they’ve thought about it, weighed it up and made their decision.  

And then there are all those “yes but” women. Oh bless them all. If I could hug each and every one I would. And sometimes do, especially if there are tears.  Because they all want to. Get. It. Right.  To make the right decision for themselves, but mainly for their children.

All Jock Tamson’s Bairns

And what of those children eh?  What to make of the decision by 27 of our 32 local authorities “banning” the referendum from their schools?  It’s no pasaran to either side in the campaign oh but, children will be allowed to talk about it.  Well, that’s ok then.

But where are they to get their information from?  To whom do they address questions?  Ah, the teachers. Of course, because they have all the answers, all the facts and absolutely no opinions at all.  Aye, right.

Only in Scotland – the country with aspirations to be the best place for children to grow up (only clearly not just yet) – would we exclude children from this great big chat we are having with ourselves.  After all, what’s it got to do with them?  Why, it’s only their future that we are all discussing. Why on earth might we want them to be informed and engaged and to feel part of all that is going on around them?  Why would we want them to feel that they are allowed to form a view and have a stake in what is going on?

Kez Dugdale MSP, who took time out of her own busy campaigning schedule to help me launch the book – out soon, don’t worry you’ll hear about it – hit the nail on the head.  We don’t run schools for children or design them around their needs. Schools are built and provided to suit councils and bureaucrats.  And this decision emphasises just how so. Because this decision has been reached in order to make life easy. Never mind that it excludes children from the debate on their future and sends entirely the wrong message about citizenship and the role of politics in our day to day lives. 

The problem is that they are picking it up. They glean snitches of headlines and snippets of adult chat and chew that over and discuss it among themselves.  And see all this nonsense about “breaking up” and “splitting up our big UK family”?  It has got them worried.  They put that into the context of their own, often complex, familial relationships and are filled with fear and dread about what that will actually mean.  And their instinctive, emotional reaction is that they want us all to stay together.  One great, big happy family, just like the one they wish they had in their everyday lives.

We should be ashamed of ourselves. Or rather, Better Together should.  And so should the authorities with whom the nation charges the education of oor weans.  Because they have denied our children the opportunity to make their voices heard, to form considered opinions, to make their own minds up, to have all the facts in front of them and reach a decision. To learn and to reflect among their peers, in a space that should belong to them, in which they should feel comfortable and in control. If ever there was a case for changing the old order of things, these councils just helped make it.

Being out on the stump, you actually get to engage with children, of all ages and all backgrounds.  And they are inspiring in very different ways.

There’s the beautiful, articulate young Scots Asian woman I met last week who is seething with indignation and frustration. But also action.  She set up the feminist society at her elite school.  That made me smile.  She is trying to engage her peers in serious debate about her country’s future, about what it means for them, but primped and preened and with wealth priming them for a shiny future no matter the outcome, they are indifferent.  What can I do, she asked.  Keep on doing what you are, I said.  You are amazing and you will find some of what you are discussing with friends and classmates is getting through.  Sometimes, though it’s a long haul.

And then, the other extreme.  A girl the same age but with quite different prospects.  Down at the chemist’s, picking up her granny’s many prescriptions.  Granny, who reared her, is a yes but I’m a no, she said, over the handlebars of her rickety old bike.  So I gave her one of Women for Independence’s bookmarks to give to her granny.  And she held it carefully and looked at it like it was something.  A present.  Something special.  She looked at it in a way that said she doesn’t get given very much to have for herself.  And I could see that she felt she couldn’t ask for one for herself, cos she wasn’t voting yes. So I gave her one and the smile she gave me back has warmed me ever since.

Then there’s the 15 year old boy who rushed out to talk to us when visiting with the Margo Mobile.  I’m not 16 until November, I cannae vote.  He was distraught.  I want to, I want to vote so badly.  My whole family is Yes and I’ve converted half of them and I’m the only one not getting a say.  So I gave him my special tartan Yes badge, which a pal had sourced off the internet for us, that many have coveted and none have been able to prise away from me.  But I gave it to him.  Because someone who cares that much about not having a say in this debate deserves it.

And talking of Christmas leavers, what to make of the feral pack of teenage boys who roam Muirhouse and Pilton, who appear to have made it their mission to part me from Jinty the moped? Twice now they’ve had a go. The first time I tried to talk to them, to ask them not to steal her, to explain why I was there and what I was doing. The venom with which they responded was incredible. Their faces contorted with pain and rage. Howling insults and threats in language that they thought would send me scarpering, for daring to try to engage them. And despite all of that, and the fact that they have inconvenienced me hugely, I’m not angry at them.  I feel for them, actually. A week into the new school year and none of them appears to have bothered going back. And no one appears to have come looking for them.  As some local residents – who are good, decent, kind folk and rescued me and Jinty – explained half their parents are junkies, the other half don’t give a shit. They roam the scheme, fending for themselves, left to their own devices.  

Do not pass go. Do not collect nothing, for these boys are headed straight down a path marked jail and poverty and addiction and failure.  A dismal past, an empty present and absolutely no chance of a better future, whether Scotland votes yes or no on 18 September. And no one seems to care. Or gave up caring a long time ago.

Finally, there was the gang of wee lassies.  What are you doing, missus?  Trying to speak to people, to persuade them to vote yes.  We’re aw voting naw and so’s all our parents.  Can we have a badge?  I gave them badges. And balloons. And bookmarks. Have you been to ma door, one of them asked?  She told me the address, I checked my canvass sheets. I had. What did my da tell ye?  That he’s voting yes.  That made her pause.  Eventually she asked, so why are you voting yes?  I told her and explained that it was about wanting a better future for us all, but especially for them. So that they when they grew up, they had choices that I hadn’t had. They considered this for a moment.  Ah don’t need a better future, their leader said, tossing her ponytail over her shoulder.  Ah’m goin to be a model.  And with that they were off.

Brief Highlights

The Latvian woman who has been here for three years, whose son started school for the first time two weeks ago.  Who loves Scotland and wants to stay here.  And who wasn’t on the electoral roll because no one had told her she was entitled to vote in some elections as an EU national.  She is now.

We’re not quite a split household but we are split neighbours.  My house – as you can imagine – has had Yes windaes for a while. But my pensioner neighbour put up his wee Labour leaflet the other week “I’m voting no”. He won’t be budged,  He’s a No and that’s that.  And he’s entitled to his view and for it to be treated with respect.  And anyway, we’re good neighbours – we do each other’s bins, I send him soup over now and again, he watches the cat when I’m away.  So he now has a great big No Thanks poster in his bedroom window.  What can I say?  He’ll still be my neighbour when all this is over.

Things I am going to do after 18 September

the ironing  that got done, we’d run out of clothes

the garden – the back is a jungle, I pretend it’s no longer mine

for Boy Wonder and I to stop wearing odd socks 

read a book